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.