Realism more than almost any other mode of literature makes sight paramount – makes it the dominant sense in our understanding of and relation to the world.Peter BrooksFootnote 1
On 2 February 1900, a new four-act work, Louise, premièred at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Its subject, set in contemporary Montmartre, was a love affair between a young seamstress and a bohemian poet. In the immediate run-up to the opera’s first performance, as critics debated the operatic suitability of such a topic (and such protagonists), its composer, Gustave Charpentier (a socialist, Prix de Rome winner and long-time resident of Montmartre with a penchant for increasingly outmoded bohemian attire), advertised his attachment to the neighbourhood and its inhabitants in striking terms. ‘I love this life that surrounds me,’ he told a journalist, ‘this life of the street and of the humble; I feel it to be profoundly lyrical.’Footnote 2 In putting working-class Montmartrois on the operatic stage and making them sing, the composer was apparently revealing to Opéra-Comique audiences what he himself could already hear. As he explained, the ‘mixture of realism and otherworldly fantasy’ offered by his opera was something he thought deeply embedded in the lives of the Parisian working classes.Footnote 3
By the time Louise reached the operatic stage, critics had had several decades to adjust to the once shocking visual realism of painters such as Gustave Courbet and the seeming brutality of literary works such as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Even the novels of Émile Zola – his ‘naturalist’ method understood to have mutated from realism’s nastier tendencies, a symptom of what he called ‘the need for reality that obsesses us’Footnote 4 – had ceased to attract lurid critical interest. Indeed, Zola had transformed his public image through his involvement in the Dreyfus affair.Footnote 5 Realism had, in other words, begun to lose its revolutionary edge. There was no courtroom drama following Louise’s première; rumours of the composer’s anarchist leanings – traces of a ‘brasserie ibsenism’ (‘ibsénisme de brasserie’) were detectedFootnote 6 – failed to prevent the opera from becoming immensely popular with the Opéra-Comique’s respectable audience. Five days after the première, additional performance dates were published in response to the huge demand for tickets;Footnote 7 in less than six months the opera had received its fiftieth performance; its five-hundreth came in 1921.Footnote 8
Alongside Louise’s lusty popular reception, Charpentier’s apparent attempt to incorporate elements identified as réaliste – a term translatable as both ‘realistic’ and ‘realist’, and so generating a slippage that will become significant – was widely debated. Some critics, unpersuaded by Charpentier’s pre-emptive defence of the working classes as ‘profoundly lyrical’, reflected on the boundaries of ‘the operatic’; many more simply arranged their assessments along an implicit fracture separating aspects that seemed self-evidently realist from those that were conventionally operatic. In sum, all but the briefest responses to Louise in 1900 bear marks of a tussle between the assumed aesthetic affordances of opera – in particular of French opera as produced and consumed at the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, Paris’s two most prestigious houses – and the disruptive tendencies of realism, a category both tethered directly to ‘reality’ and indexical of existing trends in art and literature.
My focus in this article is precisely on the complex relationship between opera and realism. To be clear: realism has proved a troublesome notion for musicologists – one rarely theorized in relation to opera or to music more generally. Indeed, in one of the few attempts to conceptualize a specifically musical form of realism, Carl Dahlhaus admitted over three decades ago in Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music that ‘whether it is possible to speak meaningfully of realism in respect of music, as it is in respect of literature or the visual arts, is a moot question’.Footnote 9 In addressing Charpentier’s Louise as a means of returning to such matters, I have been led above all by the language of the opera’s reception: few operatic works outside the Italian verismo tradition have been so consistently identified as ‘realist’, either by early critics or by musicologists.Footnote 10 Put bluntly, the composer’s place in standard narratives of opera history has long rested on this aspect of Louise’s reputation.Footnote 11 Yet for all that Louise remains exceptional in operatic history, its roots in late nineteenth-century Parisian culture direct us towards a broader intellectual discourse on realism – one that has come chiefly from art history and literary studies, and that has centred above all on figures such as Courbet and Flaubert, Manet and Zola.Footnote 12 In such a context, my principal concern is to examine what Louise might offer these larger discourses within Parisian cultural history. I begin by laying out the basic case for Louise’s status as a realist opera, taking my cue from the work’s early reception, before discussing the opera’s representational dynamics in relation to theoretical conceptualizations of realism in other art forms. I then present two musical examples – neither of which was the object of significant critical attention in 1900 – to explore how Louise might not only resonate with existing understandings of late nineteenth-century French realism, but also ultimately expand or disrupt them. My aim, in short, is to ponder the possibility that the act of listening might (pace Peter Brooks in the epigraph to this article; and pace Dahlhaus in the quotation above) shape its own, distinct form of realism.
Realism by design
Charpentier’s tale of love unfolds against two separate locations in Montmartre: the working-class Faubourg (home to the eponymous heroine and her parents) and the bohemian Butte (the top of the hill) inhabited by her lover, Julien. The first, third and last of the four acts take place in single locations; the second is divided into two tableaux. The action shifts between interior settings – the house where the heroine lives with her parents (Acts 1 and 4); the dressmaker’s atelier where she works (Act 2, second tableau) – and outdoor scenes depicting a dawn chorus of street sellers (Act 2, first tableau) and the garden of the lovers’ idyll (Act 3), from which the centre of Paris can be seen, twinkling in the distance. These locations were, it seems, meticulously copied: the critic Camille Le Senne was typical when he reported that the opera was staged ‘with the most assured and striking realism, without any detail left to chance; the scenery for the crossroads on the Butte, for the rooftop, for the seamstresses’ workshop, are astoundingly truthful’.Footnote 13
A similar attitude to representation – and a similarly denotative understanding of ‘realism’ – is evident in many responses to Charpentier’s plot and motley band of working-class characters. A long article by Maurice Emmanuel entitled ‘Real Life in Music’ offers a clear example. Charpentier, Emmanuel writes,
casts down the puppets of lyric theatre: gods and demi-gods, helmet-wearing heroes, lords and ladies, pretty pages, villagers and shepherds from Watteau, richly brocaded soldiers, gilded Orientals, peasants, gangsters, July Monarchy bourgeois – the entire cast of mannequins and caricatures that the Opéra and Opéra-Comique offer up every night. Instead he raises the curtain on a part of Paris, of Paris such as it really is, to present us with workers, errand boys, street urchins and rag-and-bone men […] The sanctuary has been desecrated!Footnote 14
Out with the weightily mythological and the piquant picturesque; here, instead, was an identifiable urban setting populated by ‘real’ people. The decorative, historical or fantastical figures beloved of Paris’s two most prestigious operatic venues had been swept aside in favour of the working-class habitués of the city’s streets.
Even Charpentier’s most determined detractors largely conceded that the opera’s representation of its Parisian setting was a success. The Opéra-Comique’s director, Albert Carré, and its chief set-painter, Louis Jusseaume, were given much of the credit; and the notion of accuracy – the claim that in this opera Paris could be seen ‘as it really is’ – was crucial. Although the libretto and stage directions make no mention of exact locations, it was widely accepted that the opera’s sets were quasi-photographic reproductions of existing places. Indeed, in the first book-length study of Louise, published only a year after the première, Jules Nordi presented the creative process behind the staging as firmly rooted in Parisian reality:
Accompanied by the author and the scene-painter Jusseaume, [Carré] made numerous trips up to the Butte, buying the furniture needed for the interior of a workers’ household in the second act from the neighbourhood’s dealers, deciding that the set of the same act would depict a spot glimpsed from the rue de la Barre. For his part, the excellent designer Bianchini wandered the Butte of Montmartre at night in pursuit of sketches of rag-and-bone men and prowlers.Footnote 15
Nordi’s description features two instances of blurring between Charpentier’s Paris and that represented on stage: Carré buys furniture from the neighbourhood he plans to depict to use as props; and the set designer’s research trips to the Butte sound no less picturesque than the rest of the nocturnal cityscape he portrayed in the opera.
A still more striking overlap emerges from notes preserved in Charpentier’s papers. Among the many drafts and sketches for his memoirs held by the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris is a sheet labelled ‘Mes souvenirs d’étudiant’, which lists places in Montmartre, annotated with their significance in Louise. Amid this litany of real Parisian locations with their narrative function glossed (‘Rue Lepic’, for instance, is the site of ‘Louise’s abduction, the carriage blinds lowered, driving flat out, the horse on its knees!’), there is one that breaks the pattern: the ‘Escalier Ste Marie’, Charpentier observes, is ‘where I wrote LOUISE’.Footnote 16 This site has no place within the opera itself; but by featuring a location from the narrative of Louise’s genesis in a geographical survey of his operatic Montmartre, Charpentier includes himself within the opera’s world.
The composer was not alone in hinting at a confusion of urban reality and its artistic representation in Louise. The composer and critic Alfred Bruneau – a few years Charpentier’s senior and one of his staunchest supporters – marvelled that the Paris portrayed with such realism in Louise was ‘the living, simmering, singing city of Émile Zola’s splendid books’.Footnote 17 Charpentier, too, claimed to hear the city’s song, telling a journalist the day before Louise’s première, ‘I love this life that surrounds me, this life of the street and of the humble; I feel it to be profoundly lyrical’ (see above, note 2) – a choice of words to which I shall return. Altogether more critical, but thinking along similar lines, the music critics of two mass-circulation dailies, Le petit journal and Le petit Parisien, both diagnosed Louise’s plot as belonging to the ‘genre Ambigu’ (the Théâtre de l’Ambigu-Comique specialized in melodramas and vaudevilles and had recently staged several stage adaptations of Zola’s novels).Footnote 18 Most eye-catching of all, in a still more complex layering of mediated realities, Catulle Mendès remarked of the opera’s Act 3 love duet that Charpentier’s lovers had ‘no doubt read and re-read Émile Zola’.Footnote 19
So much for the work’s unequivocal rooting in real locations. In each of these cases, Louise’s Paris is a city with unmistakable representational pedigree – one recognizable from existing urban depictions already understood (for better or worse) as realist. For Mendès as for Charpentier himself, the fourth wall of the opera’s world is distinctly permeable. Just as the composer unwittingly placed himself within Louise’s milieu, Mendès imagined Charpentier’s characters as Parisian contemporaries who, like everyone else, have been consuming Zola’s literary remediations of their urban environment, and who then reproduce behaviour familiar from his novels to bolster the reality-effect of Charpentier’s operatic representation of the city. Bruneau, meanwhile, hears Paris singing – but he is again hearing the city portrayed by Zola: always already mediated, always already portrayed as realist.
Few other critics were persuaded by Charpentier’s and Bruneau’s assertion of Montmartre’s vocality. But the arrondissement may nonetheless have lent itself to the peculiar layering of realist representation and supposed reproductions of reality perceived by many. In a scathing profile of Charpentier as a ‘vériste français’, for instance, Louis Laloy complained that Louise’s libretto was ‘a Montmartre prose, grubby and vaguely metaphysical, which reeks of the dusty studio, the smoke of old pipes, and wide-brimmed hats proclaiming unimaginable aesthetics’.Footnote 20 This particular area of Paris was, in other words, barely real even before it was represented on stage: fin-de-siècle Montmartre was a place subject to persistent mythologization, one segment of its inhabitants existing in a carefully curated mélange of life and art, fiction and reality.Footnote 21 Laloy nonetheless identified one particular difficulty with Louise’s contribution to this emergent, idealized place:
Without a doubt the material details are exact: real scissors pass between the hands of the workers, and the morning papers are folded on news-stand tables just like that. So the leisurely citizen of Dresden or Zurich can marvel, elbowing his neighbour and whispering with a meaningful grin: ‘Parisian life! Pariser-Leben!’ But this drama of habits and couturiers isn’t enough to enchant us, since the author wants to draw only lessons and morals from it, rather than grace or poetry.Footnote 22
For Laloy, the accumulated everyday matter of Charpentier’s Montmartre generated an operatic postcard: the image sought by tourists who did not know better, offering nothing of interest (no magic, no art) for a Parisian native. It was too faithful to the claims to ‘authenticity’ on which the myth of Montmartre rested, too weighed down by its own arguments and proofs.
But the tension that emerges from Laloy’s critique – between this opera’s obsessive attention to material detail and the art form’s long-standing obligation to enchant by transcending and poetically envoicing the material world – is significant, leading us towards the central challenge that Louise posed in 1900. For all that most critics in 1900 deemed Louise’s staging an obvious instance of theatrical realism, they were also quick to recognize distinctly non-realist elements elsewhere in the opera. Bruneau saw this hybridity as one of Louise’s strengths, describing it as ‘at once a work of realism and of dreaming: of outright, aggressive realism in its language, in the exteriority of the drama; of dreaming, hazy and charming, in all that relates to the score’.Footnote 23 The first clause of Bruneau’s assessment was echoed by many early critics and is widely quoted in musicological writing on the opera. The division of Charpentier’s work into a realist libretto and staging and a dreamlike score is, after all, a conventional parsing of opera’s constitutive elements along a realist/idealist axis: music’s role is to charm and to bewitch, to elude the mundane precision of an opera’s ‘exterior’, tangible aspects. But such an Orphic cliché grates awkwardly against one of the composer’s most widely repeated statements about Louise. In an interview published the week before the première, Charpentier explains why he designates it generically as a ‘roman musical’:
In the novel there are two distinct sides, drama and description, and in Louise I wanted to have both of these. I have a descriptive part comprising the decor, the scenic milieu and the musical atmosphere in which my characters evolve. And I have the purely dramatic side, given over entirely to the action. It is therefore a real roman musical. Footnote 24
This excerpt makes for strange reading. The notion of ‘musical atmosphere’ sounds conventional enough, capitalizing on sound’s ‘hazy’ affective powers (to repeat Bruneau). Yet in marked contrast to much nineteenth-century aesthetic thought, Charpentier categorized music as ‘descriptive’ rather than ‘dramatic’ – as part of the external scenic ‘reality’ rather than constituting the opera’s implicitly inner drama (to borrow the terminology of a composer notoriously influential on Charpentier).Footnote 25
Elsewhere, though, Charpentier appears more ambivalent about the relationship between the material and the symbolic in his opera. According to a short article published a year after Louise’s première, he seems to have experienced frustrations during rehearsals not unlike those of Laloy, the critic who took exception to Louise’s unenchanting ‘drama of habits and couturiers’, weighed down by mundane paraphernalia. As related by the report, Charpentier had instructed his original Mère, Blanche Deschamps-Jehin,
not to bring the soup tureen to the table in the first act in the same way that she would have done it at home. ‘It isn’t a simple tureen’, he said to her, ‘which you’re bringing from the kitchen and setting down on the table; it’s the soup – that is, the end for which the man at work has had to hold out all day. It’s the result of that work, it’s the substance that sustains life, it’s rest, it’s intimacy.’Footnote 26
Here the composer seems frustrated by the apparent incompatibility between his chosen setting – figured almost automatically as realist by critics – and conventional modes of dramatic representation. Although Charpentier made the radical move of putting a recognizably working-class milieu on the operatic stage, he also wanted to imbue that milieu with symbolic significance. Everyday soup delivery was insufficiently meaningful. Instead, the soup tureen needed to be understood as an object invested with both denotative and symbolic importance – one referring indexically to the material trappings of contemporary Parisian life while simultaneously functioning as Charpentier’s answer to the magical, meaning-saturated paraphernalia scattered through the altogether less quotidian worlds of Wagner: sword, potion, helmet, fire.
To be clear, Charpentier’s advertised aims in Louise were not only ambitious, they were in danger of appearing internally at loggerheads. The problem for many critics in 1900 was ultimately neither that Charpentier wanted to put working-class Paris on the operatic stage, nor that his operatic representation of the city appeared ‘at once a work of realism and of dreaming’. Put simply (and despite the composer’s claim that Parisian life was itself ‘lyrical’), the real difficulty was that Louise’s numerous realist traces were judged unsuitable for, if not antithetical to, operatic treatment. One critic noted how Louise’s mother ‘ironed her laundry, lit her stove, tasted and seasoned her soup’. He insisted that he was not shocked, but nevertheless pondered, ‘Was it necessary, and why seek to introduce into music, the idealist art form par excellence, an almost impossible realism?’Footnote 27 Another observed that one could find more diverting tales of everyday life in a newspaper, before questioning the ‘musicabilité’ of such stories.Footnote 28 The same apparent incompatibility played out in reverse in relation to Charpentier’s chorus of street cries in the first tableau of Act 2. As heard by Pierre Lalo (one of the opera’s more aggressive early critics), these ‘rigorously exact imitations of the songs that they sing on the Butte of Montmartre’ were ‘almost deprived of art and of true music’.Footnote 29 Once pressed into the service of ‘realist’ representation, such sonic ‘found objects’ were stripped of their very identity as music. Most damning of all was Léon Kerst, who acknowledged Charpentier’s desire to take his protagonists ‘from the gutter of Montmartre’ (‘les bas-fonds de Montmartre’) but pointed out a fundamental flaw: ‘He makes them speak a language that isn’t theirs […] and he makes them sing music that will never be theirs. I conclude from this that in this theatre that claims to be true, real, even realist, there is more accumulated falsity than in any other.’Footnote 30 The problem for Kerst, as for many others, was not Charpentier’s realist depiction of Paris; it was the fact that that depiction was operatic – that his supposedly ‘real’ characters sang.
The argument that condemned Charpentier’s operatic voices as forever non-realist was predicated on a widespread assumption that realist representation must also be realistic, must outwardly resemble phenomena in the real world. As the argument went, in fin-de-siècle Paris the working classes do not actually sing instead of speaking; thus, an opera in which they sing as a matter of course cannot be realist. This elision between the realist and the realistic underlies much of Louise’s critical discourse as a whole. The conceptual challenge that such an elision poses is only exacerbated by the fact that, as mentioned earlier, the French term réaliste can mean both realistic and realist – where the latter term, in contrast to the former, refers specifically to a historical, minutely theorized representational mode rather than to the resemblance to (or even incorporation of physical objects from) the material world. To compound these elisions and slippages, numerous academic theorizations of realism in recent decades have exclusively concerned literature and visual art, making no attempt to account for historical arguments about the possibility of a specifically operatic realism.
Such academic theorizations beyond musicology have consistently identified realism with an assemblage of connected attributes: its conception of the relationship between representation and reality that typically entails a heightened sense of contemporaneity or otherwise self-conscious stance towards the present, for instance. (Not for nothing did Zola label Monet, Renoir and Bazille at the 1868 Salon as ‘Les Actualistes’.) What is more, realism is generally understood as urban and rooted in the affective world of ‘modernity’; and it usually emerges from a left-wing political position. In terms of these characteristics, one might easily suture Louise – perhaps, by extension, opera as a whole – into the prevailing definition of realism established by scholars of other art forms.Footnote 31 Yet other aspects of that emergent definition are more problematic. What is the opera scholar to make, for instance, of Brooks’s forceful declaration in his 2005 book Realist Vision that realism ‘more than almost any other mode of literature makes sight paramount’? Or of Linda Nochlin’s subtler conviction that realism aimed ‘to give a truthful, objective and impartial representation of the real world’?Footnote 32 Must realism be understood only in terms of the old cliché of modernity as a primarily visual phenomenon – or might there be space for sound to complicate and enrich it, in this case for opera to shape its own distinct form of realism without simply ceasing to be operatic?
There are still more knots to unpick. While most critics describing Louise’s staging or setting as réaliste around 1900 offered it as a closing compliment to the work’s creators, the term had almost uniformly negative associations in relation to Louise’s music. A sympathetic profile of Charpentier by Maurice Le Blond published immediately after the première makes this clear:
It’s no longer Walhalla that [Charpentier] evokes; it’s no longer allegorical, mythical, legendary people to whom he gives expression. Instead, it’s the landscapes of daily life whose atmosphere he recreates; the feelings, instincts and desires of true men and true women that he translates.Footnote 33
For Le Blond, Charpentier’s embrace of ‘la vie quotidienne’ was a positive, productive renunciation of Wagnerian influence in favour of French truth; the term réalisme tellingly appears only once, later in the profile, within a warning that the composer will be criticized by ‘certain excessive Wagnerians’ for ‘the realism of his motifs’.Footnote 34 Sure enough, ten days after Le Blond’s article, Lalo complained that some of Charpentier’s vocal lines were copied so exactly from music sung on the Butte that they barely constituted music at all. In a similar vein, albeit largely pro-Charpentier, another critic maintained that, ‘The staging of modern life in music drama can be an obstacle to the free outpouring of lyrical ideas. Material struggles and faits divers will never belong in the musical domain.’Footnote 35 In each case, the supposed realism of Louise is derived from the opera’s incorporation of material objects borrowed from real life.
Uniquely among Louise’s early critics, Emmanuel attempted to distinguish between the opera’s use of realistic elements and its putative nature as a ‘realist’ opera. (He was presumably aided by the unusual length of his article and the months that had elapsed between the première and the publication of his response.) Having sketched a short history of realism in opera (starting at Rousseau’s Le devin du village and taking in La traviata, Siegfried(!), Die Meistersinger, Carmen and three of Bruneau’s operas), Emmanuel insisted:
Don’t be mistaken: if Charpentier’s Louise offers, at times, admirable examples – perhaps the first real models, in the theatre – of real life in music, it is by no means an entirely realist work. Far from it: convention abounds in it.Footnote 36
In its historiographical intentions and consideration of what ‘realism’ might constitute beyond objects and locations imported from reality into the alternative universe of the operatic stage, Emmanuel’s assessment reads like a surprisingly modern interpretation of Louise. His distinction between the representation of real life and a representative mode or attitude that we might call ‘realist’ is, in particular, rare in nineteenth-century writing on realism in any medium. For although, as the literary scholar Christopher Prendergast observes, that age saw ‘the flowering of realism as a set of literary pictorial practices’, it was not the moment of its ‘sophisticated conceptual articulation’.Footnote 37 The latter has largely been located in and following the final decades of the twentieth century, with scholars such as Sandy Petrey observing that ‘the dilemmas of representation’ are themselves crucial narrative subjects in realism.Footnote 38 Far from reading realist fiction as representative of an external reality, that is, Petrey is concerned with how an illusion of reality – with its modes and mechanisms of representation – has been generated.
For Alison Byerly, a solution to the difficulty of evoking reality through art ‘while acknowledging its difference from the real world’ is found in references both to the arts in general and to individual, specific artworks; and such gestures are embedded in the narratives of numerous realist novels.Footnote 39 Yet underpinning any of these intermedial references is another significant characteristic of realism as it has been shaped by recent theorists: a tension between realism’s preoccupation with quotidian materiality and its gestures towards and inevitable dialogue with the ideal and the imaginary. One erstwhile éminence grise of literary studies, Northrop Frye, was undoubtedly writing at a low point in realism’s critical currency when he dismissed it in 1957 as ‘an art of implied simile’ to be measured unfavourably against myth’s ‘art of implied metaphorical identity’.Footnote 40 But even Frye’s passing comment (realism being otherwise absent from his Anatomy of Criticism) locates realism’s significance in its bridging of the gap between a phenomenon experienced in the physical world or a truth internally felt and what may be re-presented in language; as he put it, ‘Realism, or the art of verisimilitude, evokes the response “How like that is to what we know!”’Footnote 41 Much more recently but in a related vein, the art historian James D. Herbert has found in Courbet’s late works what he calls the artist’s ‘predilection for matching world to canvas’ – his subjects chosen according to ‘those aspects of the world that physically resemble his paints’.Footnote 42
The rhetoric of resemblance is important here: it should remind us that realism has been characterized not only by traits proper to the construction of individual artworks or centred on the attitude of their creators, but also by its modes of consumption – even by new types of ‘reading’ demanded by realist texts. Hence the art historian Michael Fried bemoans the fact that realist paintings have generally been looked at ‘less intensively’, since discussion has ‘tended to proceed on the unexamined assumption that a realist painter’s representation of a given scene was to all intents and purposes determined by the “actual” scene itself’ and thus close scrutiny has been felt to be ‘beside the point’.Footnote 43 More recently, aspects of realist prose have been co-opted into debates about the notion of ‘surface reading’: Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt observe (with tongue only partly in cheek) that, ‘We do not use Heart of Darkness as a sailing manual or a handbook for the extraction of natural resources from colonized places.’Footnote 44 Their point is to demonstrate the extent to which we have learnt to pass over language assumed to be too ‘denotative’, ‘technical’ or ‘literal’ to be of literary interest.
It is no coincidence that while musical texts have similarly been deemed technical (and thus largely off limits for discussion elsewhere in the humanities), they have also been assumed to be generally incapable of either denotation or literalness: both important manifestations of realist representation in nineteenth-century literary texts. The questions of musical meaning that threaten to emerge here are long-standing and unresolved, and they inevitably reach far beyond the scope of this article. But it is nevertheless important to note once more that, in the context of a sophisticated and sustained theoretical engagement with realism in literary and visual studies, musical works have gone largely unexamined and musicology itself has had little to say. In the case of Louise (whose composer’s effusions, reception history and setting alike might well suggest comparisons with the contemporary novels of Zola, for instance, or with the visual language of later nineteenth-century French art), scholarly writing has concentrated for the most part on other aspects: its references to contemporary anarchism, for instance; its indebtedness to Wagner; its advocacy of social change; or its contexts in fin-de-siècle French culture, politics and society.Footnote 45 Most recently, the advocacy of the musicologist Michela Niccolai has catalysed something like a new subfield of Charpentier studies in which Louise sits as a crucial piece of evidence in the argument for the composer’s long-overlooked significance in and contribution to late nineteenth-century French musical culture.Footnote 46 In all of this work, persuasive arguments have been made for Louise’s distinctiveness within Parisian cultural history at the fin de siècle – in particular for its historiographical significance despite its position on the fringes of the modern operatic canon.
Louise’s music has nonetheless proved difficult to incorporate into arguments for taking the opera seriously.Footnote 47 The principal challenge is that many of Louise’s most striking musical aspects seem to emphasize a lack of sophistication: its sub-Wagnerian motivic surface, for instance, has spawned a long-running series of attempts to locate and name individual ‘leitmotifs’ and to chart their development.Footnote 48 The composer’s novel importation of a sewing machine into the seamstresses’ scene is, for all its striking literalness, noted by commentators but not subjected to further enquiry.Footnote 49 References to the opera’s early-morning street scene with its chorus of street cries have sometimes missed the irony that by the late nineteenth century such cries were widely anthologized but also bemoaned as ‘lost’, heard more regularly on the Parisian stage than on the city’s thoroughfares.Footnote 50 The fuller significance of such a nostalgic gesture – more sonic lieu de mémoire than sound object – surely lies in its contribution to what Huebner terms Louise’s ‘significant role in the canning of Montmartre in the century to come’.Footnote 51
This is not to say that the term ‘realism’ has not previously been used in relation to Louise. On the contrary, the term appears regularly both in musicological studies and in opera histories more generally.Footnote 52 The problem is, however, that the nineteenth-century tendency to elide what I earlier defined as the realist and the realistic has persisted. What is more, aspects of the opera that have been labelled ‘realist’ – whether in 1900 or more recently – have generally earned the epithet via more or less explicit measurement against the standard attributes of realism in other art forms and other fields of academic endeavour.Footnote 53 The very notion of realism in opera, that is, has seemed largely predicated on any given work’s capacity to demonstrate characteristics expected of literary or visual realism – to respond to a different medium’s array of generic features, expectations and conventions. But, to repeat the question, what might be musically significant in an instance of putative operatic realism? What might be particular to operatic engagement with everyday life and what could opera and its voices offer to realist representation? The move towards some answers might begin with the observation by Louise’s early critics that the operatic voice was often heard as out of place – displaced in its own medium. Kerst, after all, condemned Charpentier’s singing workers as fundamentally false, their lyricism as fakery committed amid the realism of their surroundings. Let us continue, then, by considering one of the opera’s rare moments of self-conscious ‘staging’ of the voice.
The second tableau of Act 2 of Louise is set in the couturier’s at which the heroine works. According to Carré’s staging directions for the première, the curtain should rise on a chorus of female workers (Louise among them) arrayed carefully amid mannequins, sewing tables and other professional paraphernalia. The women are instructed to ‘work while chattering – Some sing – One labourer works at a machine’.Footnote 54 The scene continues with two sonic intrusions from outside: a short, chaotic polka from an unseen band of musicians; and then a longer lover’s serenade (complete with guitar accompaniment) by their ringleader, Julien. At first the women are charmed by the song, offering admiring commentary. But when it takes a tragic turn (its purpose, we discover, is to persuade Louise to elope with him, since her parents forbid their marriage), they lose interest, becoming increasingly irritated. Eventually they drown him out with calls for ‘Music!’ and a return to the polka with which the scene began, now transformed into a cancan.
Little of Charpentier’s score was subject to close scrutiny by early critics, but a few passing comments are revealing. For Gaston Serpette, the scene conveyed ‘in real-life music the flow of dialogue of 20 or so labourers who work while chattering’;Footnote 55 Le ménestrel congratulated the composer on the ‘charming dexterity’ of his score, ‘which seems to make light of the difficulty of making a dozen noisy girls babble away together or in turn’;Footnote 56 and the ultra-Wagnerian Mendès pointed to the scene as one in which Charpentier had defied the temptations of ‘the fantastic’ (‘le fantastique’) to remain focused on ‘coarse realities’ (‘les réalités vulgaires’). He also praised the scene’s ‘true miracle of choral and orchestral design, from which the song of the wandering singer emerges for the pleasure of the grisettes’.Footnote 57
Each of these comments elides conventional operatic modes of representation with what is being represented. Serpette labels the opening profusion of melodic dialogue exchanged between the workers as ‘real music’ (‘musique réelle’) and thus, by implication, as unusually close to ‘real’ chattering, despite the fact that such declamation had by the end of the nineteenth century largely replaced more formal recitative as a standard feature of new operas. Le ménestrel’s blurring of compositional dexterity and the challenge of policing noisy young women is still more striking: the critic seems determined to maintain and even extend the operatic fiction, implying that the female chorus on stage are themselves grisettes and thus sonically hard to manage, despite their training as professional vocal impersonators. Mendès makes a similar rhetorical move. As he slides from Charpentier’s skilful construction of the scene’s texture to an inferred fictional motivation for Julien’s serenade, he seems to imply, bizarrely, that Charpentier arranged the scene as he did for the pleasure of the onstage female listeners.
But perhaps bizarre is too strong a word. Mendès’s suggestion is not far removed from the rhetoric produced during a moment in later twentieth-century opera scholarship, when the musicologist Edward T. Cone and the philosopher Peter Kivy pondered the boundaries of ‘the world of opera and its inhabitants’ (to revive Cone’s phrase).Footnote 58 Both Cone and Kivy were concerned with the meaning and ontological status of operatic singing – the question of whose music an opera audience believes it is listening to when attending to a particular character; the question of when singing sounds like singing and when it sounds like speaking; the question, ultimately, of how one might justify formal musical conventions within the fictional world of an opera. Their work laid important groundwork for any later consideration of operatic realism. For my purposes here, though, the most productive aspect is the centrality of the notion of diegetic music – music heard as music on stage, within the fictional world of the opera.Footnote 59
The passage from Louise which I have just discussed unfolds, after all, as a short series of diegetic ‘moments’: as the curtain rises, some of the workers are described as singing as well as chattering; and both the stage band’s dance tune and Julien’s offstage serenade are long-established operatic tropes of staged performance. Yet the serenade is, in this particular case, by no means stable qua performance. It falls into four verses, the first two of which are musically very similar, each featuring the tenor voice accompanied only by highly conventional figures on the guitar. These verses are framed by the female chorus – placed, unusually, in the position of listeners commenting on an evidently seductive voice-object – and with bursts of orchestral sumptuousness to drive the point home.Footnote 60
The most revealing moment, however, is the point at which the diegesis dissolves. The last two verses of Julien’s serenade mark his increasing agitation: the allegorical love story turns sour; the guitar has some violent strumming and then disappears altogether, replaced by an orchestral accompaniment of pizzicato strings, growling woodwind and percussion. Julien’s vocal line abandons the conventional contours of a serenade and becomes ever less simply melodic – ever more Wagnerian, in fact, its shape driven by increasing harmonic adventurousness. But the female commentary on Julien’s singing does not stop. Instead, it becomes progressively entangled with it in a single, complex texture, far from the careful division of song and commentary in the first two verses. These choral contributions, having previously been markers of vocal femininity (legato lines, sighing motifs and simple harmonies encased within lush string textures), become ever less tuneful, breaking down twice into notated cackling as the workers declare themselves irritated by Julien’s new musical mode.
What might this breakdown of stage performance suggest about opera’s relationship to nineteenth-century realism? Recall Herbert writing on Courbet, in particular the idea that realist artists selected their subject matter on the basis of its material proximity to their medium: that waves are not so different from liquid paint; that an obsession with strong vertical lines and objects might have something to do with the fact that paintings themselves, once hung, constitute vertical surfaces. It would be straightforward to build on Herbert’s line of thought here: composers interested in the possibilities of realist representation in opera, as Charpentier was, have repeatedly been drawn to subjects entailing musical performance (think of Carmen, or of many verismo operas). To return to an earlier distinction, there is little question that some of the most realistic musical moments in opera are those involving diegetic singing. In those passages, the potentially alienating (or enchanting) disjunction between the world of opera and our own is drastically reduced. But what of the realist, not merely the realistic?
I have already insisted that if realism is to have serious purchase on late nineteenth-century opera, its definition cannot be simply inferred from existing conceptions of the term in other art forms. Yet Julien’s Act 2 serenade can suggest another way. It begins unequivocally as realistic and adheres initially to the conventional generic expectations of such a number. But the serenade’s gradual transition away from those conventions – a transition traced by the altogether less clearly diegetic commentary of the female labourers – is more unusual. One important marker of the serenade’s shift from diegesis to non-diegesis is the replacement of the Italianate guitar with striking, perhaps even Wagnerian, orchestration. The latter cannot be part of the opera’s fictional world, as the guitar was; indeed, it seems to have become unmoored from Julien’s voice. The women are still listening to him sing, albeit with significantly less pleasure; and the kind of vocal writing Charpentier provided for Julien in the second half of this serenade is not simply a return to his own melodic norm, rather, it seems to gesture towards another model of operatic vocality – that of the unendliche Melodie still feared and despised by Wagner’s most polemical detractors, which acts here as an auditory index of the overwrought, the emotionally undisciplined, even the unmusical.
In composing out the disintegration of a moment of vocal diegesis, Charpentier allows us to explore the blurring of two modes of operatic vocality: marked stage-song and unmarked singing-as-speech. But he also presents a significant shift between two operatic conventions, from the lover’s realistic serenade to the semiotic overlay afforded by musical quotation and paraphrase. Taking our cue from such an affordance, we might hear the operatic voice as having its own semantic reality: its own multiple voices that it can ventriloquize; its own compositional found objects that it can envoice. Such a reframed operatic reality might even lay claim to producing, on occasion, its own form of realism: as outlined above, Julien’s serenade combines a particular relation to the material world with a particular use of its medium’s representational conventions to convey a type of specifically operatic literalness. But this formulation risks returning once more to the diegetic performances in operas that have long offered safe haven to those who argue for opera’s capacity, against all the odds, for realism. Worse, such a conclusion foregrounds the serenade’s generic conventionality over the moment of dissolution – one that remains startling and, ultimately, more resistant to the very notion of diegesis. To examine the potential of such musical resistance, I need to turn to a second musical example, one that comes a few moments earlier in the opera.
When the curtain rose on the second tableau of Louise’s Act 2 in February 1900, it revealed a workshop full of female labourers, carefully arrayed about the stage. As quoted earlier, they ‘work while chattering – Some sing – One labourer works at a machine’. It is the last instruction that I want to consider now, and which I think can suggest more fully what opera (and music in general) may be able to offer our existing conceptions of realism. The music in this scene was particularly prone to be absorbed into comments about the opera’s mise en scène rather than its musical potential – which is to say that it was particularly prone to going unheard. Lalo claimed it had ‘almost no music: some dismantled music, some more or less pitched words’.Footnote 61 La presse was more typical in referring briefly to the workshop scene as evidence of the new opera’s ‘magnificent or realist sets’, marvelling: ‘There is a couturier’s workshop with a sewing machine! and it works!’Footnote 62 Like the ‘real scissors’ that Laloy imagined tourists admiring, Charpentier’s Act 2 sewing machine was the real thing; and it was apparently novel enough still to earn a mention in an English-language guide to the opera published 12 years later.Footnote 63 Nor was its presence limited to its onstage visual cue or operation: for large portions of the scene, it possesses its own stave in the orchestral score (see Example 1). The part is hardly sophisticated: continuous semiquavers in 6/8, pre-empting by only a quaver beat the entry of the seamstresses, who ‘la la’ their way through an ascending G major scale starting on ^6. Small wonder this moment received little attention as music in 1900 (and has attracted less since), as the score appears to be no more than a composing out of a basic stage direction. Some workers sing, one works at a machine.
But even this clearly diegetic passage – ‘real-life music’, if it is music at all – is fully embedded within the orchestral fabric. The ‘literal’ sound of the sewing machine finds orchestral amplification in the sautillé triplets of the second violins and violas, and in the same rhythm in the military drum (played with sponge-headed sticks). Perhaps more significantly, Charpentier provides these rhythmic effects with topical backup from the first violins, whose arpeggiated figure is surely modelled on the numerous musical sewing machines and spinning wheels depicted in earlier nineteenth-century songs and operas.Footnote 64 Charpentier’s sewing machine does not, then, sound simply as itself, an audible equivalent of those ‘real scissors’. Rather, it participates in a more thoroughly orchestrated sewing-machine effect, contributing to a timbral combination that in turn entails the musicalization of the machine. Indeed, that musicalization gears up before the machine enters, as Charpentier has evoked this ultra-repetitive sound world – has already set his operatic sewing motif in motion – at the very start of the scene, with the arpeggiated ‘sewing’ figure in the violins. What is more, the military drum began its domesticated tattoo at the start of the preceding orchestral interlude, fully 138 bars earlier (see Example 2). The sewing machine itself is absent from the interlude; but the crisply articulated rhythm of the drum – as close to the timbre of a sewing machine’s clack as any standard orchestral instrument could get – is again accompanied by sautillé second violins and violas, again playing triplets. Meanwhile the harps’ arpeggiated triplet figures prepare the way for the more obviously topical ‘sewing’ reference in the violins’ later sextuplets. While Louise’s very first audiences could not have known during this interlude that the curtain would shortly rise to reveal a sewing machine on stage, that moment of unveiling was surely important: the sewing machine appears as a physical manifestation of what has already been heard; an established convention of musical representation meets its catalyst and material index; two realities collide.
There is, though, more to unpack here. This musical foreshadowing of the sound of the sewing machine raises two important questions. The first relates to what the sewing machine is doing in Charpentier’s score. Its onstage presence is evidently rooted in Carré’s realist mise en scène; but why provide for its mechanical contribution to the score – or, to turn this around, why pre-empt a small sonic coup de théâtre with long-established (even old-fashioned) musical gestures that render the machine itself redundant? A second question concerns the relationship between Charpentier’s two ‘hearings’ of the sewing machine in this scene:Footnote 65 within this operatic context, can one be heard as more real – or more ‘realist’ – than the other? And what is the significance of such doubled semantic labour; what might the apparent need for it suggest about opera’s capacity for realism in 1900?
Perhaps here, at last, we approach an affordance particular to opera. Perhaps we can productively refigure the musical workings of realism in opera precisely around the slippage between ‘realist’ and ‘realistic’ that dominated critical discourse about Louise in 1900 and after. As should by now be clear, that same slippage is rendered audible in the scene outlined above. Charpentier’s music was heard simultaneously as ‘real music’ and ‘dismantled music’ – as a lively, skilfully constructed musical tableau and a scene from which genuine music was absent. As such, his sewing machine encapsulates what separates music most decisively and provocatively from literature or visual art. Whereas Frye could label literary realism ‘an art of implied simile’ and Herbert sees in Courbet’s late works the painter’s ‘predilection for matching world to canvas’, Charpentier’s doubly sounding sewing machine undermines any attempt to distinguish between representation and what is represented. The sewing machine sounds both as itself – like the bells in Act 3 of Tosca, which Arman Schwartz memorably describes as ‘simply, stupidly, real’Footnote 66 – and simultaneously as what is like itself. One could even say, thinking back to Frye and his demarcation of realism’s similes and myth’s metaphors, that music has no equivalent for those two figures of speech. Representation in music cannot differentiate between a sound that is like another sound and a sound that is being used, significantly, in the place of another sound – indeed, the representation in music of ‘external’ sounds will always entail both a listener’s recognition of meaningful similarity and their willingness to derive significance from the distance opened up by the substitution of one sound for another.
To put this another way, operatic music (indeed, any music understood as in some way representational) can incorporate ‘real’ sounds alongside operatic ones: sounds – such as the clacking of a sewing machine, no matter how rhythmically precise – not considered proper to the musical context in which they appear. Unlike Courbet’s depiction in paint of aspects of the real world that already look like his artistic medium (with Frye’s realist simile operating in reverse), Charpentier’s sewing machine remains a sewing machine even when it is assigned its own musical stave and woven into the operatic fabric. Yet the fact that the composer incorporated the machine alongside a more conventional musical representation of its sound suggests that the materially ‘real’ was somehow insufficient, perhaps even inaudible in an operatic context. To repeat: Charpentier’s orchestrally amplified machine sounds both as itself and as a representation of itself; a material artefact of the fin-de-siècle quotidian collides with the established conventions of representation and expression that constitute opera’s own ‘real world’.
Heard thus, it is just possible that Louise might, after all, satisfy one of the major demands made by Dahlhaus in his attempt to grapple with a mode of realism proper to nineteenth-century music in a book mentioned at the beginning of this article. In one of the finest moments in his problematic Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music, Dahlhaus insisted that, ‘What is decisive for the concept of realism is not the kind of reality alone – the street cry, the speech intonation, or the overpowering emotional expression undiluted by any stylization: it is also the form which shatters an aesthetic norm for the sake of reality.’Footnote 67 There is little question that Charpentier’s uncannily doubled sewing machine and his gradually disintegrating tenor serenade constitute some kind of stepping away from conventional operatic practice in 1900 – some kind of reaching beyond the operatic stage. Yet one can hardly claim that Charpentier’s first opera sustains this unconventionality elsewhere, constituting the radical rebirth of opéra comique that a few of its more hopeful early critics implied.Footnote 68 For commentators both in 1900 and more recently, Louise’s score as a whole is too bound to operatic convention fully to merit the realist epithet. Even Emmanuel, we might recall, argued that although Louise offered ‘admirable examples – perhaps the first real models, in the theatre – of real life in music, it is by no means an entirely realist work. Far from it: convention abounds in it’ (see above, note 36).
As these and other comments like them make clear, the relationship between realism and conventionality is crucial, even while it is most often negatively defined. Indeed, Louise’s basic conventionality and its consequent failure to attain the standards of aesthetic watershed expected by Dahlhaus make explicit realism’s modernist credentials, both among music critics in 1900 and in recent humanities scholarship. There is little space in a putatively realist canon for more reactionary cultural products, for a realism that might also be regressive or even outmoded: realism, it seems, must turn on the twin axes of aesthetic novelty and revolution. It is all the more thought-provoking, then, that – as mentioned at the start of this article – by the time Louise was premièred in 1900, realism was no longer self-consciously cutting edge in either French literature or visual art. It was nearly half a century since Flaubert had weathered the storm whipped up by Madame Bovary; Zola published the first novel in his monumental Rougon-Macquart cycle in 1871; and Manet, whose Olympia had scandalized the 1865 Salon and who had subsequently been excluded from the 1867 Exposition Universelle, was awarded the Légion d’Honneur – that ultimate signifier of French institutional acceptance – in 1881, two years before his death.
In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that some of Charpentier’s most persistent early detractors criticized his importation of realism into opera not only on the grounds of aesthetic incompatibility, but also because his attempt to be radical was so old-fashioned. As Lalo put it in Le temps: ‘I regret that he remains attached – with a predilection fifteen years behind the times – to a form of art as dead as naturalism.’Footnote 69 Worse still, Lalo insisted that Louise’s Act 2 bohemians were half a century out of date, emerging from what the critic identified as ‘a mixture of Murger and Félix Pyat’.Footnote 70 We might also recall that bohemian Montmartre was largely non-existent by the time Louise was premièred: its avant-garde artistic scene – to which Charpentier was drawn in his youth – had largely moved elsewhere. Tourists arrived on the Butte in ever growing numbers. As in other bohemian-Paris operas written in the 1890s, the supposedly realist representation of the city in Louise was strongly marked by nostalgia; its strong sentimental undertone engaged an enormous, socially diverse audience over many decades in France. What is more, it is possible to trace in the opera’s continued popularity into the mid-twentieth century a gradual easing of the tension between the real and the ideal, the two concepts that Bruneau had identified as fundamental to Charpentier’s work. From the vantage point of 1931, for instance, one journalist was inspired by Louise to write at length about the changing ‘sounds of the modern city’: those of his own age were ‘the sounds of the trams, the horns of buses and of cars’; those of Charpentier’s were dominated by street cries – cries that, he marvelled, the composer had ‘reproduced as precisely as possible’.Footnote 71 In some sense, then, Louise appeared an ever more realistic portrayal of Paris in 1900 the further its audiences were removed from that time and place. By the early 1930s, the opera’s nostalgic image of the fin-de-siècle city had become indistinguishable from a widely mythologized Parisian past reality.
None of this needs to detract from the ways in which Louise can still stimulate new ideas – can still disrupt our epistemological categories. Indeed, the opera’s continued popularity and regular staging until the mid-twentieth century can suggest one final historiographical provocation. As it continued to be staged, broadcast on the radio and disseminated via gramophone recordings, Louise was repeatedly cut, modified and otherwise adjusted to suit changing circumstances. More often than not, Charpentier himself carried out these adaptations: his enthusiasm for creating technologically remediated versions of his only box-office hit was another manifestation of a rampant technophilia that led him to own no fewer than four radio sets.Footnote 72 But one cut that was not authorized by Charpentier was apparently common during the First World War: the second tableau of Act 2 – that of the atelier, the sewing machine and the serenade – was an operatic casualty of the need for shorter running times so that audiences could return home on the final metro train. As a ‘picturesque episode’ (‘épisode pittoresque’), André Himonet explained in his 1922 study, the scene could be cut without difficulty; the omission became ‘almost mandatory’ (‘presque du règle’).Footnote 73 In complete contrast to the proximity of Charpentier’s street cries and the Paris of Louise’s première imagined by one journalist in 1931, Himonet dismissed the passages in which I have attempted to uncover new possibilities for an operatic take on realism as merely picturesque – as ultimately dispensable in times of operatic encounter with the all-too-real exigencies of modern life.