Founded by entrepreneur and mélomane Castelbon de Beauxhostes in 1898, the Festival des Arènes de Béziers was an annual festival of lyric theater that featured important premieres by major French composers, including Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré, Henri Rabaud, and Déodat de Séverac. Performances were held in this Mediterranean town's modern, open-air bull-fighting arena and initially featured works inspired by Greek myths that were played in front of audiences that regularly exceeded ten thousand spectators.
This article, which draws extensively upon unpublished archival material and contemporaneous press reports, examines the origins, challenges, and decline of this unlikely cultural and musical enterprise. Located far from the center of French theatrical activity, the Béziers festival was implicated in the contentious fin-de-siècle debates over cultural decentralization and regional identity and was criticized from the outset for not sufficiently adopting a regionalist mandate of highlighting local history, culture, and traditions. Further tensions were generated as a result of the contrasting expectations of elite and popular audiences and the concomitant aesthetic issues related to writing works intended to function as mass entertainment. This article argues that the Béziers festival gradually moved away from the elitism associated with modernized Hellenism (featured in the works by Saint-Saëns and Fauré) and gradually programmed works that were ostensibly friendlier to regionalists and local audiences alike (Rabaud and de Séverac). Finally, this article highlights the crucial role of the Félibres, a cultural and political group dedicated to valorizing southern regional identity, in advocating these changes and examines the unique nature of the works performed at Béziers in light of competing theatrical trends of this period.