2012-2013 Season,  Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom’s World of French Grand Opera

by Nicholas Sheets, dramaturg

Within The Phantom of the Opera there are three operasHannibal, 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:

Japan's Version of Il Muto
Japan’s Version of Il Muto

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.

Original Paris Opera House
Salle Le Pelletier, which housed the Paris Opera in the 1850’s

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.

Robert le Diable Ballet Scene by Degas
Robert le Diable Ballet Scene by Degas

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.





  • L. Weaver

    A nice article, however I have a few comments I’d like to make.

    Each of the parody operas in Phantom are representative of different genres of opera. Of the three, only Hannibal is truly homage to grand opera, as it deals with a historical subject. (Il Muto represents the more classical “opera buffa” popular in the late 18th century, while Don Juan Triumphant anticipates the intense chromaticism and the early breakdown of tonality that came with the turn of the century.)

    That picture labelled “the original Paris Opera” is actually a depiction of the Salle le Pelletier, which was at least the second or third building to house the “Paris Opera” and is, by no means, the “original.”
    Additionally, the Paris Opera’s name has changed frequently throughout its long history, at least once every decade. At the time of the La muette de Portici’s premiere, it was actually called the Académie Royale de Musique, if I recall correctly. It did not become the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra until the 1850s, under Napoleon III.

    Lastly, a few miscellaneous issues: The photo of Il Muto isn’t necessarily “Japan’s version” as most all professional performances of Phantom are replica productions and therefore essentially identical to all others in the world. Also, the Phantom’s name is spelled “Erik”

    But all in all, this is a subject highly relevant to Phantom of the Opera.

  • nesheets

    L. Weaver. Thank you for your comments. I highly value your insight and thank you for pointing out things I wasn’t aware of. Happy Holidays!

    • L. Weaver

      Opera in Paris is a hobby of mine. It gets bewilderingly complicated. I’m still massaging my head. But it’s a good article!

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