Opera in France dates back to 1673 when Jean-Baptiste Lully produced Cadmus et Hermione for the court of Louis XIV. From then the art form flourished into what we have seen today. From comedies to tragedies opera is as associated with the country of France as is ballet and the Eifel Tower.
We would like to take some time to introduce, or reintroduce you to some famous French composers of opera.
Born on October 25, 1838 Bizet flourished during the romantic era. His most notable work is Carmen, which is arguably one of the most performed operas of all time. Luckily he was able to complete it before his premature death.
Studying at the Conservatoire de Paris, Bizet excelled as a student and was awarded a plethora of prizes. One of his many awards was the Prix de Rome in 1857. One of his many achievements was that of a piano player but he chose to rarely play for the public.
Bizet produced his one-act opera Djamileh in May of 1872 but found little success. It is said the staging was pitiful and the singers didn’t do the work justice. It would only survive eleven performances and would not be reprised for sixty-six years.
Later that year Bizet was commissioned to compose a work for the Opéra-Comique in three acts. They chose the short novel Carmen as the subject. This would go on to be Bizet’s most acclaimed work in opera. After problems with the co-director the opera Carmen wouldn’t be complete until two years later.
Still, the premiere would not happen for another season when issues regarding unplayable scores and unsingable parts were resolved. Carmen opened on March 3, 1875. Instantly afterward Bizet was given the honor of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
Yet opening night would be riddled with the same bad luck as the initial composition and the production went far off schedule and was considered an utter failure. AT this time Bizet was also suffering from throat angina, which is believed to be a direct result of his late hours and heavy smoking. He had a heart attack on June 1st and quickly another two days later that left him dead.
PS: Check out this fabulous flamenco rendition of Carmen here!
Our next French opera composer was born in 1803 near Grenoble and was prominent in the romantic era. Since early childhood Berlioz showed signs of being a prodigy and it should have been a given that his destiny would be in the world of music.
Berlioz’s father thought no such thing, he wanted his son to become a doctor. Following his father’s dream Berlioz relocated to Paris in 1821 to begin his studies in medicine. Still, his passion was too strong and Berlioz found himself sneaking away to take in operas particularly work by Christoph Willibald Gluck. To Berlioz, his future was in the world of music so he quit studying medicine and pursued a career as a composer.
Entering the Paris Conservatoire in 1826 Belioz studied there for four years. Then he went on to compose Symphonie fantastique, which was inspired after he witnessed Harriet Smithson’s performance as Ophelia. This Belioz piece is of great importance because it represents the Romantic era where the use of passion in music was vital to have a better telling of the story.
Also in 1826 Berlioz not only began his training at the conservatoire but he studied directly under Jean-Francois Le Sueur and Anton Reicha. After attempting to win four times Belioz was awarded the Prix de Rome, which is a local artist scholarship.
In 1836 Berlioz penned Benvenuto Cellini, an opera that is so challenging to play live that is rarely reprised. The premiere of this Berlioz opera was in Paris on September 10th of that year but was far from successful. Berlioz, broke and a failure musically, had to resolve to writing musical critiques to earn a living.
When the 1940’s came around Berlioz decided to see Europe in search of musical success that he lacked in France. He spent time in Germany, England, Austria, and Russia. Although he struggled at this time it was between the years of 1830 to 1847 that Berlioz would be the most productive in music and opera composition.
It was during this period that Belioz penned Romeo et Juliette, Grande messe des morts, Harold en Italie, and Symphonie fantastique. Also revered for his skills as a conductor Berlioz was appointed to conduct the Drury Lane Theatre in London by Louis-Antoine Jullien in 1847.
This French operatic composer would go on to accomplish many more musical goals before his death in Paris in 1869. His body is buried at his family plot in the Montmartre Cemetery. They say his last words were, “At last, they are going to play music.”
This French operatic composer was born on October 9, 1835 in Paris as an only child. His father died shortly after his birth and he was sent to the country to live for the first two years of his life. After that Saint-Saëns returned to Paris and lived with his mother and aunt. By the age of ten, after learning piano from a great-aunt, Saint-Saëns was considered a child prodigy.
His mother was well aware of what young fame meant and was hesitant to have Saint-Saëns show off his talents. Yet she would allow him to give small shows when he was five. Still, his official public debut was at the age of ten when he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B and Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.
Saint-Saëns began his studies at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of thirteen in 1848 but he would focus on studying the organ until 1851, since it was believed that there was more work for organists at the time. It was in that year that Saint-Saëns began to train in composition.
In 1853 Saint-Saëns graduated and took a position of organist at the Saint-Merri, a church in Paris. He would go on to a more high-profile church in 1858, La Madeleine, which was the Empire’s official church.
Success in opera wouldn’t come to Saint-Saëns until 1872, when he finally had one of his operas produced. La princesse jaune, or The Yellow Princess, was a romantic piece consisting of one-act. It debuted at the Opéra-Comique in June and ran for only five performances.
Opera was an important avenue for French composers of the 19th century and Saint-Saëns began to feel the pressure from younger composers. In 1877 his first full-length opera was staged. Le timbre d’argent, or The Silver Bell, was a four-act “drama lyricque.” The rehearsals began seven years earlier but the outbreak of war put a hold on the production.
That same year Saint-Saëns would find operatic success with his work Samson et Dalila, the only opera from his repertoire to reach international acclaim. The original staging of this opera would not happen until 1892 when it premiered at the Paris Opéra.
Saint-Saëns would also go on to write more operas and achieve great successes in the musical world for the next few decades. His final performance was given to a large audience at the Institut. It is said that his playing was as clean and tight as when he was a younger man. A few months later he died in Algiers from a heart attack.
Watch Saint-Saëns classic opera “Samson et Dalila” today here!
Our final composer of opera hailing from French descent was born on March 7, 1875 Ciboure, France. While he is often tied with the impressionist movement he scorned the expression. In the early part of the twentieth century Ravel was known around the world as France’s supreme existing composer.
Ravel attended the Paris Conservatoire but was not regarded well by the establishment there. They were far more conservative than he and the treatment he received there was rather scandalous. Yet, not to be outdone Ravel set out on his own track to become a composer of opera.
He was contemporary in his musical experiments and was known to include foundations of the baroque style into his compositions as well as neoclassicism and later jazz. Ravel’s best known composition is not an opera, but a one-movement orchestral piece titled Boléro. His repertoire is not as extensive as his predecessors due to his slow and meticulous working nature.
Still, out of all the works that Ravel composed, he has two completed operas and three unfinished. Those in the latter are Olympia, La cloche engloutie, and Jeanne d’Arc. All three showed promise but his dissatisfaction caused him to destroy the papers for the first two while his final disease stopped him from finishing the third.
L’heure espagnole, Ravel’s first completed opera premiered in 1911. It is described as a “comédie musicale.” It is set in Spain, like most of his work, and it was said to be “perfectly designed for underlining and exaggerating comic effects.” A few characters were found to deficient in the area of humanity.
Ravel’s second opera L’enfant et les sortiléges opened in 1926 and was originally intended to be a ballet. Still, Ravel felt it would work best as an opera and changes were made accordingly. While writing it he included elements of jazz, which alienated many of the opera fans in Paris at the time. Ravel was also accused of not using human emotion enough in this piece as well.
Whatever the response was after the premieres, Ravel’s two completed operas are still reprised often in the opera world of today. There are many thoughts on the disease the finally took Ravel, often frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease have all been suggested. He passed away on December 28, 1937 at the not very old age of sixty-two.
For more classic operas, watch tonight some of the best at Cennarium!