Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2011
My first conference with the director of the Grand Opera showed me that the introduction of a ballet into Tannhauser, and indeed in the second act, was considered a sine qua non of its successful performance. I couldn't fathom the meaning of this requirement ...
Thus Wagner begins his account of Tannhäuser's rough treatment at the hands of the Parisians. His well-publicised frustration over the director's insistence that a ballet be added to this work, and his bitterness over the opera's rude reception by the ballet-mad Jockey Club, might lead one to believe that all ballet in Parisian opera of his day was imposed artificially from without. Yet it makes far more sense to regard the French insistence on creating ballets within grand opera as nothing more than an extension of the well-entrenched Baroque custom of mixing dancing and singing (in various proportions) within a single work. Indeed, opera and ballet had always gone hand in hand at the Opéra.
Ballet's vital role at the Paris Opéra in the nineteenth century was far from restricted, however, to the dances that were woven into grand operas. The same great ballet-masters who created choreographies for operas also created independent ballet-pantomimes, dramatic pieces from which singers were excluded, and which told a complete story in dance and mime. Without understanding ballet-pantomime, we cannot fully understand the role of dance in grand opera, because the latter absorbed so many elements from the former. Such narrative works had first appeared at the Opéra in the eighteenth century after a handful of reform-minded choreographers, such as Gasparo Angiolini and Jean-Georges Noverre (already active in London, Vienna, and elsewhere), had insisted that ballet could flourish not only in opera, but as a self-sufficient dramatic genre.