The History of an Opera-Comique

By Camille Saint-Saens.

Young musicians often complain, and not without reason, of the difficulties of their careers. It may, perhaps, be useful to remind them that their elders have not always had beds of roses, and that too often they have had to breast both wind and sea after spending their best years in port, unable to make a start. These obstacles frequently are the result of the worst sort of malignity, when it is for the best interest of everyone—both of the theatres which rebuff them, and the public which ignores them—that they be permitted to set out under full sail.

In 1864 one of the most brilliant of the reviews had the following comments to make on this subject:

Our real duty—and it is a true kindness—is not to encourage them (beginners) but to discourage them. In art a vocation is everything, and a vocation needs no one, for God aids. What use is it to encourage them and their efforts when the public obstinately refuses to pay any attention to them? If an act is ordered from one of them, it fails to go. Two or three years later the same thing is tried again with the same result. No theatre, even if it were four times as heavily subsidized as the Theatre-Lyrique, could continue to exist on such resources. So the result is that they turn to accredited talent and call on such men from outside as Gounod, Felicien David and Victor Masse. The younger composers at once shout treason and scandal. Then, they select masterpieces by Mozart and Weber and there are the same outcries and recriminations. In the final analysis where are these young composers of genius? Who are they and what are their names? Let them go to the orchestra and hear Le Nozze di Figaro, Oberon, Freischutz and Orphee ...  we are doing something for them by placing such models before them.

The young composers who were thus politely invited to be seated included, among others, Bizet, Delibes, Massenet, and the writer of these lines. Massenet and I would have been satisfied with writing a ballet for the Opera. He proposed the Rat Catcher from an old German tale, while I proposed Une nuit de Cleopatra on the text of Theophile Gautier. They refused us the honor, and, when they consented to order a ballet from Delibes, they did not dare to trust him with the whole work.  They let him do only one act and the other was given to a Hungarian composer. As the experiment succeeded, they allowed Delibes to write, without assistance, his marvelous Coppelia. But Delibes had the legitimate ambition of writing a grand opera. He never reached so far.

Bizet and I were great friends and we told each other all our troubles.  “You’re less unfortunate than I am,” he used to tell me. “You can do something besides things for the stage. I can’t. That’s my only resource.”

When Bizet put on the delightful Pecheurs de Perles--he was helped by powerful influences—there was a general outcry and an outbreak of abuse. The Devil himself straight from Hell would not have received a worse reception. Later on, as we know, Carmen was received in the same way.

I was, indeed, able to do something beside work for the stage, and it was just that which closed the stage to me. I was a writer of symphonies, an organist and a pianist, so how could I be capable of writing an opera! The qualities which go to make a pianist were in a particularly bad light in the greenroom. Bizet played the piano admirably, but he never dared to play in public for fear of making his position worse.

I suggested to Carvalho that I write a Macbeth for Madame Viardot.  Naturally enough he preferred to put on Verdi’s Macbeth. It was an utter failure and cost him thirty thousand francs.

They tried to interest a certain princess, a patron of the arts, in my behalf. “What,” she replied, “isn’t he satisfied with his position? He plays the organ at the Madeleine and the piano at my house. Isn’t that enough for him?”

But that wasn’t enough for me, and to overcome the obstacles, I caused a scandal. At the age of twenty-eight I competed for the Prix de Rome!  They did not give it to me on the ground that I didn’t need it, but the day after the award, Auber, who was very fond of me, asked Carvalho for a libretto for me. Carvalho gave me Le Timbre d’Argent, which he didn’t know what to do with as several musicians had refused to touch it. There were good reasons for this, for, despite an excellent foundation for the music, the libretto had serious faults. I demanded that Barbier and Carre, the authors, should make important changes, which they did at once. Then, I retired to the heights of Louveciennes and in two months wrote the score of the five acts which the work had at first.

I had to wait two years before Carvalho would consent to hear the music.  Finally, worn out by my importunities, they decided to get rid of me, so Carvalho invited me to dine with him and to bring my score. After dinner I went to the piano. Carvalho was on one side and Madame Carvalho on the other. Both were very pleasant and charming, but the real meaning of this friendliness did not escape me.

They had no doubts about what awaited them. Both really loved music and little by little they fell under the spell. Serious attention succeeded the false friendliness. At the end they were enthusiastic. Carvalho declared that he would have the study of the work begun as soon as possible; it was a masterpiece; it would have a great success, but to assure this success, Madame Carvalho must sing the principal part.

Now the principal part in Le Timbre d’Argent is that of a dancer and the singer’s part is greatly subordinate. To remedy this they decided to develop the part. Barbier invented a pretty situation to bring in the passage Bonheur est chose legere, but that wasn’t enough. Barbier and Carre racked their brains without finding any solution of the difficulty, for on the stage as elsewhere there are problems that can’t be solved.

Between times they tried to find a dancer of the first rank. Finally, they found one who had recently left the Opera, although still at the height of her beauty and talent. And they continued to seek a way to make the part of Helene worthy of Madame Carvalho.

The famous director had one mania. He wanted to collaborate in every work he staged. Even a work hallowed by time and success had to bear his mark; much greater were his reasons for interpolating in a new work.  He would announce brusquely that the period or the country in which the action of the work took place must be changed. He tormented us for a long time to make the dancer into a singer on his wife’s account. Later, he wanted to introduce a second dancer. With the exception of the prologue and epilogue the action of the piece takes place in a dream, and he took upon himself the invention of the most bizarre combinations.  He even proposed to me one day to introduce wild animals. Another time he wanted to cut out all the music with the exception of the choruses and the dancer’s part, and have the rest played by a dramatic company.  Later, as they were rehearsing Hamlet at the Opera and it was rumored that Mlle. Nilsson was going to play a water scene, he wanted Madame Carvalho to go to the bottom of a pool to find the fatal bell.

Foolishness of this kind took up two years.

Finally, we gave up the idea of Mme. Carvalho’s cooeperation. The part of Helene was given to beautiful Mlle. Schroeder and the rehearsals began.  They were interrupted by the failure of the Theatre-Lyrique.

Shortly afterwards Perrin asked for Le Timbre d’Argent for the Opera.  The adaptation of the work for the large stage at the Opera necessitated important modifications. The whole of the dialogue had to be set to music and the authors went to work on it. Perrin gave us Madame Carvalho for Helene and Faure for Spiridion, but he wanted to burlesque the part for the tenor and give it to Mlle. Wertheimber. He wanted to engage her and had no other part for her. This was impossible. After several discussions Perrin yielded to the obstinate refusals of the authors, but I saw clearly from his attitude that he would never play our work.

About that time du Locle took over the management of the Opera-Comique.  He saw that Perrin, who was his uncle, had decided not to stage Le Timbre d’Argent and asked me for it.

This meant another metamorphosis for the work and new and considerable work for the musician. And this work was by no means easy. Until this time Barbier and Carre had been as close friends as Orestes and Pylades, but now they had a falling out. What one proposed, the other systematically refused. One lived in Paris; the other in the country. I went from Paris to the country and from the country to Paris trying to get these warring brothers to agree. This going to and fro lasted all summer, and then the temporary enemies came to an understanding and became as friendly as ever.

We seemed to be nearly at the end of our troubles. Du Locle had found a wonderful dancer in Italy on whom we depended, but the dancer turned out not to be one at all. She was a mime, and did not dance.

As there was no time to look for another dancer that season du Locle, to keep me patient, had me write with Louis Gallet La Princesse Jaune, with which I made my debut on the stage. I was thirty-five! This harmless little work was received with the fiercest hostility. “It is impossible to tell,” wrote Jouvin, a much feared critic of the time, “in what key or in what time the overture is written.” And to show me how utterly wrong I was, he told me that the public was “a compound of angles and shadows.” His prose was certainly more obscure than my music.

Finally, a real dancer was engaged in Italy. It seemed as though nothing more could prevent the appearance of the unfortunate Timbre. “I can’t believe it,” I said. “Some catastrophe will put us off again.”

War came!

When that frightful crisis was at an end, the dancer was re-engaged. The parts were read to the artists, and the next day Amede Achard threw up his role, declaring that it belonged to grand opera and was beyond the powers of an opera-comique tenor. It is well known that he ended his career at the Opera.

Another tenor had to be found, but tenors are rare birds and we were unable to get one. To use the dancer he had engaged du Locle had Gallet and Guiraud improvise a short act, Le Kobold, which met with great success. The dancer was exquisite. Then du Locle lost interest in Le Timbre d’Argent and then came the failure of the Opera-Comique.

During all these tribulations I was preparing Samson, although I could find no one who even wanted to hear me speak of it. They all thought that I must be mad to attempt a Biblical subject. I gave a hearing of the second act at my house, but no one understood it at all.  Without the aid of Liszt, who did not know a note of it, but who engaged me to finish it and put it on at Weimar, Samson. would never have seen the light. Afterwards it was refused in succession by Halanzier, Vaucorbeil, and Ritt and Gailhard, who decided to take it only after they had heard it sung by that admirable singer Rosine Bloch.

But to return to Le Timbre d’Argent. I was again on the street with my score under my arm. About that time Vizentini revived the Theatre-Lyrique. His first play was Paul et Virginie, a wonderful success, and he was preparing for the close of the season another work which he liked. They were kindly disposed to me at the Ministry of Fine Arts and they interested themselves in my misfortunes. So they gave the Theatre-Lyrique a small subsidy on condition that they play my work. I came to the theatre as one who has meddled and I quickly recognized the discomforts of my position. First, there was a search for a singer; then, for a tenor, and they tried several without success. I found a tenor who, according to all reports, was of the first rank, but, after several days of negotiation, the matter was dropped. I learned later from the artist that the manager intended to engage him for only four performances, evidently planning that the work should be played only four times.

The choice finally fell on Blum. He had a fine voice, and was a perfect singer but no actor. Indeed he said he didn’t want to be an actor; his ideal was to appear in white gloves. Each day brought new bickering.  They made cuts despite my wishes; they left me at the mercy of the insubordination and rudeness of the stage manager and the ballet master, who would not listen to my most modest suggestions. I had to pay the cost of extra musicians in the wings myself. Some stage settings which I wanted for the prologue were declared impossible—I have seen them since in the Tales of Hoffman.

Furthermore, the orchestra was very ordinary. There had to be numerous rehearsals which they did not refuse me, but they took advantage of them to spread the report that my music was unplayable. A young journalist who is still alive (I will not name him) wrote two advance notices which were intended to pave the way for the failure of my work.

At the last moment the director saw that he had been on the wrong tack and that he might have a success. As they had played fairyland in the theatre in the Square des-Arts-et-Metiers, he had at hand all the needed material to give me a luxurious stage-setting without great expense.  Mlle. Caroline Salla was given the part of Helene. With her beauty and magnificent voice she was certainly remarkable. But the passages which had been written for the light high soprano of Madame Carvalho were poorly adapted for a dramatic soprano. They concluded, therefore, that I didn’t know how to write vocal music.

In spite of everything the work was markedly successful, the natural result of a splendid performance in which two stars—Melchissedech and Mlle. Adeline Theodore, at present teacher of dancing at the Opera—shone.

Poor Vizentini! His opinion of me has changed greatly since that time.  We were made to understand and love each other, so he has become, with years, one of my best and most devoted friends. He first produced my ballet Javotte at the Grand-Theatre in Lyons, which the Monnaie in Brussels had ordered and then refused. He had dreams of directing the Opera-Comique and installing Le Timbre d’Argent there. Fate willed otherwise.

We have seen how the young French school was encouraged under the Empire. The situation has improved and the old state of affairs has never returned. But we find more than the analogy between the old point of view and the one that was revealed not long ago when the French musicians complained that they were more or less sacrificed in favor of their foreign contemporaries. At bottom it is the same spirit in a modified form.

To resume. As everyone knows, the way to become a blacksmith is by working at a forge. Sitting in the shade does not give the experience which develops talent. We should never have known the great days of the Italian theatre, if Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi had had to undergo our regime. If Mozart had had to wait until he was forty to produce his first opera, we should never have had Don Giovanni or Le Nozze di Figaro, for Mozart died at thirty-five.

The policy imposed on Bizet and Delibes certainly deprived us of several works which would now be among the glories of the repertoire at the Opera and the Opera-Comique. That is an irreparable misfortune; one which we cannot sufficiently deplore.



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