Abstract

French grand opera relied heavily on historical sources for its stories, settings, and characters. This article reexamines why representations of the past captivated Parisian audiences. For these spectators, history was not just a purely factual discourse about what happened centuries ago, it was also a social phenomenon. As such, grand opera's appropriation of historical subjects depended on new social spaces formed by new patterns in text production and consumption. When these spaces first emerged, historical grand opera became socially feasible, and as they were transformed, the genre began to wane. Focusing on Auber's La Muette de Portici, this article reconsiders the emergence of historical grand opera in terms of such material conditions of possibility. It then outlines how new material conditions in the middle decades of the nineteenth century reshaped attitudes toward operatic history, drawing on the historical materialist philosophy of Walter Benjamin to clarify the effects of these social and technological changes.

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