Maria Birbili

Tracking Multimediality in the Creative Process in French grand opéra: The Cases of Meyerbeer and Verdi

In the last 20 years, opera research has extended the field’s scope beyond the analysis of notated scores and the study of musical sketches, by incorporating the consideration of libretto sketches and research on historical staging in the field of musicology, besides sheer music. The field of opera research has recently also re- cognized the significance of collaborative relations in the creative process in the genre of opera, as well as the redefinition of the roles of the composer and the performers/singers, documented through both written sources and oral transmission and performance.

My paper will concentrate on the genre of grand opéra, a term not used by the contemporaries in the 19th century, but adopted about a century later by musi- cologists trying to define a particular, complex genre of French opera that flourished in the period between the 1830s and the 1860s. The genre had a later reception in other parts of the world (particularly in Italy and in East Europe), but receded quickly after the birth of the new medium of cinematography, with which it has a lot in common. Grand opéra is notoriously characterized by musical and dramatic complexity, by great realism in the staging, and by multimediality, inclu- ding advanced lighting technology and other techniques that later became known as “special effects’’. Such a complex, multidimensional opera genre requires new ana- lytical tools and new research methods, at the crossroads of analytical musicology.

A misinterpretation of grand opéra initiated in France and Germany in the 1870s as an art interested mainly in achieving “spectacle” was predominantly pro- Wagnerian and anti-Semitic, with the intention to harm the legacy of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Post WWII, with the formerly banned Meyerbeer autograph scores rediscovered in Poland in the 1970s, scholarship and intense research of the pri- mary sources helped to reestablish the facts and to redeem the genre and its main composer. Today we can define grand opéra as the consequence of urbanization and the continuous politicization of French opera since the French Revolution, with a pronounced interest in the visual representation of dramatic action as a tableau rather that per recitative or strictly musically.

My paper will examine the creative process in the genesis of Meyerbeer’s Les Hu- guenots and Verdi’s Don Carlos, and, with the help of newly discovered primary sources from the Paris Bibliothèque de l’Opéra and the Archives Nationales, it will be shown that Meyerbeer was already organizing the staging and the “special effects’’, both instrumental and technically visual, at the earliest stage of conce- ption, when planning the first drafts for the opera with his librettist Eugène Scribe, while even the librettist himself was drafting libretto scenes with visual techniques in mind. I will also demonstrate that Verdi and his librettists based their first drafts for Don Carlos on Meyerbeer’s politicized dramatic techniques in Les Huguenots, a legacy that only recently has began to attract the interest of musicology.


Universität des Saartandes, Germany

She studied piano, voice, French literature at the Sorbonne IV, and musicology and theater studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. After her PhD (Die Politisierung der Oper im 19. Jahrhundert, Frankfurt, Peter Lang, “Per-spektiven der Opernforschung’’ 21, 2014), she has been a Fellow of the Gerda Henkel Stiftung and the DAAD in Italy and in Paris, a chercheur associé at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago, and a collaborator in the critical edition projects for Rossini, Verdi (University of Chicago), and Meyerbeer (Schloß Thurnau). She is currently completing her habilitation in Germany with a second book on Rossini’s Italian operas that will go to print soon. Publications predomi- nantly on French and Italian opera of the 19th and 18th century.