Nineteenth-century French opera is renowned for its obsession with “the exotic”—that is, with lands and peoples either located far away from “us” Western Europeans or understood as being very different from us. One example: hyper-passionate Spaniards and “Gypsies” in Bizet’s Carmen. Most discussions of the role that the exotic plays in nineteenth-century French opera focus on a few standard-repertory works (mainly serious in nature), rather than looking at a wider range of significant works performed at the time in various theaters, e.g., the Opéra, the Opéra-Comique, and Offenbach’s Bouffes-Parisiens.
The present article attempts to survey the repertory broadly. Part 1 examines various “different” (or Other) lands and peoples frequently represented on stage in French operas. Part 2 discusses typical plots and character types found in these operas (sometimes regardless of the particular exotic land that was chosen) and concludes by exploring the musical means that were often employed to impel the drama and to convey the specific qualities of the people or ethnic group being represented (as a community—through chorus and authority figures—and through the feelings and actions of individual characters). These musical means could include special or unusual traits: either all-purpose style markers of the exotic generally (oddities, one might say) or more specific style markers associated with an identifiable people or region (e.g., tunes, rhythms, and other devices understood as signaling one particular region). But the musical means could also include any of the rich fund of devices that opera composers normally used when creating drama and defining character: melodic, harmonic, structural, and so on. This last point is often neglected or misunderstood in discussions of “the exotic in music,” which tend instead to focus primarily on elements that indisputably “point to” (as if semiotically) the specific land or people that the work is seeking to evoke or represent.
In both Parts 1 and 2, instances are chosen from works that were often quite successfully performed at the time in French-speaking regions and that, even if little known today, can at least be consulted through recordings or videos. The works come from the standard recognized operatic genres: e.g., five-act grands opéras, three-act opéras-comiques, and short works in bouffe style. Composers whose works are mentioned, or discussed in some detail, include (among others) Adam, Auber, Berlioz, Bizet, Chabrier, Clapisson, Félicien David, Delibes, Flotow, Gomis, Gounod, Halévy, Messager, Meyerbeer, Hippolyte Monpou, Offenbach, Ernest Reyer, Saint-Saëns, Ambroise Thomas, and Verdi (Les vêpres siciliennes, Don Carlos).
Examining certain lesser-known works reveals merits that have gone relatively unheralded. As for the better-known works, approaching them in this wide-angled way grants us a richer appreciation of their strengths and their often-enlivening internal contradictions.