Opéra comique: Wikis


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Opéra comique (pl., opéras comiques) is a genre of opéra that contains spoken dialogue, and sometimes recitatives, in addition to arias. It emerged out of the popular opéra comiques en vaudevilles of the Fair Theatres of St Germain and St Laurent (and to a lesser extent the Comédie-Italienne),[1] which combined existing popular tunes with spoken sections. Associated with the same name Paris theatre, Opéra-Comique, opéra comique is, despite its name, not always comic or light in nature—indeed, Carmen, likely the most famous opéra comique, is a tragedy. It is sometimes confused with 18th-century French version of the Italian opera buffa, in French known as opéra bouffon (different again from the 19th century opéra bouffe).[2 ]

Carmen Poster: likely the most famous opéra comique.




Early Beginnings

Opéra comique was born from small fair theater performances in the early 18th Century. These fairs were presented to the people and therefore verged on the vulgar. Poking fun at public officials to the larger theaters,[1] they performed their plays to popular songs which connected well with the audience. The composers drew things from French heritage but also drew from foreign places, which added appeal for other countries [1]. Their satires about political figures and their risqué performances did not earn opéra comique a good name within the court. Louis XIV tried to put them down by signing several ordinances against them and even boosting other theaters in the hope that they would create more public appeal than the producers of opéras comiques.

Rise of Opéra-comique

When Louis died in 1715, opéra comique was ‘legitimized’ and was left to flourish.[3] Not only did the Crown want to get rid of opéra comique and the fair theaters, but the more substantial theaters, like the Comédie-Française, wished their competition ill. They didn’t know when they banned speaking in the fairs, they “unwittingly promoted the ingenious dodge of a comedy sung to popular songs, which then became a far more potent rival that what had preceded it.” [4]


There were many “hybrids” that formed from opéra comique. Jacques Offenbach, a composer of that time, “lamented the hybrid forms, leaning more towards the traditions of grand opéra, which had seduced several composers away from the pure traditions of opéra comique and which he regarded as a stream that had turned into a river and subsequently burst its banks.” [1] Some of these “hybrids” were “comedie, comédie lyrique, comedie-parade, opéra bouffon, drame lyrique. … [and] comédie mêlée d'ariettes[5]



The terminology is seriously disputed, which makes it difficult to define opéra comique in itself. Some sources claimed that opéra comique is quite literal in the sense that it is a comic opéra ,[6], and some sources that say Bizet’s Carmen is the most famous of opéras comiques and Carmen is definitely not comic.[2 ] M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet and Richard Langham Smith, authors of the article Opéra comique found on Grove Music Online, suggest that opéras comiques were parodies and were quite comic until around the 19th Century, where they came to have more grave content. However, they all agree that opéra comique is not to be confused with opéra bouffon, another genre of opéra.[1]

Foyer of the present day Opéra-Comique

Identification Problems

Another definition given is that of the pieces being named opéras comiques only because they were performed at the theater Opéra-Comique.[1] One problem with correctly identifying opéras comiques was that composers would often write down the wrong performance date, or even not write a date down at all.[7] They would also frequently mislabel their pieces [8] Sometimes they would even make up a genre for their piece, calling it a ‘ “roman musical”, “complainte”, [or] “fantaisie lyrique” ’ [1] Bartlet and Smith further argue that there were many pieces that were labeled opéras-comiques only because they had spoken dialogue , giving examples like Bizet’s Carmen and Gounod’s Faust. They also state that conversely, there were pieces that were never labeled opéras comiques.

Defining Features

In the eighteenth century opéra comique consisted of spoken dialogue, satire, and accompanied by well-known vaudevilles. The coming of Bizet’s Carmen changed the definition making that distinction between opéras comiques and opéra almost disappear.[2 ]

There were other distinctions between opéra comique and other opéra genres other than having spoken dialogue vs. recitative... Bartlet and Smith discuss the differences between opéra comique' traditions and grand opéra. Grand opéra would be very extravagant in its performances where opéra comique would rarely go to those lengths. Also, “while ballet was de rigueur at the Opéra, it was not at the Opéra-Comique which preferred crowd scenes involving choral writing”. (De rigueur referring to the fashionable necessity or expectancy attached to ballet and the Opéra .) Opéra comique was also unique because it preferred a single leading soprano with a “lighter” supporting soprano where the Opéra preferred having two dominant soprano voices. Opéra comique preferred a lighter male voice as well.[1]

Early Composers

The earliest opéra comique composer, according to Daniel Heartz and John A. Rice in their book, From Garrick to Gluck: Essays on Opéra in the Age of Enlightenment was Alain-René Lesage. He was a leading poet for the fairs for a few decades, but he stuck to the traditional vaudevilles. Two poets rose up to compete. Alexis Piron and Charles Francois Panard were more involved with revolutionizing the infant opéra-comique. They went to “more musical novelty.” [4] The old airs were used less and less and because of that, Lesage wrote Les couplets en procès for the Saint-Germain fair.


Bartlet and Smith say “The mixture of well-known airs, the audience’s interpretation of the couplets (in part informed by the recollection of the original words and an appreciation of the irony resulting from a comparison with the new) and, in the spoken dialogue, [the] witty repartee among the actors (in which improvisation had a significant role)” are some of the reasons why opera comique was so popular. Denise Gallo in her book Opera, The Basics says how opéra comique was very closely tied with the boredom the people had with the current grand opéras.[9] The people had only been exposed to stiff, tragic opéras until the foundation of opéra comique. The difference between the two attracted attention to the lighter opéra comique and made it popular.

Notable examples


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet and Richard Langham Smith. "Opéra comique." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 19 Nov. 2009 http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/43715
  2. ^ a b c John Warrack , Nicholas Temperley "opéra comique" The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford University Press, 2002. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Brigham Young University (BYU). 13 October 2009 http://www.oxfordreference.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t114.e4850
  3. ^ Richard Somerset-Ward, Kiri Te Kanawa The Story of Opera New York : Abrams 1998
  4. ^ a b Daniel Heartz ; John A Rice From Garrick to Gluck : essays on opera in the age of Enlightenment Hillsdale, N.Y. : Pendragon Press 2004
  5. ^ Charlton, David Grétry and the growth of opéra-comique Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press 1986
  6. ^ “Opéra comique.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev. Ed. Michael Kennedy. Oxford Music Online. 18 Nov. 2009 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t237/e7488>.
  7. ^ Nicole Wild and David Charlton. The´aˆtre de l’Ope´ra-Comique Paris: Re´pertoire 1762–1972. Sprimont, Pierre Mardaga, 2005. 552 pp. Pb. Accessed Nov 18, 2009
  8. ^ “Opéra comique.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev. Ed. Michael Kennedy. Oxford Music Online. 18 Nov. 2009 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t237/e7488>.
  9. ^ Gallo, Denise P. Opera : the basics New York : Routledge, 2006

See also

Category:Opéras comiques

Opera Comique
A 1901 postcard of Wych Street, shortly before its demolition
Westminster, London
Designation Demolished
Owned by Sefton Parry
Type Opera house
Opened 1870
Rebuilt 1895 William Emden (?)
Closed 1899
Current use Site occupied by Bush House
Coordinates: 51°30′47″N 0°07′07″W / 51.513056°N 0.118611°W / 51.513056; -0.118611

The Opera Comique was a 19th-century opera house constructed between Wych Street and Holywell Street with entrances on the East Strand. The theatre opened in 1870 and was demolished in 1902, for the construction of the Aldwych and Kingsway. It is perhaps best remembered for hosting several of the early Gilbert and Sullivan operas.



The Opera Comique opened in 1870, followed shortly by construction of the adjoining Globe Theatre in Newcastle Street. It had a seating capacity of 862.[1] The two theatres, both owned by Sefton Parry, were built back to back and called the "Rickety Twins", on the site of the former Lyon's Inn, an old Inn of Chancery, previously belonging to the Inner Temple.[2] The theatre, built partly underground, had three entrances through long narrow tunnels from three streets (including the Strand) and was therefore nicknamed the "Theatre Royal, Tunnels". It was reportedly hastily built and draughty, and its long flight of stairs leading down to the level of the stalls was a dangerous fire hazard. However, it was nicely decorated.[3] Parry built the theatre cheaply, hoping "to make handsome profits in compensation when the area was demolished, which was even then in contemplation".[4]

The theatre was opened with a French company led by the veteran actress Pauline Virginie Déjazet. This was followed by the Parisian company, Comédie-Française, who made the theatre their base during the Franco-Prussian War.[5]

The first home-grown production at the theatre was a musical play in 1871, based on a Molière work, called The Doctor in Spite of Himself, with music by Richard D'Oyly Carte, which was a failure. The theatre then turned to presenting French works in translation; however, the public did not approve of its French name and repertoire, and the theatre was not popular. In 1873, Italian tragedienne Adelaide Ristori appeared there.

In November 1877, however, Carte took on the lease and returned to produce the première of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer, a proudly English comic opera, at the theatre This was followed in 1878 by the patriotic H.M.S. Pinafore (during the performance on 31 July 1879, Carte's former business partners tried to seize the set), which became a nearly unprecedented hit, running for 571 performances. Two more successes followed, The Pirates of Penzance (1880) and, finally, Patience (1881), which was later transferred to Carte's larger new theatre, the Savoy Theatre. During this period, Carte also presented various companion pieces with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including the 1877 revival of Dora's Dream by Arthur Cecil and Alfred Cellier; The Spectre Knight (1878); revivals of Trial by Jury; several pieces by George Grossmith beginning in 1878: Beauties on the Beach, A Silver Wedding, Five Hamlets, and Cups and Saucers; revivals of Gilbert's After All!; a Children's Pinafore (1878); In the Sulks (1880); and Uncle Samuel (1881).

Once the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company left the theatre, its fortunes declined. Later productions includied farces and burlesque, such as Mother-In-Law (1885, by George R. Sims), which was paired with Vulcan, by Rose and Harris.

The Opera Comique was rebuilt in 1895 and closed in 1899, to be demolished in 1902 when the maze of slums in the area was redeveloped to create Aldwych (named after old Wych Street) and Kingsway.

See also

  • Savoy Opera


  1. Wearing, J. P. "The London West End Theatre in the 1890s", Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3 (October 1977), pp. 320-32, The Johns Hopkins University Press (online by subscription to JSTOR)
  2. 'This Inn, never of much importance, had fallen utterly into disrepute before the beginning of [the 19th] century, and become the resort of gamblers and swindlers... [and] was sold about the year 1863’The Strand (northern tributaries): Clement's Inn, New Inn, Lyon's Inn etc., Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878), pp. 32-35 accessed: 06 December 2007
  3. Information from the Arthur Lloyd website accessed 01 Mar 2007
  4. London Encyclopedia, p. 319. See also this information about theatres of The Strand accessed March 20 2007
  5. The Assault on The Opera Comique accessed 6 Dec 2007

External links


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