La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Ballet at the opera

Eline Hadermann
Reading time
10 min.

“Without dancing on stage there would be no eros and thanatos, and without these two, there would be no nineteenth-century opera”. Director Olivier Py, who is bringing Camille Saint-Saëns' Henry VIII to our stage, has a penchant for dance. Against the background of a constantly moving stage set, ballet dancers are consistently part of his stagings. During the interval of his production of Henry VIII, you can even admire ballet on the Place de la Monnaie! Today, we tend to think of opera and ballet as two different art forms, but a dip into Western music history reveals that they have been sharing the stage for centuries - perhaps even from the very dawn of opera as an art form.

One day in Florence

Traditionally, the origins of opera are traced back to the Florentine Camerata. These were groups of scholars of all kinds who met in salons and academies, where they revived classical tragedies in the spirit of the Renaissance. Convinced that these tragedies were originally sung instead of spoken, they produced several compositions that accompanied the classical dramas with vocal and instrumental music. On the face of it, a straightforward evolution from this Camerata to what we know as opera today seems a logical theory.

The history of music, however, follows somewhat more winding paths. Indeed, in the sixteenth century, it was not only in the academic context that the drive for artistic innovation triumphed. The Florentine courts, for instance, indulged in intermedi, a popular genre that provided entertainment for banquets and other official occasions. Among rich families, official occasions were dressed up with grand spectacles, in which a combination of dance, drama and music was performed with plenty of technical trickery. The score of Claudio Monteverdi's 'favola in musica' L'Orfeo (1607), the work that musicologists often cite as the ‘first’ opera, shows that the composer also took his cue from this form of theatrical entertainment. After all, his composition is an experimental mix of instrumental parts, vocal parts, madrigals and dance. Each act, in the tradition of the intermedi and other Italian forms of court entertainment, concludes with exuberant dance music. The 'moresca' at the end of Monteverdi's musical drama is notable in this regard: after Orfeo's intimate lament, the nymphs and shepherds burst into a fierce dance, briefly waking up the audience after the highly emotional operatic journey they have experienced. Attributing the origins of opera to a mixture of all these artistic experiments does more justice to the whimsicality of musical history, and also shows that dance lay in the same cradle from the very beginning.

Comédies-ballets and tragédies lyriques

The intrinsic link between the two genres is probably most noticeable among the precursors of French opera. Until the mid-seventeenth century, Italian opera - unlike in the rest of Europe -, which was then further developed, had not yet gained a foothold in France for political reasons. Two national artistic disciplines, mainly performed at court, dominated: French tragedy and ballet, in its most extravagant form. Strongly influenced by these two genres, Italian expat Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) went to work as Louis XIV's court composer. As such, drawing on his experience with instrumental compositions and ballet music, he created a series of comédies-ballets with Molière: light-hearted plays in which spoken text was interspersed with song and dance.

In 1672, the Sun King gave Lully the exclusive right to stage sung drama. With his self-founded Académie Royale de Musique, the composer then put the art of opera on the French map with the tragédie en musique (later renamed tragédie lyrique): a musical drama based on a serious play, of which ballet too formed an integral part. Thus, in this French branch, great importance was attached to the verisimilitude of an opera plot, while lengthy arias with elaborate vocal virtuosity were eschewed. The distinction between an aria and a recitative could hardly be made, and to make up for this lack of diversity, each of the five acts ended with a divertissement: a grandiose ballet spectacle based on a mythological theme, which for a moment deviates completely from the plot.

Eighteenth-century Italian opera production may have differed massively from French, but dance was also regularly added to the Italian opera seria and opera buffa. Whereas in the more serious version it served as entertainment between or after the performance, in opera buffa dance was incorporated in the storyline. According to musicologist Carolyn Abbate, the extent to which dance was taken for granted as part of opera has to do with the underlying meaning of divertissement: diversion, distraction. Back then - as today - the intensity of unending vocals did sometimes ask too much from the audience. “At one time or another, everyone who has attended an opera feels the need for relief from singing. There is no use denying this.” A dance performance in between or afterwards can provide such a distraction.

Grand opéra and ballet-pantomimes

From the tradition of comédie-ballets and tragédies lyriques, ballet evolved into a standard part of nineteenth-century French opera. As such, it became a true convention within the grand opéra, a genre encompassing all opera works written for and performed at the Paris Opéra between 1820-1860. In this genre, historical and religious themes usually form the basis for the libretto, with scenic, vocal and orchestral grandiosity being the main focus. Grand opéras had a particularly long duration with their five acts, thanks in part to at least one glorious ballet that usually took place in the second or third act.

The latter convention in particular made the genre very popular with the French aristocracy: unwilling to leave dinner (early) for a lengthy opera, this class often did not enter the theatre until the second act. Ballet thus became a social marker for the upper class, transforming grand opéra into an important social event. Moreover, here too, ballet acted as a mental break between all the intense, dramatic vocal passages, and also served the aesthetic purpose of playing with musical and dramatic contrasts. In Henry VIII, for example, the ballet divertissement in the second act is a fête populaire, organised on the occasion of the arrival of the Papal legate at the English court. Almost as if justifying the raison d'être of the French opera convention, Henry VIII exclaimed: “Soyons tout à plaisir!”.

The importance of ballets in grand opéras also factored into the creation process of these works. Thus Giacomo Meyerbeer decided that the famous choreographer Filippo Taglioni should also be the director of his Robert le Diable (1831). The opera was a huge success, thanks in part to the well-known 'ballet of the nuns' in the third act. In its first three years, the opera was staged 100 times in Paris, and as many as 750 times by the end of the nineteenth century. With their historical subjects, spectacular sets and dance divisions, his later operas, including Les Huguenots, Le Prophète and L'Etoile du Nord enjoyed similar success. Meyerbeer not only made ballet an integral part of the dramaturgy in a grand opéra, he also left his mark on the art form of ballet tout court. Indeed, to this day, his 'ballet of the nuns' in Robert le Diable is still considered the first ballet blanc - an oft-used scene in which ballet dancers in white, transparent fabrics portray supernatural figures.

The kinship with the then popular ballet genre ballet pantomime or ballet d'action also demonstrates the intimate connection between dance and opera. In this genre, popular until the 1940s, the drama and action on stage was paramount, so the ballet composition was entirely in the service of the story. Apart from the elaborate gestures of silent characters, the genre relied on external language carriers. For instance, the audience was given a written-out ballet libretto beforehand, and signs with certain phrases were displayed on stage. Interestingly, they also relied on opera music to convey the story: in his score, the composer incorporated airs parlants, melodies borrowed from operas and popular songs that resonated with the audiences of the time. Drawing on the reference to these arias or song lyrics, the audience could connect certain words with the melody they heard, thus helping to clarify the plot.

In time, this meaningful collaboration between the two genres even culminated in hybrid works on the stage of the Paris Opera. Daniel-François-Esprit Auber's opera La Muette de Portici (1828), for example, featured a mixed cast of miming and singing characters, with the main character, the mute Fenella, interpreted by a dancer. The music for this opera, which ushers in the grand opéra genre, thus contains not only sung recitatives and arias, but also ballet pantomime-techniques that sound out the 'words' of the silent main character. In one work, a fictional world is populated by both ballet and opera characters, who communicate with each other using a hybrid art language.

Ballet and opera: quo vadis?

With its ravishing ballet passages and grand theme, Camille Saint-Saëns' Henry VIII, which premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1883, is considered an ode to the grand opéra. As such, it is also a key work in terms of the relationship between dance and opera: indeed, since the heyday of the grand opéra there has been tension in the collaboration between the two art forms. Their kinship, which manifested itself as early as the origins of the opera genre and enjoyed a veritable heyday in 19th-century Paris, is therefore sometimes mistaken for enmity today. Because French opera had so structurally appropriated ballet, stand-alone ballet forms, such as the ballet-pantomime, fell into decline. Furthermore, the idea began to prevail that ballet was only used as an embellishment of the story, rather than being an art form in its own right. As the popularity of grand opéra gave way to Wagnerian opera and Les Ballets Russes sparked a revival of independent ballets, opera and ballet went their separate ways.

Today, however, art houses are increasingly recognising how the idiosyncratic visual and tonal languages of the two genres can enrich the theatrical experience of any performing art. In dance performances such as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's 3S and Anne Teresa De Keersmaekers En Atendant (2010), vocal music forms the basis for the choreography and, the latter choreographer herself says, for “the development of a new dance language”. Conversely, today, choreography is an important building block in opera productions. Indeed, in Henry VIII, for example, the ballet will not only serve as a reminder of the nineteenth-century divertissement technique, Olivier Py explains: “Opera is a total artwork. I enjoy it when the choreographic language tells a story: it can carry the dramaturgy of a work through to the overall performance, and allows fantasy to creep into a genre that should sometimes throw off its bourgeois nature.” Accordingly, the dance passages in Py's direction for Henry VIII are considered an ode to the unique eloquence of the art of dance and its contribution to opera - and so also to the historical self-evidence with which these arts were staged together.