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Le répertoire de l’Opéra de Paris (1671-2009)

 | 
Michel Noiray
, 
Solveig Serre

Deuxième partie. Intervention politique, ambition artistique, impératifs économiques

The «question of opera» in the early Third Republic

National luxury or public good?

Jann Pasler

Résumé

When republicans came into power in France in 1879, they faced difficult challenges. Should they continue to fund the Opéra despite its traditional association with luxury and its wealthy subscribers, or force the rich to «pay for their pleasures»? How could they make opera more available to those with lesser means and to a wider range of composers? This meant reevaluating the meaning of luxury. In his Histoire du luxe (1878-80), the first such study in France, Henri Baudrillart detached the concept from the Ancien Régime both philosophically and historically. He also argued for supporting music as a «national luxury» because it spreads the taste for the beautiful in all classes. But when it came to ensuring that the opera served this function, discussions in the Chambre des députés (1879) exposed serious rifts in the republican opportuniste majority, particularly over the need for a separate Opéra populaire and the risks and benefits of private enterprise versus State intervention – questions that remain alive even today. During the ralliement of the 1890s, with leaders on both the Right and the Left mandating change, the question of luxury returned. Paul Leroy-Beaulieu reembraced the connection between luxury and wealth, arguing that luxury was integral to «the taste for novelty and change». Indeed, because wealthy private entrepreneurs such as comtesse Greffulhe could take risks, works such as Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Tristan made it to the French stage.

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Octave Mirbeau, Des artistes, 2nd ser., Paris, 1924, p. 253, 259-260, and the discussion of th (...)
  • 2 Some suggested that since Parisians were the primary beneficiaries, they should pick up more of th (...)
  • 3 See Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, Essai sur la répartition des richesses, Paris, 1881.

1Throughout the 19th century, many considered the Opéra an «institution of luxury, which luxury upholds, and which is made only for it»1. For a certain social class, it recalled the days when the aristocracy had flourished. The Palais Garnier, its new home after 1875, was conceived in the 1860s to reflect an emperor’s glory and to entertain the very rich. It continued to serve as a meeting place for the elites, a place to see and be seen. Given the huge cost of its extravagant productions and intermittent fires, politicians were forever revisiting why the Opéra should be kept afloat, particularly during the annual parliamentary budget discussions. In 1872, some députés argued that the «very rich», rather than the State, should pay for their pleasures, especially in tough rimes when the State was forced to tax necessities2. When the republicans came into power in 1879, many of them wished to challenge this association of the Opéra with luxury and its wealthy subscribers. In order to begin to tear down class differences, they sought to provide more equality of access to the country’s resources3, including more equitable distribution of the country’s musical wealth. This meant both reevaluating the meaning of luxury and taking on «the question of opera», thereby conceiving a way for opera to serve as a public good.

I. — THE MEANING OF LUXURY

  • 4 See Jean-François Melon, Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), Charles Renouvier’s Manuel républ (...)
  • 5 See Rousseau’s early Discours, Diderot’s Observations sur le Nakaz, Antoine-Prosper Lottin’s Disco (...)
  • 6 Renouvier wrote that «nothing is beautiful, nothing is noble that is not also useful». Charles Ren (...)

2Since the 18th century, luxury has been generally synonymous with frivolity, that is, excessive or superfluous consumption, consumption that was not strictly necessary. And yet many have argued that the State should use luxury to its advantage, that the production of luxury goods was an important part of the French economy, and that prosperity was manifested by such luxury4. The debates about luxury, however, were rarely neutral and concerned far more than taste or fashion. Diderot distinguished between good and bad luxury, the former having social utility when it produced wealth and prosperity for all. Rousseau blamed luxury for corrupting morals and lashed out at the decadence of court life. He associated it not only with privileged elites, but also with women, effeminacy, and the decline of «true courage» and «military virtues». Drawing on broader issues, such as the nature and sources of social inequality, the attack on luxury crystallized criticism of the Ancien Régime. During the Revolution, some considered combating luxury as «the most important and patriotic of subjects». In the nineteenth century, republican political economists continued to lambaste luxury as a symptom of social inequality and a form of ostentatious, unproductive consumption that discouraged hard work. They preferred to define wealth by capital accumulation and investment rather than expenditure on luxury5. The notable exception to this was State spending on opera, which every French government since the eighteenth century has continued to support despite its enormous cost. Opera was among those «collective luxuries» that could prove useful to the State in a variety of ways6.

3In the early days of the Third Republic, devastated by their defeat to the Prussians and saddled with a huge war debt, monarchists and republicans agreed to continue support for the opera, the most expensive item in their cultural budget. To the extent that French opera served as a model for foreign music and influenced taste and fashion abroad as well as at home, its fame translated into money and its successes bolstered French pride. In their annual budget discussions at the Assemblée nationale in spring 1872, Jules Simon pointed out:

  • 7 Simon is here referring to the fact that Paris theaters would not be the only ones to benefit from (...)

We have a commercial and industrial interest in not losing our theatrical influence in Europe. Our great French industry is not a cheap industry: it’s an industry of taste and luxury. It’s especially through artistic matters, matters of taste and luxury that we have a large turnover – I’m speaking commercially – in our merchandise. Fashion makes turnover in matters of luxury. And what makes fashion, what spreads fashion in this country? It’s material success and it’s also the influence of artworks. Every time a people has dominated in war in Europe, it has set the tone in Europe. France imitated Spain at one time, then Italy, then Germany. At the present, the world is used to imitating France; it will no longer imitate her if we don’t have precursor ideas and French habits in our theatrical works. And rest assured that you will not refuse this subsidy for local theater without our industries of luxury, our makers of luxury silk, for example, feeling it. So, there is in this a general interest, and it’s not just art I am defending. It’s the money of France [...]. It’s in the national interest, and not just Parisian interest7.

  • 8 Charles Beulé, cited in «Semaine théâtrale», in Le Ménestrel, 24 March 1872, p. 131.
  • 9 These receipts averaged 3 410 000 francs a year. The Comédie-Française made roughly half this, the (...)

4Charles Beulé, minister of the Interior, concurred, noting that for every million francs spent on music by the government, eighty million came into the country – an «inestimable conquest» of money and people from the départements and abroad8. Everyone hoped that the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opéra’s new home, would attract audiences from throughout Europe and confirm Paris’s role as an important musical center. If one judges by the receipts during its first four years, the Palais Garnier was a huge success, not only financially but also in terms of maintaining France’s international reputation9. French opera reached foreign aristocrats and foreign royalty, giving them experiences in the language of luxury they understood and appreciated. The success of such music with foreign audiences told the French back home that French musical values (such as clarity, grace, and melodiousness; a close relationship between music and character, song and text; elegance of expression; and orchestral color) had broad appeal. Performances abroad engendered respect, earning France «admirers and friends» who could turn into political allies. Carrying French values across national borders, music served public as well as individual interests. What others appreciated encouraged the French to come to agreement on what they shared, as well as pride in French taste.

  • 10 M. de Thémines, «L’art et le luxe», in L’Art musical, 16 Oct. 1873, p. 329-330.

5In October 1873, just as legitimists were trying to place the comte de Chambord on the throne, L’Art musical published an article, «Fart et le luxe» in which the author, while noting that it was forbidden to «faire de la politique» in this journal, attempted to assuage French fears about the return to monarchy by explaining that music had thrived under it and that its patronage was like «the sun to a flower». Criticizing the past three years for a stagnation in concert production, he implied that under monarchy musical life would be revived, for the court «needs luxury». In contrast, republican mœurs were just too «austere» and republicans too preoccupied with their incessant struggles to encourage the development of music. Rather than «vulgariser l’art» by popularizing it, he preferred to «aristocratiser l’art in the sense of elevating it, ennobling it [...] giving it back its old éclat and its old splendor»10.

  • 11 Eugène Spuller, Éducation de la démocratie, Paris, 1892, p. ix.
  • 12 M.-C. Genet-Delacroix, Art et État..., p. 40-41 and app. 16, p. 354-56. Charton, elected député in (...)

6Republicans, of course, were incensed with these arguments and protested. When their leaders came to power in the late 1870s, they were intent on building democracy and this entailed transforming the eighteenth-century opposition between beauty and utility. For them, beauty was not a luxury, the domain of the privileged. Rather, like truth and other «noble and pure ideas such as duty, justice and progress»11, beauty had social value and could have a direct impact on society’s mœurs. As député Édouard Charton explained in 1875, «We recognize the arts’ right to the state’s concern, not only because they are a source of exquisite and rare pleasure for a few delicate souls, but also because they respond to a general need [besoin général]. They develop a feeling of love for the beautiful in the entire country – something the nation cannot distance itself from with impunity, be it for the progress of its civilization or its glory»12. Art, republicans believed, could not only help people imagine an ideal social order; through its beauty, it could give them a sense of what it felt like to inhabit an orderly, well-proportioned space.

  • 13 H. Baudrillart, Histoire du luxe privé et public depuis l’antiquité jusqu’à nos jours, 4 vol, t. I (...)

7As such, republicans expected art to serve the general interest of the people, all people, not just elites. This meant redefining luxury. In his Histoire du luxe (1878-1880), the first such study in France, Henri Baudrillart goes beyond earlier notions of luxury as «the use of rare and expensive things». He redefines the word to refer to anything that is experienced as superfluous, including inexpensive items that all classes might possess (such as a mirror or a vase). This diffuses the association of luxury with the rich. In pointing to various forms of public luxury (monuments and temples) in Egypt and the Orient, as well as in ancient Greece and Rome, in democracies as well as monarchies, Baudrillart also detaches the concept from the Ancien Régime and nostalgic elites. In contradicting the philosophical notion of the necessary and the superfluous as diametrically opposed, he furthermore argues for an integral relationship between them as two ends of a continuum. What might otherwise seem useless, he points out, has served as important sources of «work, revenue, power, instruction, and development». Abuse of the superfluous can lead to recognizing something’s utility. The superfluous can take on the character of the necessary as the product of progress13.

  • 14 Ibid., t. I, p. 68-70.

8Anticipating his critics, Baudrillart asserts that luxury is not equivalent to corruption or the cause of all social ills. Even in cities where the gap between the excessive luxuries of the rich posed a stark contrast with the extreme deprivation of the poor, there was no evidence that people were more virtuous than in the countryside. Cities could stimulate virtue as well as vice. In some cultures and periods, luxury made life easier, healthier. Still, Baudrillart agrees that abusive consumption of luxury could be the sign of a moral weakening14.

  • 15 Ibid., t. IV, p. 103-108, 513, 534, 720-724.

9Significantly, Baudrillart refuses to consider art a luxury because it derives from entirely different principles, including disinterestedness and the search for perfection. Certainly, there were periods in French history, such as under the Regency, when the arts had been called to serve decoration. But, in general, Baudrillart sees luxury as an accessory to art. Art can be degraded by «bad luxury», sometimes by valuing matter over form. Like Rousseau, he considers too much ornament in simple things a distraction, but not in anything intended to convey grandeur. Echoing the revolutionaries’ belief that music was the school of patriotism and virtue, he sees music as a «national luxury» to encourage. While private luxuries, the domain of individuals, risk stimulating egoism and eliciting jealousy, public luxuries serve to «diminish the distance» between the haves and the have-nots. In this sense, public luxuries support democracy. As they spread the taste for the beautiful in all classes, they inspire admiration and the desire for something better than oneself, which gives rise to disinterestedness and devotion. All democracies had supported theater as a public luxury, he points out. Although opera can involve all kinds of frivolous distractions, it is also «the highest expression of the lyric genius». Baudrillart ends his four volumes by calling for an Opéra populaire that, with the same advantages as the aristocratic Opéra, but without «the somewhat frivolous splendor», would invite the masses to experience «noble pleasures»15.

II. — RETHINKING ACCESS TO OPERA: POLITICAL DEBATES AND CONTROVERSIES

  • 16 See Frédérique Patureau, Le Palais Garnier dans la société parisienne, Liège, 1991, p. 390-396.

10At stake in this discourse was not only republicans’ desire to break down the association of luxury with the upper class, but also access to the state-funded opera houses by (1) those of lesser means, and (2) the country’s young composers and singers from the Conservatoire. To advise them, the Chambre des députés convened a committee composed of five députés and senators, five members of the Institut, and three others. However, their internal differences turned the «question of opera» into a national debate, raising issues that had troubled Opéra administrators and the French State for years and that they have been struggling with ever since16.

  • 17 «Semaine théâtrale: le Théâtre-Lyrique», in Le Ménestrel, 30 Dec. 1877, p. 35.

11Their report, published on 18 January 1879, reviewed the previous «théâtres-lyriques» created to address the first need for modestly priced productions, and why all had failed, including the Théâtre-lyrique at the Square des Arts-et-métiers, directed by Albert Vizentini. It folded in late December 1877 after losing its funding, despite giving the premieres of such works as Saint-Saëns’s Le Timbre d’argent17. Whereas later critics pointed to the problem of being in the wrong neighborhood, far from where most workers lived, Senator Ferdinand Hérold blamed the State for setting up competition among its own institutions. The committee rejected the revitalization of Vizentini’s Théâtre-Lyrique, as well as the idea of funding a new Opéra populaire to perform standard repertoire for the largest possible audiences with low-cost tickets. Their solution was to propose funding low-cost performances at the Opéra and Opéra-Comique on nights when they were otherwise closed. As for creating a new théâtre-école to put on productions by young French composers, they acknowledged its importance and proposed adding a new hall for this use as an annex to the Conservatoire. In addition, they recommended that the State fund the production of a certain number of works by young French composers each year in these state institutions.

  • 18 A. Proust, L’Art sous la République, Paris, 1892, p. 79. Proust was secretary to Gambetta during t (...)

12Whereas they had agreed with Ferry and the moderates among them on the importance of education, including music education, Gambetta’s more populist group of républicains opportunistes, the Republican Union, clashed with the former over these recommendations, exposing serious rifts in the opportuniste majority. Consequently, changes came slowly. Antonin Proust, a Republican Union member of this committee, close friend of Gambetta’s, and the député in charge of reporting on the arts budget in the Chambre, advocated more State intervention. In his memoir L’Art sous la République, he endorses Victor Hugo’s view of national theaters as «one of the branches of the people’s education»18. Agreeing with Hugo that theater could influence «the morality of the people», Proust used this as an argument for giving the minister direct control of the Opéra. Given the financial success of the Palais Garnier at its 1875 opening and during the 1878 Exhibition, Proust proposed that, in exchange for its huge subsidy – the largest in Europe – the Opéra be run by a delegate of the minister; the State would bear all risks, in return for all the profit. The committee agreed, in part because they worried about what might happen if commercial interests drove artistic choices.

  • 19 Unlike his predecessor who had little musical training, Vaucorbeil had studied music at the Conser (...)

13However on 13 April 1879, Ferry, the new Prime Minister, believing in the merits of financial motivation, vetoed the committee’s recommendation. On 24 May, he appointed Auguste Vaucorbeil, a composer and politically connected administrator acceptable to conservative Opéra subscribers, as its directeur19. He would still have to get the authorization of the minister for any new Works produced there, but Vaucorbeil and any investors whom he could involve would assume all financial risks and benefits. This decision, respecting the utility of the Opéra for its traditional patrons and leaving its fate in their hands, demonstrates the extent to which Ferry was unwilling to interfere and trusted private enterprise. It also helps to explain why the repertoire remained basically stable during this period, controlled by the establishment and traditional elites rather than responsive to republican concerns and values.

  • 20 Edmond Viel, «Projet d’un Opéra populaire», 1870, discussed in Le Ménestrel, t. 21, Dec. 1873, p. (...)
  • 21 Reproduced in Le Ménestrel, 30 March 1879, p. 139. These arguments are directed against the patern (...)

14The debates did not end there. Republican Union opportunistes also differed with Ferry over the need for a separate, government-subsidized Opéra populaire. This idea had been debated since March 1870 and taken various non-subsidized forms, such as at the Théâtre du Châtelet where, in fall 1874, new Works were produced alongside old favorites20. On 25 March 1879, Proust wrote to La République française: «To me it is intolerable that the State should create an Opéra populaire (as recently proposed) alongside the current Opéra and say, contemptuously, this one is for les petits, that one is for les grands. On the contrary, I think that everyone should be able to enter our great subsidized theaters without it being necessary to subsidize inferior theaters for those who don’t have the privilege of wealth. In fact, the State has enough authority to change the constitution of the Opéra, the only theater still inaccessible to those of modest incomes»21.

  • 22 Le Ménestrel, 20 July 1879, p. 268.
  • 23 See Georges Grison, «L’Opéra populaire», in Le Figaro, 15 March 1882; Ignotus, «L’Opéra populaire» (...)

15In spite of these objections, undersecretary of State Edmond Turquet went around this committee and petitioned the City of Paris to co-fund an Opéra populaire (in addition to a new dramatic theater for the classes populaires). In July 1879, the celebrated architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc weighed in before the Conseil municipal of Paris. He did not object in principle to an Opéra populaire, but only asked that it be distinct from the Opéra in repertoire, performers, and cost spent on sets22. Debate remained heated for years. With the support of Ferdinand Hérold, in November 1882, the city voted to spend 500 000 francs to build an Opéra populaire in the Place de la République and in February 1883, approved 300 000 francs in subsidy. Five-sixths of its 4 000 seats were to cost very little, so that families would be able to afford to spend an evening together there. It was argued that there were 100 000 working-class families who might take advantage of this. In addition, bourgeois families would be able to afford the luxury of a box there for the price of a single seat in the Palais Garnier. The aim was to help democratize well-established French and Italian opera and operetta, in particular, to produce ballets to show the lower classes models of «grâce and beauty». Many hoped that these performances would create competition with the cafés-concerts and introduce a wider range of people, not only to more serious music, but also to more French contemporary music23.

16With the requirement that it put on twenty new acts per year, the Opéra populaire opened on 8 May 1883 at the Théâtre du Château-d’Eau. The first night was Norma, later followed by premieres of works by Anthiome and Membrée alongside La Traviata, Lucie de Lamermoor, Le Trouvère and Roland à Roncevaux. And in 1884 it produced the Paris premiere of Saint-Saëns’s Etienne Marcel, with six performances beginning on 20 October. However, when it began to fail in late November for lack of sufficient public, Proust again convinced his colleagues to stop funding the Opera populaire. He proposed to give half of its subsidy to the Opéra, using this to pressure it to give fifty performances per year at reduced ticket prices. The other half would go to the Theatre-Lyrique or Italien, requiring that it produce four new works. However, interest in an Opéra populaire remained. Keeping its name, the Théâtre du Château-d’Eau continued to produce lots of Verdi and have the occasional premiere of a French work, such as Bruneau’s Kérim, his first opera to be staged, on 9 June 1887.

  • 24 In the spirit of transparency, the Opéra’s new cahier des charges was published in the press. «Ext (...)
  • 25 For a discussion of these changes, see Le Ménestrel, 29 June 1879, p. 243-46, and F. Patureau, Le (...)

17Besides these differences over the Opéra populaire, in June 1879 Proust took on the Opéra’s cahier des charges, the contractual agreement between the minister and the theater’s director that laid out what the state expected in return for its financial support24. Significantly, he began by reaffirming the Opéra’s utility as «the museum of music» and its responsibility to maintain its superiority over provincial and foreign theaters in its choice of works, performers, and set designs, thereby supporting its traditional function for the elites as well as the nation. However, perhaps thinking of a kind of musical analogue to the free Sundays at the annual painting Salon, which were open to everyone and resulted in an intermingling of classes, he also called for putting on a dozen annual performances with low-cost seats. Moreover, he called for the Opéra to produce at least two new works per year. These could include translations of foreign operas, as well as one short work every two years by a French winner of the Prix de Rome. Failing to do so, the director would be taxed 5 000 francs per act25. These proposals were incorporated into the cahier.

  • 26 The first article of the Opéra’s 1879 cahier des charges stipulated that translations of foreign w (...)
  • 27 Popular performances at the Opéra did not happen to any appreciable extent until the 1890s. See F. (...)

18Ferry and Vaucorbeil accepted these changes in principle, but in practice, as mentioned above, the Opéra was allowed to carry on as before. Between 1881 and 1884, the institution continued to put on only one new opera annually26. Its first «new» work in March 1880 was Verdi’s Aida (1871), already known to Parisians from performances in Italian at the Théâtre-Italien in 1876 and in French at the Théâtre-Lyrique (at the Salle de Ventadour) in 1878. Until he stepped down in 1884, Vaucorbeil gave no performances free or with reduced-price tickets27. By contrast, in January 1880, Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique, initiated Sunday matinée performances for families, and that May, he promised «popular performances» one Monday each month with low-cost tickets (from 50 centimes to 3,5 francs).

19Management of the state’s most expensive cultural institution and a genre that represented France abroad was so important to the nation that the «question of opera» forced republicans to come to grips with critical differences in their definitions of democracy and their visions for the future. Just as they had to work with monarchies in Europe, some republicans argued for accepting the association of opera with traditional elites, focusing on the economic advantages it brought to the nation. Republicans coming into power had to make decisions about a wide range of investments, and opera became a nexus for debate on the risks and benefits of private enterprise versus state intervention. Ferry’s laissez-faire attitude reflected the concerns of a man who believed in competition and envisaged democracy as putting power in the hands of the people rather than the government. In contrast, Proust, intent on modernizing the country, argued that the forces of democracy, including competition, could not operate without governmental help. To democratize the experience of elite cultural forms, he and his successors advocated access of the masses to high art and of composers to performances of their work. They did not worry that their idealistic aspirations did not address questions such as the extent to which the public wanted to hear more new music, especially by lesser-known composers, or the lower classes yearned for the privilege of attending the Opéra, or that if they could get in, they got much out of it.

  • 28 See Annegret Fauser, «Esclarmonde. Un opéra wagnérien?», in L’Avant-Scène opéra, n°148, Sept.-Oct. (...)

20The «question of opera» also impacted composers. In the spirit of those who argued for accepting the association of opera with traditional elites, republican opera composers, acknowledging a shared respect for classical aesthetic values and lofty, inspiring ideas, chose to integrate rather than reject less progressive aesthetic tendencies. Saint-Saëns and Massenet, among others, sought ways to incorporate traditional aspects of grand opera into their music. In Henry VIII, for example, Saint-Saëns combines leitmotivs with a melodic style indebted to Gounod and historical local color recalling grand opera. Massenet’s Esclarmonde includes moments recalling Tristan28. Both wrote music as a form of entente cordiale, whether for kings and queens or the masses.

III. — REVISITING THE UTILITY OF LUXURY

  • 29 Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, «Le luxe: la fonction de la richesse», in Revue des deux mondes, t. 126, 1er (...)
  • 30 Ibid., p. 97-98, and ibid., 1 Dec. 1894, p. 555-573.

21After 1889, with monarchists’ political ambitions severely curtailed by the defeat of general Boulanger and leaders on both the Right and the Left mandating change, the question of luxury and support for opera arose again. Republicans insisted on increasing access of the Opéra to the working classes. At the same time, many monarchists increasingly looked to culture, not only to preserve their values, but also to help them imagine and enact change. Meanwhile, the haute bourgeoisie in finance and big business saw culture as a way to integrate with the aristocracy through shared taste. In this context, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu revisited the notion of luxury, linking it to «the taste for novelty and change» and seeing it, not as «immoral and useless», but as «legitimate, commendable, and useful». For him, the function of wealth was to serve as «one of the principal agents of human progress» and «father of the arts»29. The wealthy could commission products and invest in what looked useful, even if its value had not yet been ascertained. Because the state tended to be rigid, inflexible, and biased, private entrepreneurs were in a better position to take risks, which could result in progress in the arts as well as in science, industry, and agriculture. Leroy-Beaulieu also argued that private enterprise was better suited to «public luxuries» than state-subsidized institutions30. With investment strategies borrowed from business and finance, people of means could organize self-sufficient institutions that promoted whatever they chose.

  • 31 Gaston Calmette, «Béatrice et Bénédict. Les grandes auditions de France», in Le Figaro, 26 May 189 (...)
  • 32 Baron Adolphe de Rothschild and the princesse de Scey-Montbéliard, for example, made substantial d (...)

22Such attitudes impacted not only the formation of new musical organizations, but also opera production at the fin de siecle. New musical societies, such as Société des grandes auditions, built a constituency that was similar in terms of members’ social class, although mixed in terms of their politics, a cultural analogue to the political realignment and progressivism of the early 1890s. The Société was founded by the countess Greffulhe, née Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, after having produced a highly successful performance of Handel’s Messiah to benefit the Société philanthropique at the Palais du Trocadéro during the 1889 Exhibition. The Société’s grandiose name and Greffulhe’s promise to perform «first and foremost great composers from yesteryear»31 – complete works never before done in their entirety in France – appealed to titled aristocrats focused on past French glories32. The patriotic tone of her announcements and her projected French premieres of Berlioz and new French works drew support from republicans such as Georges Berger. With such a response, it took the countess only six weeks to raise 163 000 francs – the equivalent of 20 percent of the state’s annual Opéra subsidy and 50 percent of the state’s annual Opéra-Comique subsidy.

  • 33 Bertrand and Gaillard to countess Greffulhe, 5 May 1893, private archive.
  • 34 L’Art musical, 15 April 1890, p. 51; ibid., 31 Aug. 1890, p. 21; Le Gaulois, 24 May 1892.
  • 35 See Jann Pasler, «Countess Greffulhe as entrepreneur: negotiating class, gender, and nation», in e (...)

23Greffulhe wished to produce music which opera officials were reluctant to support, not only Berlioz but also Wagner. In 1892, the Société put on Béatrice et Bénédict along with one part of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. After the Opéra produced Lohengrin in September 1891, in December and January 1892 she and Vincent d’Indy began discussing the possibility of producing the French premiere of Tristan und Isolde at the Opéra-Comique. Encouraged by minister Léon Bourgeois, in December 1892 the countess requested and received permission from Cosima Wagner whom she may have met in Bayreuth. However, Wagner’s French editor Durand had informed Cosima that since the Opéra intended to put on Die Walküre and Tannhäuser, they might not want the distraction of more Wagner at the Opéra-Comique. The countess appealed to her Minister friends and by 5 May she had a proposal from Bertrand and Gaillard, directors of the Opéra.33 They agreed to put on Tristan and add it to their repertoire after three performances if she picked up all the start-up costs: costumes, decors, accessories, study and rehearsal costs, and the fees for the orchestra and chorus. These performances however, did not come to pass, either at the Opéra or the Opéra-Comique, perhaps because of a misunderstanding with madame Wagner or continuing problems between the two institutions. Not deterred, in the 1890s the countess dove back in. Appealing to many of her members who had been regular Bayreuth pilgrims throughout the 1890s, in 1899 she tackled the Paris premiere of Tristan und Isolde, producing it at the Opéra three times that fall. Then in May-June 1902, promising a 5 percent dividend and 5 percent interest for each 500 francs donated, she produced the French premiere of Götterdämmerung at the Nouveau Théâtre, with its pit redesigned to resemble that of Bayreuth, along with another Tristan. The success was enormous, and she ended up with 40 000 francs profit, after paying all expenses and stockholders. Then in 1903 she produced fragments of Parsifal, another French premiere. In comparison with the state-supported theaters, which, because of «the apathy of government», were increasingly considered «useless [inutile] to the artistic cause», the Société des grandes auditions was praised for its Berlioz productions by the magazine L’Art musical for being «eminently useful» and by the monarchist newspaper Le Gaulois explicitly for its «national utility»34. After the power she demonstrated in producing Wagner in 1902 and 1903, the countess became known as the «Queen of music». Under her leadership, in investing their own money in premieres and the production of major works ignored by the Opéra and Opéra-Comique, members were betting on the future and a national legacy they intended to help shape35.

24In conclusion, we can only imagine how the repertoire of the Opéra may have developed if Antonin Proust had remained minister of the Arts for more than a year – more new works in advanced styles? even potentially commissions? policies that had to wait until much later in the twentieth century. Still, however the challenges at the heart of a democratic society are defined by those espousing market laissez-faire or top-down policies, concerns about access by those of lesser means to the country’s artistic production and by a wide range of composers to these audiences have continued to impassion and divide the French down to the present. Recall that the Opéra Bastille in 1989 was originally intended to provide affordable tickets to the masses, but now charging what the market will bear.

Notes

1 See Octave Mirbeau, Des artistes, 2nd ser., Paris, 1924, p. 253, 259-260, and the discussion of this public in Jann Pasler, «Pelléas and power: forces behind the reception of Debussy’s opera», in 19th-Century Music, t. 10, p. 243-264, and ead., Writing through Music, New York, 2008, p. 181-212. This essay is drawn in part from my book, Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France, Berkeley, 2009.

2 Some suggested that since Parisians were the primary beneficiaries, they should pick up more of the expense. Monarchists countered that to represent the national interest, national theaters should not be dependent on making money. See Marie-Claude Genet-Delacroix, Art et État sous la IIIe République. Le système des beaux-arts 1870-1940, Paris, 1992, app. 44, p. 405-414.

3 See Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, Essai sur la répartition des richesses, Paris, 1881.

4 See Jean-François Melon, Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), Charles Renouvier’s Manuel républicain de l’homme et du citoyen (1848), and Ernest Feydeau, Du luxe, des femmes, des mœurs, de la littérature et de la vertu (1866). In his Histoire du luxe privé et public depuis l’Antiquité jusqu’à nos jours (Paris, t. IV, 1880, p. 71), Henri Baudrillart argued that the arts of dessin likewise had a «prodigious influence on national wealth».

5 See Rousseau’s early Discours, Diderot’s Observations sur le Nakaz, Antoine-Prosper Lottin’s Discours contre le luxe (1783), and Jean-Baptiste Say’s Traité d’économie politique (1803), «Discours préliminaire». Pointing out that the debates about luxury did not end in 1789, but continued throughout the nineteenth century, Jeremy Jennings discusses these in his «The debate about luxury in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French political thought», in Journal of the History of Ideas, t. 68, 2007, p. 79-105.

6 Renouvier wrote that «nothing is beautiful, nothing is noble that is not also useful». Charles Renouvier Manuel républicain de l’homme et du citoyen, Paris, 1848; new ed. Paris, 1904, p. 278. See J. Jennings, «Debate about luxury...»

7 Simon is here referring to the fact that Paris theaters would not be the only ones to benefit from such subsidies, because work presented there involved a large number of industries. Annual budget discussions in the Assemblée nationale, March-April 1872, reproduced in M.-C. Genet-Delacroix, Art et État..., p. 408-409.

8 Charles Beulé, cited in «Semaine théâtrale», in Le Ménestrel, 24 March 1872, p. 131.

9 These receipts averaged 3 410 000 francs a year. The Comédie-Française made roughly half this, the Opéra-Comique one-third, the Odéon one-eighth. See the income of the other Paris theaters in Le Ménestrel, 2 June 1878, p. 214, and 27 July 1879, p. 279.

10 M. de Thémines, «L’art et le luxe», in L’Art musical, 16 Oct. 1873, p. 329-330.

11 Eugène Spuller, Éducation de la démocratie, Paris, 1892, p. ix.

12 M.-C. Genet-Delacroix, Art et État..., p. 40-41 and app. 16, p. 354-56. Charton, elected député in 1871, was concerned about the pedagogical and social role of art. He started Le Magasin pittoresque, an illustrated magazine for children and working-class families. According to Antonin Proust, this attitude was largely absent during the Second Empire whose government «took only a mediocre interest in anything that could spread a feeling for art»: Antonin Proust, L’Art sous la République, Paris, 1892, p. 7.

13 H. Baudrillart, Histoire du luxe privé et public depuis l’antiquité jusqu’à nos jours, 4 vol, t. I, 1878, p. 60; t. IV, 1880, p. 3. Baudrillart was a member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques and, beginning in 1866, held the chair of economic history at the Collège de France.

14 Ibid., t. I, p. 68-70.

15 Ibid., t. IV, p. 103-108, 513, 534, 720-724.

16 See Frédérique Patureau, Le Palais Garnier dans la société parisienne, Liège, 1991, p. 390-396.

17 «Semaine théâtrale: le Théâtre-Lyrique», in Le Ménestrel, 30 Dec. 1877, p. 35.

18 A. Proust, L’Art sous la République, Paris, 1892, p. 79. Proust was secretary to Gambetta during the Franco-Prussian War, an amateur painter, and author of numerous essays about art, as well as an arts administrator.

19 Unlike his predecessor who had little musical training, Vaucorbeil had studied music at the Conservatoire under Cherubini and taught vocal ensembles there from 1871 to 1879. He was known for being affable, distinguished, and experienced, having served as commissioner of subsidized theaters and, in 1878, inspector of fine arts. See F. Patureau, Le Palais Garnier..., p. 49 and 54. After he took charge of the Opéra, Lamoureux resigned as conductor, citing inability to work with him.

20 Edmond Viel, «Projet d’un Opéra populaire», 1870, discussed in Le Ménestrel, t. 21, Dec. 1873, p. 21. Extensive discussion was published ibid., 1 Dec. 1878, p. 3-4; 8 Dec. 1878, p. 11; 15 Dec. 1878, p. 19; 26 Jan. 1879, p. 67-70; 2 Feb. 1879, p. 75-78; 30 March 1879, p. 139; and 20 April 1879, p. 163.

21 Reproduced in Le Ménestrel, 30 March 1879, p. 139. These arguments are directed against the paternalistic approach to providing music for the masses under Napoléon III. According to Steven Huebner (personal communication), the creation of popular opera was a long-standing concern in the nineteenth century.

22 Le Ménestrel, 20 July 1879, p. 268.

23 See Georges Grison, «L’Opéra populaire», in Le Figaro, 15 March 1882; Ignotus, «L’Opéra populaire», in Le Figaro, 29 Nov. 1882; Le Ménestrel, 12 Nov. 1882, p. 398, and 4 Feb. 1883, p. 78.

24 In the spirit of transparency, the Opéra’s new cahier des charges was published in the press. «Extrait du rapport sur le budget des Beaux-Arts pour 1880» and «Le nouveau cahier des charges de l’Opéra», in Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 29 June 1879, p. 210-214, and 6 July 1879, p. 218-222. The minister’s approval was required for all works performed.

25 For a discussion of these changes, see Le Ménestrel, 29 June 1879, p. 243-46, and F. Patureau, Le Palais Garnier..., p. 58-69 and 405.

26 The first article of the Opéra’s 1879 cahier des charges stipulated that translations of foreign works and revivals entailing considerable scenic transformations could count toward the two new works that had to be produced every year.

27 Popular performances at the Opéra did not happen to any appreciable extent until the 1890s. See F. Patureau, Le Palais Garnier..., p. 407.

28 See Annegret Fauser, «Esclarmonde. Un opéra wagnérien?», in L’Avant-Scène opéra, n°148, Sept.-Oct. 1992, p. 68-73, and Steven Huebner, French Opera at the Fin de siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style, Oxford, 1999.

29 Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, «Le luxe: la fonction de la richesse», in Revue des deux mondes, t. 126, 1er Nov. 1894, p. 78, 88-90.

30 Ibid., p. 97-98, and ibid., 1 Dec. 1894, p. 555-573.

31 Gaston Calmette, «Béatrice et Bénédict. Les grandes auditions de France», in Le Figaro, 26 May 1890.

32 Baron Adolphe de Rothschild and the princesse de Scey-Montbéliard, for example, made substantial donations.

33 Bertrand and Gaillard to countess Greffulhe, 5 May 1893, private archive.

34 L’Art musical, 15 April 1890, p. 51; ibid., 31 Aug. 1890, p. 21; Le Gaulois, 24 May 1892.

35 See Jann Pasler, «Countess Greffulhe as entrepreneur: negotiating class, gender, and nation», in ead., Writing through Music, Oxford, 2008, p. 285-317.

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