“As the Parisian bourgeois class rode the waves of ‘new money’ created by the Industrial Revolution, the city became the ‘Capital of the Nineteenth Century’. In the middle years of the century, Paris came alive with spectacular sideshows, demonstrations and inventions which sought to expand the possibilities of human perception and experience. These new possibilities were exploited to the full in the creation of the genre of Grand Opéra.
Grand Opéra came about through a confluence of economic, political, and cultural circumstances, and flourished for a few decades. It created a new star in Giacomo Meyerbeer, and attracted Berlioz to undertake his most ambitious creation, The Trojans. Although Wagner found inspiration in the genre, he became its fiercest critic, accusing its creators of indulging in empty spectacle for commercial gain. As a result, this world of Grand Opéra is obscure to most music-lovers today.
Should we accept Grand Opéra’s tarnished image? Could it be that rather than empty show, Grand Opéra was invested with meaning and vision in its own terms? Revisionist views of the artform emphasise its attempt to create a spiritual experience that was in tune with contemporary feeling, and its role as a platform in building meaning and value in European cultural life. By looking at the culture of Grand Opéra, we can find a fresh appreciation for the optimistic spirit which created the glories of Nineteenth Century culture.”
After an active career as arts bureaucrat, administrator and programmer in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide, James Koehne completed his PhD in musicology. He lectures in music history at the University of Adelaide and is a sought-after writer and speaker on diverse musical topics.