“French Opera during the Time of the Sun King:
An Interdisciplinary Course on the Libretti of Quinault and Music of Lully.”*
Louise Thomas & John Boitano
A brief survey of French/French studies programs at major universities in the United States such as Yale University, Princeton University and Columbia University does not yield a single class offering on French opera at either the undergraduate or graduate levels. Baroque Age operas, however, were far more popular in terms of audience attendance and yearlong staging than the most famous plays of Corneille, Molière, and Racine. Moreover, the operas of Lully and Quinault combined lyrical poetry with ballet and intricate machines and staging to produce some of the most sumptuous spectacles of the old regime. As the King’s librettist, Quinault earned a royal pension greater than any other author of his time. After the tremendous success and subsequent querelle d’ Alceste, La Fontaine aspired to the coveted position. From literary, historical, sociological and musical standpoints, a course on French opera clearly needs to become part of the undergraduate and graduate canon of the French studies curriculum. Perhaps the need for the instructor to master both the poetics and musicality of French Baroque Age opera is the greatest impediment to the offering of such a class. Yet the revivals of these operas by William Christie of Les Arts Florissants with his 1986 production of Atys as well as subsequent productions widely available on DVD with multi-lingual subtitles (Cadmus et Hermione, Atys, Persée, Armide, and Bellérophon) provide the instructor with the basic material to teach a course on Baroque Age opera by allowing students to experience the spectacles within their intended stage format. Many of these operatic masterpieces are also available on YouTube. Each chapter of Buford Norman’s book titled Touched by the Graces: The Libretti of Philippe Quinault in the Context of French Classicism (Summa Publications, 2001) contains an insightful overview and literary and musical analysis of each of Lully and Quinault’s operas. Moreover, Norman’s analysis allows students, and perhaps more importantly instructors, without any musical background, to understand both the poetic and musical signification of Lully’s and Quinault’s operas. This presentation will provide a nuts and bolts approach to the curricular development and actual teaching of such a class by explaining and illustrating the fundamental concepts of Baroque Age opera such as the French overture style, aria or air, and récitatif so that instructors can more easily develop and teach their own version of the class. If time permits, we hope to include a live student vocal and musical performance of an aria.
* Presented at annual conference of The Society for Interdisciplinary French Seventeenth-Century Studies (SE17) at California State University Long Beach, November 2013.