When Albert Carré became the director of the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1898, he did so with the goal of rejuvenating French lyric theater. He also took possession of a national institution in a state of flux. The Opéra-Comique had a new hall and a new mandate, and it had recently become the focus of debates in the press about what role the city’s second national lyric theater should play in French culture. Although debates initially revolved around opera, Carré’s plans for renewal included ballet, not seen at the Opéra-Comique for over a century.
This article discusses the role ballet played in promoting Carré’s artistic objectives. At first glance the theater’s repertoire appears to be at odds with Carré’s progressive ideals. The Opéra-Comique staged only one innovative ballet, Le Cygne (1899)—a pop-culture-inflected mythological parody by Catulle Mendès, Charles Lecocq, and Madame Mariquita. Carré then turned to staging old-fashioned pantomime-ballets, confining innovative dances to divertissements in operas.
The reasons for Carré’s repertoire decisions can, I argue, be found in the reception of Le Cygne. Carré’s initial ballet was highly contested, and critics’ arguments mirrored ongoing press debates about ballet’s value and place in French culture. I contend that Carré’s initial modernist ballet, and his shift to mixing conventional pantomime-ballets with modern opera divertissements in response to the contentious reception of Le Cygne, were part of a calculated attempt to establish the Opéra-Comique as an emblematic French national theater that was simultaneously a museum and a progressive space for modern innovation.