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6 february 2023

A few years ago, I referred to Meyerbeer and Scribe as the Rodgers and Hammerstein of mid-19th-century Paris. Jean-Philippe Thiellay's biography of Meyerbeer confirms this early impression of mine. But there's a signal difference. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote 11 musicals in 16 years. Meyerbeer and Scribe wrote four operas in 30 years, and neither of them lived to see their last collaboration, L'Africaine, reach the stage.

Meyerbeer was thus central to the opera world of Paris for decades, while rarely offering it a new show. He could maintain this dominance because his first three French grand operas with Scribe – Robert le Diable, Les Huguenots, and Le Prophète – were enormous successes, playing constantly in Paris and immediately exported to every opera venue in France and most around the world.

Meyerbeer, scion of wealthy Jewish families in Berlin and a persistent advocate for the rights of artistic creators, was comfortable to start with and made good money from his music. He could afford to take many years on a single composition. In his work habits, Meyerbeer was thus something like Wagner, though till late in life Wagner managed his perfectionism and procrastination by being constantly in debt and in search of new patronage. Meyerbeer was insulated from these concerns, ensconced at the top of his profession: the greatest opera composer in the richest opera capital in the world. (And Wagner bitterly and anti-Semitically resented Meyerbeer for that success.)

Thiellay structures his treatment of Meyerbeer's life around the composer's three first names. Meyerbeer was born in Germany as Jakob, became famous in Italy as Giacomo, and reached the top of his game in France as Jacques. Each name corresponds to a phase of his career: apprenticeship, mastery, and living-legend status.

Meyerbeer never completely abandoned Germany; late in life he was something of a musical lion in Berlin, with a high appointment at the Prussian court. But his gift propelled him to Italy in search, Thiellay explains, of the best voices to perform his music. Meyerbeer's Italian operas are now not even as well known as his French ones (which have only a tenuous foothold on 21st-century stages). But the Italian years were when Meyerbeer established himself as a composer to be reckoned with, and were his entrée to Paris.

After reaching Paris, Meyerbeer helped create grand opera. Nowadays we think of grand opera as anything sung through, fully staged, and loud. In the 1830s and 40s, it was certainly all of those, but also meant produced at the Opéra in Paris, in five acts with accompanying ballets, a huge number of principal singers, and a crazy Romantic plot, usually drawn with extreme looseness from a stirring chapter of history.

Earlier bel canto opera prized vocal gymnastics that you would quail to attempt at home, and later Wagnerian music-drama would feature endless nuanced dialogue that you could barely sit through in the opera house. Grand opera, says Thiellay, differed from both in its popular appeal, intimately tied to the burgeoning technology of home music and the publication of sheet-music transcriptions of show tunes.

La musique du grand opéra est aussi là pour divertir. Elle doit être brillante et il faut beaucoup de mélodies, faciles à mémoriser et à réduire pour que le public reproduise ce qu'il a entendu sur scène, chez lui, au piano, dans les clubs de la bonne société …

[Grand-opera music was also supposed to entertain. It had to be brilliant and it needed lots of melodies, easy to remember, and to simplify so that people could reproduce what they'd heard on stage: at home, on the piano, in the great society clubs …]
200 years later, we associate opera with high society and glittering auditoriums. And opera has always been that. But for Meyerbeer, as for Richard Rodgers, it was also a way of engraving his melodic ideas on the ears and minds of the masses.

Though Meyerbeer's music itself is now on the fringes even of serious opera fans' attention. I have mentioned looking forward to an Africaine in Dallas that fell through for lack of support. I've seen three of the four Paris operas once apiece, in video of some of their few recent productions – but not Robert le Diable. Late in his career, Meyerbeer wrote a couple of lighter, but still elaborate, pieces with spoken dialogue for the Opéra Comique. I have seen one of those on video (L'Étoile du Nord), and listened to a rather clunky recording of L'Étoile by the 1996 Wexford Festival Opera.

For all his centrality to opera history, Meyerbeer today is scarcely heard at all, a fate that would seem odd in other media and genres. Part of the problem is his commitment to the grand opera that he helped develop. You need lots of powerful singers, big choruses, dancers, and humongous sets to bring off a Meyerbeer opera. And an audience with the stamina to sit through it all. Of course opera companies make these efforts to produce Wagner, or the occasional gargantuan production of Boris Godunov or William Tell. But Meyerbeer has never regained the appeal that made 19th-century producers think nothing of the obstacles to putting his music on stage.

Thiellay, Jean-Philippe. Meyerbeer. Arles: Actes Sud, 2018.