Grétry’s Influence On Mozart

One of the great joys of bringing Grétry’s Émilie back to life has been researching the social, cultural, and political context it was created in, including how Grétry’s work impacted the musical landscape of his time.

Preparing for a performance at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
The Really Spicy Opera ensemble preparing for their performance at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. 1/18/20

Genius does not arise in a vacuum. Mozart, often considered thegreatest musical genius of the late-18th-century, was no exception. A study of Émilie and other operas by Grétry shows that Mozart’s work owes much to his French counterpart. Mozart borrowed harmonies, rhythms, and sometimes entire melodies from Grétry’s operas for many of his works, including The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Marriage of Figaro.

Singers rehearsing.
Brooke Wahlstrom, soprano covering Émilie and singing in the ensemble, with Thore Dosdall, tenor singing for Dorville.

The surprising thing about this borrowing is not that it occurred, but that it remained largely unnoticed by scholars in the first two centuries of Mozart studies. There are reasons for this: French opera and Viennese music scholars often occupy different sonic worlds, and many of Grétry’s dozens of operas were not recorded until the last two decades. Recent digitization efforts by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France have made Grétry’s scores more accessible to scholars, and a wave of scholarship on borrowing is likely to follow.

That Grétry would be a model for Mozart is not surprising. The two met when Mozart was a child prodigy touring Europe, and Mozart is believed to have seen several Grétry operas during a later residency in France. Mozart also knew Grétry’s opera Zémire et Azor – like Émilie, set in the Middle East – from a production in Vienna. In fact, Mozart was in love with (and courting) its star soprano, Aloysia Weber, and ultimately married Aloysia’s sister Constanze. His interest in the opera was so great that Mozart copied its piano-vocal score by hand. The same “Eastern” harmonies by Grétry in Zémire et Azor and Émilie were copied by Mozart in The Abduction from the Seraglio…which, itself, has a plot that is in so small way derived from – some would say ripped off from – Émilie.


The Tricky Balancing Act of Staging Historical Works

Photo of rehearsal for Émilie, December 2019.
Rehearsal for Émilie, December 2019.

Approaching any historical opera that treats race and non-Western settings is a tightrope act. On side is the trap of presenting or perpetuating stereotypes. On the other side is the trap of erasure, often manifesting as whitewashing, when characters of non-Caucasian backgrounds are simply swapped with white actors and problematic implications are ignored or waved away. These are active concerns when mounting a production of Émilie, ou la belle esclave.

Émilie is a late-18th-century Turkish harem fantasy by European French authors. The work was not intended to be anthropological or an accurate depiction of its setting; rather, the exotic “Eastern” setting was a familiar vehicle for telling stories that would not otherwise make sense (or, sometimes, be politically viable) in a Western European setting. Productions of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio – itself modeled in part on Émilie – often fall into both of the above traps. The setting becomes an excuse for scantily clad dancers and revealing costumes, and the non-European characters are frequently trivialized and played to absurd comic effect. In isolation, these might be accepted, but as a dominant trend in productions, they can be collectively problematic and reinforce negative stereotypes.

The erasure trap is more insidious: by trying to sidestep one issue, other concerns are introduced. The story of Émilie is a product of its time, and there-in derives a great deal of meaning. French society was becoming increasingly divided by rising class barriers, legal inequities, and (of course) a growing emancipation movement, all of which would intersect in the French Revolution at the end of the decade. How, then, should a director approach this particular musical story?

The path that we have chosen for Émilie is to reach for the heart of these characters and their motivations. They are not perfect, nor should we try and present them as such. Understanding and presenting them as whole characters helps show some of the social commentary that the opera’s authors wove into the narrative. This, in turn, is a reminder that our present society – riven by increasing inequities and fractious, racialized discourse – has not moved as far as we’d like on some issues.

Drama and Mystery Surrounding Grétry’s Émilie

As if the opera isn’t dramatic enough itself, there is an infinite amount of fascinating intrigue surrounding Émilie.

Tickets sold fairly well for opening night – much better than the opening night of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, which he counted as one of his greatest box office successes.

It appears that Benjamin Franklin was an invited guest for Émilie, but the Founding Father didn’t show up. Benjamin Franklin was one of the lead American diplomats in Paris during the American Revolution, but he also had some extracurricular pursuits…including a woman that many historians claim was his French mistress at the time. Franklin ditched the opera to see this lady, which is probably just as well – the next time he came to the opera a year later, the curtain caught fire and the whole opera house burned down.

Part of what makes the fire even more heartbreaking and shocking is that the Paris Opera spent an extraordinary amount of money on the sets and costumes – enough for five or six new productions, normally – for the opera and the ballet it was performed with. When the opera house burnt down, it took those expensive sets and costumes with them.

Throw in some poor record-keeping and misfiling, and the scores for the opera went missing in the Opera’s music library. (A scholar in the 1840s went looking for it, only to declare it lost – in fact, it had simply been misfiled.)

Rehearsal photo.
French Historian, Courtney Spikes, helping round out our understanding of the context in which Émilie was created.

By the time the score was rediscovered in the late-19th century, Grétry’s music had mostly gone out of fashion.A few of his operas were still regularly performed, but since he’d written so many – more than three dozen – the next generation of scholars assumed that there must have been something wrong with the opera. Far from it! The Belgian government published the score as part of a complete edition of Grétry’s surviving operas, but the print run was relatively small and, after a few years, the score was impossible to buy. Since then, many of Grétry’s operas have been revived and recorded, but most scholars simply couldn’t get their hands on Émilie.

We were able to access the score of this opera thanks to the digitization efforts of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which nowadays includes the older Paris Opera’s music library. They digitized both the late-19th-century printed score and the conducting manuscript used for the opera’s premiere, placing both online for free! This allowed us to look at the original notes, corrections, and other details in the original materials and produce a piano-vocal score for practical rehearsal use.

Backstory on Really Spicy Opera’s Paris Journey

Why is Really Spicy Opera is performing a Grétry opera in 2020? And how did the 2020 tour come together?

From Artistic Director, Basil Considine: 

The short answer is to highlight an important but forgotten work in political, economic, and musical history. The opera in question, Émilie, ou la belle esclave, was commissioned by Marie Antoinette – one of several important artistic patrons whose work we are highlighting in our Women in Opera History Initiative. For a variety of reasons, this opera and its unique importance were left out of the writing of musical history, and reviving it both addresses this gap and allows new audiences to experience this beautiful, stirring opera for the first time in centuries.

The longer answer starts with a chance meeting in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in December 2010, when I met Dr. Julia Doe (now on the faculty of Columbia University). At the time, we were both doctoral students working on our dissertation research on late-18th century French opera. I was working on opera in Mauritius, and Julia was working on Grétry and opera comique during the French Revolution. Since then, we have both ‘backed up’ our research to focus on the period right before the Revolution.

You can read about Dr. Doe’s research in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, the Journal of the American Musicological Society, the Opera Journal, and other places, but I am most excited about her upcoming book The Comedians of the King, coming in Fall 2020 from University of Chicago Press. Among other things, she describes the key role of Queen Marie Antoinette of France in directly shaping and changing operatic tastes in the musical capital of Europe. Dr. Doe’s research inspired the archival investigations that led us to pick Émilie to perform.

Émilie is a very interesting case: a Grétry opera that was performed exactly once, but in an incredibly lavish and expensive production that included a 3-act ballet and a full symphony before the opera even began. Tragically, the opera house burnt down shortly thereafter, taking with it the luxurious and very costly sets and costumes…and making it prohibitively expensive to remount. The score was also miscatalogued in the opera archives for many decades, and the opera confused with later operas with similar names…including its own parody.

As far as Marie Antoinette’s role in this, you should come to our performances at the Fondation des États-Unis (January 16) and the Bibliothèque Nationale (January 17) to find out more. I’ll just say that the reasons why this opera was performed are intimately bound up in U.S. and French history and the financing of the American Revolution.