by Nicholas Sheets, dramaturg
Within The Phantom of the Opera there are three operas: Hannibal, Il Muto, and Don Juan. While these are fictional operas, they illustrate the pompous and elaborate stagings of the French Grand Opera during the 19th century. Just take a look at the costumes and sets:
French Grand Opera began in 1828 with the opera La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) by Daniel Auber. Within this five-act show there was a ballet scene, romantic passion set in historical contexts, and the use of spectacular staging effects. Also worth noting is the first production of this opera was performed in the Paris Opera House, or known officially at the time as “Académie Royale de Musique.” Later, in 1858, an attempt was made on the life of Napoleon III when he arrived at the Paris Opera to see Rosini’s William Tell, and plans were subsequently made for an opera house where the emperor and his wife could enter and exit safely.
French Grand Opera reached its “Golden Age between 1830 and 1850. In fact, an opera mentioned during the auction scene of The Phantom of the Opera is Robert, le diable by Meyerbeer, originally performed in the Paris Opera House in 1831.
This was one of the most iconic grand operas ever performed. In fact, Frederic Chopin who saw the premiere, exclaimed, ““If ever magnificence was seen in the theatre, I doubt that it reached the level of splendour shown in Robert… It is a masterpiece… Meyerbeer has made himself immortal” (http://www.roh.org.uk).
The French Grand Opera is not usually performed today because of the lavish costumes, elaborate sets, and full orchestras involved. Economic factors of today make shows more prone to budget cuts than budget expansions. However, according to Professor Sarah Hibbard, at the University of Nottingham, studying 19th century French Grand Opera is important for understanding political and social issues of 19th century France. Here’s a video published by ArtPoint:
Erik the Phantom is raised in this culture, and when we as an audience see The Phantom of the Opera, we are returning to that era when lavish costumes were the norm, the scenery elaborate, and ballet dancers essential.