Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 October 2017
Grand opéra occupied a prominent but fraught position in the life of New Orleans in the 1830s, where it became a focus for debates surrounding contemporary cultural and political issues. In 1835, the city’s rival theatres – one francophone, the other anglophone – raced to give the first performance of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, bringing tensions between their respective communities to a head. This article explores Robert’s arrival in New Orleans, arguing that the discourses that grew up first around this work and later Les Huguenots provided a means through which opposing linguistic and cultural factions within the city could negotiate their local, national and international identities.
1 ‘J’ai demandé à Messieurs les directeurs de l’Opéra que vous puissiez venir sur la scène de l’Opéra à la représentation d’aujourd’hui & à celle de Vendredi (que sera la dernière du Prophète) pour pouvoir examiner de près les décors, la machinerie etc. etc … mercredi.’ In Henze-Döhring, Sabine, ed., Giacomo Meyerbeer: Briefwechsel und Tagebücher, 8 vols. (Berlin, 1999), 5: 24 Google Scholar.
2 Sabine Henze-Döhring highlights the rarity of this event. See Henze-Döhring ed., Giacomo Meyerbeer, 5: 754.
3 Scholarly accounts focusing specifically on the performance and reception of grand opéra in the city are few and far between. Those that discuss the reception of the genre, albeit relatively briefly, include Jack Belsom, ‘Reception of Major Operatic Premieres in New Orleans during the Nineteenth Century’, MA diss., Louisiana State University (1972); and Hibberd, Sarah, ‘Grand Opera in Britain and the Americas’, in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, ed. David Charlton (Cambridge, 2003), 403–422 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The most enduring of the local attempts at grand opéra seems to have been Eugène Prévost’s Esmeralda, a work in four acts and seven scenes, which was frequently performed in the 1840s. It is unclear, however, whether Prévost wrote the work in New Orleans or whether he brought it with him from France when he moved from his position at Le Havre to take up the position of chef d’orchestre in New Orleans in 1838. Nonetheless, the work was never part of the Parisian grand opéra repertoire.
4 Ignatius Letellier, Robert, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots: An Evangel of Religion and Love (Newcastle, 2014), 122 Google Scholar. The fire that destroyed the French Opera House was not the end of opera in New Orleans: since 1943, the New Orleans Opera Association has brought performances to the New Orleans public most summers. The scale of the enterprise and the short duration of the season, however, mean that it has never rivalled the ambition of the city’s earlier operatic tradition.
5 For a history of opera’s early years in New Orleans, see Kmen, Henry, Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years, 1791–1841 (Baton Rouge, 1966)Google Scholar.
6 The term Creole has taken on a wide variety of meanings over the years, as Brasseaux, Carl A. shows in French, Cajun, Creole, Houma: A Primer on Francophone Louisiana (Baton Rouge, 2005), 88–98 Google Scholar. I here use the term to mean any francophone born in Louisiana rather than in Europe, irrespective of race. Over the first half of the nineteenth century, increasingly restrictive race decrees relating to the theatres in New Orleans were passed, meaning that by the mid-century the Creoles attending the Théâtre d’Orléans were predominantly white. For more information on race relations in New Orleans theatres, see Braun, Juliane, ‘On the Verge of Fame: The Free People of Color and the French Theatre in Antebellum New Orleans’, in Liminale Anthropologien: Zwischenzeiten, Schwellenphänomene, Zwischenräume in Literatur und Philosophie, ed. Jochen Achilles, Roland Borgards and Brigitte Burrichter (Würzburg, 2012), 161–182 Google Scholar.
7 The refugees from Saint-Domingue played a vital role in the city’s commercial and cultural development in the early nineteenth century, as Dessens, Nathalie illustrates in From Saint-Domingue to New Orleans: Migration and Influences (Gainesville, FL, 2007)Google Scholar.
8 For information on the tours, see Grace Swift, Mary, ‘The Northern Tours of the Théâtre d’Orléans, 1843 and 1845’, Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 26 (1985), 155–193 Google Scholar; and Chevalley, Sylvie, ‘Le Théâtre d’Orléans en tournée dans les villes du nord 1827–1833’, Comptes rendues de L’Athénée louisianais (1955), 27–71 Google Scholar. See also Preston, Katherine K., Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825–60 (Urbana, 1993)Google Scholar for a detailed picture of touring opera troupes in America more generally during this period.
9 Information about the new French Opera House and its opening can be found in Baron, John H., Concert Life in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: A Comprehensive Reference (Baton Rouge, 2013)Google Scholar, in particular 19–22. The Théâtre d’Orléans did not immediately close after the opening of the French Opera House, but struggled on in a much-depleted state until it was claimed by fire in 1866.
10 Both Kmen and Belsom provide detailed information on the Théâtre d’Orléans’s repertoire at various points in its history. See Kmen, Music in New Orleans and Belsom, ‘Reception of Major Operatic Premieres’.
11 See Becker, Heinz, ed., Giacomo Meyerbeer: Briefwechsel und Tagebücher (Berlin, 2002), 6: 697 Google Scholar. There are a number of other instances when Meyerbeer met with and assisted Pierre Davis, as can be seen in volumes 4–6 of the Tagebücher and also in Ignatius Letellier, Robert ed., The Diaries of Giacomo Meyerbeer (London, 1999–2004)Google Scholar, volumes 2 and 3. Bertini played the role of Marguerite d’Anjou in the New Orleans premiere of Meyerbeer’s opera of that name in April 1854, among various other roles. It seems that the audition organised by Meyerbeer in 1853 was a re-audition, as Bertini had already sung with the New Orleans troupe, performing the role of Berthe in the Théâtre d’Orléans premiere of Le Prophète in 1850.
12 See, for example, Bernadet to Nonnon, 1 April 1842, Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra, Bibliothèque nationale de France, NLAS-392, which consists of a letter concerning a costume transaction sent from a singer at the Théâtre d’Orléans to Nonnon in Paris. Jean-Louis Nonnon (1786–1852) was first employed at the Opéra as an assistant in the costume department on 1 August 1828. He was promoted to the role of ‘maître tailleur’ on 1 July 1829, and remained in that position until his death in 1852. His wife and daughter also worked in the costume department of the Opéra. See Tamvaco, Jean-Louis, ed., Les Cancans de l’Opéra: Chroniques de l’Académie royale de musique et du théâtre à Paris sous les deux Restaurations (Paris, 2000), 1: 129 Google Scholar.
13 Develle was born in Paris in 1799. After his studies with Ciceri, he decorated Rheims Cathedral for the consecration of Charles X in 1825, later taking up an appointment as a set designer at Le Havre. He arrived in New Orleans in 1829 and remained there until his death in 1868. For more biographical detail, see Brady, Patricia, Mahé, John and McCaffrey, Rosanne, eds., Encyclopaedia of New Orleans Artists, 1718–1918 (New Orleans, 1987)Google Scholar. Only a small part of Develle’s oeuvre is publically available today. One set design and some non-theatrical sketches are held at the Historic New Orleans Collection, along with his painting of ‘The French Market and Red Store’ (1841). The Louisiana State Museums have another Develle painting featuring a similar scene. Drawings by him can be found in the local press.
14 For a brief biography of Prévost, see Baron, Concert Life, 179–83.
15 Sadly, we must settle for the word of reviewers and the occasional comments of other theatre-goers in their personal letters and diaries as proof of the opulence and high quality of these productions: most of the physical materials that would allow us to piece together an impression of the visual spectacle have been lost, and we are left only to imagine what they would have looked like.
16 Kmen, Music in New Orleans, 133–7; Hibberd, ‘Grand Opera in Britain and the Americas’, 417; Jones, Catherine, Literature and Music in the Atlantic World, 1767–1867 (Edinburgh, 2014), 89–90 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Jennifer C. H. J. Wilson discusses the reception of the Théâtre d’Orléans’s production of Robert le diable in New York as part of their 1845 summer tour in ‘Meyerbeer and the New Orleans French Opera Company in New York City, 1845: “How, therefore, Could New York Have Remained behind?”’, in Meyerbeer and Grand opéra from the July Monarchy to the Present, ed. Mark Everist (Turnhout, 2016), 361–82.
17 See, for example, The Bee (14 May 1835).
18 The Bee (2 April 1835); and L’Abeille (11 May 1835).
19 See The Bee (13 and 16 May 1835).
20 ‘The ladies who represented the nuns in one scene, and attendants on the princess in the next, excited our risible faculties – particularly in their skipping intended for a dance, when they showed they did not stand upon triffles [sic] or slender props’, complained the reviewer for The Bee (14 May 1835).
21 See, for example, The Bee (3 April 1835).
22 For more on the city’s demographic changes during this period, see Tregle, Joseph G. Jr, ‘Creoles and Americans’, in Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization, ed. Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon (Baton Rouge, 1992), 153–160 Google Scholar. See also Brasseaux, Carl A., The ‘Foreign French’: Nineteenth-Century French Immigration into Louisiana, Vol. 1: 1820–1839 (Lafayette, 1990), xi Google Scholar.
23 In the very early years of the nineteenth century, the English-language sections of these newspapers were often direct translations of the French sections; by the 1830s, however, they contained different material to suit the interests of the city’s divided linguistic communities.
24 For more on the history of New Orleans’s newspapers in this period, see Marino, Samuel J., ‘Early French-Language Newspapers in New Orleans’, Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 7 (1966), 309–321 Google Scholar.
25 See L’Abeille (3 and 21 May 1831). After Davis’s early attempts to keep the theatre open all year failed due to a huge drop in audience figures during the extremely hot and disease-ridden summer months, the Théâtre d’Orléans ran its season from November to June.
26 ‘Cette grande conception musicale’; ‘L’un des mérites de cette pièce est dans la pompe théâtrale et le décor’, ‘En somme, la Muette de Portici est l’un de ces spectacles qu’il faut voir’, L’Abeille (3 May 1831).
27 See, for example, L’Ami des Lois (31 May and 7 June 1823).
28 For more on the emergence and disappearance of newspapers during this period, see Larocque Tinker, Edward, Bibliography of the French Newspapers and Periodicals of Louisiana (Worcester, MA, 1933)Google Scholar.
29 The Louisiana Gazette (1804–26), however, while it did not employ a full-time music critic, did employ a regular feuilletonist, Alexis Daudet, from 1819 until 1825; he happened to be closely connected with the French theatre. Daudet initially wrote his column on local poetry and arts, but by the end of his term had simply begun to reprint articles from Parisian newspapers. See Marino, ‘Early French-Language Newspapers in New Orleans’, 316–20.
30 See, for example, the article on this subject published in L’Argus (7 January 1826).
31 Kmen, Music in New Orleans, 133–7.
33 The Bee (27 March 1835 and 28 March 1835).
34 The Bee (21 May 1831).
35 The Bee (21 May 1831).
36 See Dahlhaus, Carl, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley, 1989), in particular 8–15 Google Scholar.
37 The Bee (15 May 1835).
38 Regular examples of operatic criticism from London and Paris would have been available to both francophone and anglophone critics in New Orleans during the 1830s: reviews and theatrical articles from the foreign press were often reprinted in New Orleans’s own newspapers.
40 ‘For the Courrier: Opera of Robert le diable’, The Louisiana Courier (30 March 1835). Butler was the husband of British actress and diarist Fanny Kemble.
41 For a brief insight into Reynoldson’s adaptation of the score for the melodrama version in New York in 1834, see Wilson, ‘Meyerbeer and the New Orleans French Opera Company’, 366–7.
42 ‘For the Courrier: Opera of Robert le diable’, The Louisiana Courier (30 March 1835).
43 ‘For the Courrier: Opera of Robert le diable’, The Louisiana Courier (30 March 1835).
44 ‘Robert le diable’, The Bee (1 April 1835); and ‘For the Courrier: Opera of Robert le diable’, The Louisiana Courier (30 March 1835).
45 See The Bee (3 April 1835); and The Louisiana Courier (30 March 1835).
46 See The Bee (1 April 1835).
47 ‘Théâtre de la Rue du Camp: Robert-le-diable’, Le Courrier de la Louisiane (1 April 1835). So venomous were his comments that even the critic for L’Abeille felt compelled to defend the American Theatre, saying that it had ‘made very great progress’: ‘Le théâtre de la Rue du Camp, on ne peut le nier, a fait de très-grand progrès.’ L’Abeille (3 April 1835).
48 The Courrier printed one review and a biographical article about Meyerbeer copied from the Parisian press, while L’Abeille managed just a single review. See ‘Théâtre d’Orléans: Robert le diable’, Le Courrier de la Louisiane (14 May 1835); ‘Théâtre d’Orléans: Robert le diable (2)’, Le Courrier de la Louisiane (18 May 1835); and ‘Théâtre d’Orléans’, L’Abeille (14 May 1835).
49 ‘Jamais pompe théâtrale n’avait été poussée à un aussi haut degré à ce théâtre.’ ‘Théâtre d’Orléans: Robert le diable’, Le Courrier de la Louisiane (14 May 1835).
50 The English-language critics, however, were quick to point out that the French theatre’s production, though good, had not been quite as luxurious or polished as they had expected. That they had the confidence in their own theatre’s production to feel justified in criticising the French theatre’s is particularly remarkable, given that in the months preceding the Robert affair the same critics had advised audiences to go to the French theatre’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia rather than the American Theatre’s heavily rearranged version, since there they would ‘see and hear it properly done’. The Bee (5 March 1835).
51 A call for subscribers for this new theatre appeared in L’Abeille (2 April 1835).
52 The authors claimed that the francophone citizens of New Orleans had a need for such a Théâtre Louisianais to help young artists foster their genius and to ensure that they were given the place they deserved in history. L’Abeille (2 April 1835). John Davis felt compelled to respond to this challenge, publishing an article in which he stated that the city would not be able to sustain two French theatres and pleaded with the francophone citizens to devote their patronage to his theatre. See L’Abeille (17 April 1835); and Le Courrier de la Louisiane (18 April 1835).
53 For more on the municipalities and Creole/Anglo-American tensions at this time, see Domínguez, Virginia R., White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana (London, 1997), 110–132 Google Scholar.
54 For more on the history of the St Charles, see Lucile Gafford, ‘A History of the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans, 1835–43’, PhD diss., University of Chicago (1932).
55 Information on theatrical repertoires in the city in the first half of the century can be found in Kmen, Music in New Orleans. For a full list of all opera performances in New Orleans between 1796 and 1841, see Kmen, ‘Singing and Dancing in New Orleans: A Social History of the Birth and Growth of Balls and Opera, 1791–1841’, PhD diss., Tulane University (1961), Table III, 275–449.
56 ‘Fireside Talk – No. IX’, The Daily Picayune (9 December 1838).
57 ‘Fireside Talk – No. IX’, The Daily Picayune (9 December 1838).
58 Cormac Newark’s Opera in the Novel from Balzac to Proust (Cambridge, 2011)Google Scholar
provides a particularly suggestive model to read this example and the ways in which its anonymous author constructs a literary sphere of operatic experience. Space does not permit me to explore these possibilities here.
59 For an account of the formation of distinct elite and popular artistic spheres in America later in the nineteenth century, see Levine, Lawrence W., Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA, 1988)Google Scholar; and Mussulman, Joseph A., Music in the Cultured Generation: A Social History of Music in America, 1870–1900 (Evanston, IL, 1971)Google Scholar.
60 ‘Les Huguenots’, The Bee (30 April 1839).
61 See, for example, ‘Feuilleton. Théâtre: Les Huguenots’, L’Abeille (7 May 1839).
62 Baron, Concert Life, 303.
63 For an analysis of this work, see Juliane Braun, ‘Petit Paris en Amérique? French Theatrical Culture in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana’, PhD diss., Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (2013), 87–97.
64 See L’Abeille (4 and 7 May 1839), for example.
65 The Daily Picayune (30 April 1839).
66 ‘Théâtre d’Orléans: Les Huguenots’, L’Abeille (8 June 1839).
67 ‘(Communiqué) Théâtre d’Orléans: Bénéfice de Mr Develle’, L’Abeille (28 May 1839). See also ‘Feuilleton. Théâtre: Les Huguenots’, L’Abeille (7 May 1839).
68 See Cormac Newark, ‘“In Italy we don’t have the means for illusion”: Grand opéra in Nineteenth-Century Bologna’, Cambridge Opera Journal 19 (2007), 199–222 Google Scholar.
69 ‘Talent prodigieux’; ‘Le poème de Scribe n’est ni plus ni moins insignifiant que tous les poèmes de l’opéra. Il a été pour Meyerbeer un prétexte à musique et voilà tout.’ See ‘Théâtre: Les Huguenots, Opéra en cinq actes de Meyerbeer’, L’Abeille (3 May 1839).
70 See ‘Feuilleton. Théâtre: Les Huguenots’, L’Abeille (7 May 1839): ‘Nous avouons humblement qu’il nous serait difficile encore de porter sur la partition gigantesque de Meyerbeer un jugement définitif … Notre première analyse a été et devait être nécessairement incomplète.’
71 ‘C’était pour nous un bonheur indicible de voir ce public sérieux, attentive … s’associer par l’intelligence aux créations du génie’. ‘Théâtre d’Orléans: Les Huguenots’, L’Abeille (8 June 1839).
73 Wilson reveals that similar comments featured in the New York reception of Les Huguenots following its premiere there in 1845 by the Théâtre d’Orléans troupe. See ‘Meyerbeer and the New Orleans French Opera Company’, 371–3.
74 Newark explores this in ‘Metaphors for Meyerbeer’, 42.
75 Grand opéra seems to have had a lasting impact on the path operatic criticism took in New Orleans: the years following its introduction to the city saw the emergence of a number of arts journals and dedicated (if often short-lived) music periodicals. A comprehensive account of the emergence of specialist periodicals and journals can be found in Tinker, Bibliography of the French Newspapers and Periodicals of Louisiana.
76 ‘Les français n’auront jamais de musique.’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, quoted in ‘“Théâtre d’Orléans”: 3ème représentation des Huguenots’, L’Abeille (18 May 1839).
77 ‘C’est-à-dire de musique indigène, nationale, absolument à elle’, ‘En effet, la France à toutes les époques, depuis Lulli jusqu’à Meyerbeer, a toujours marché à la remorque des grands compositeurs de l’Italie ou de l’Allemagne.’ See ‘“Théâtre d’Orléans”: 3ème représentation des Huguenots’, L’Abeille (18 May 1839).
78 ‘L’arbre est exotique, mais le fruit est indigne.’ See ‘Au M. le rédacteur de l’Abeille: De la musique en France’, L’Abeille (27 May 1839).
79 ‘Madame de Staël dit quelque part: “Le génie n’a pas le sexe”; ajoutons aussi qu’il n’a pas de patrie.’ See ‘Au M. le rédacteur de l’Abeille: De la musique en France’, L’Abeille (27 May 1839).