Blog: The Marseille Opera Scene


The Marseille Opera Scene

It's been a while since I blogged here or even managed to respond to the input of others. My apologies. Family, work and health have all distracted me. Clorinde recently asked what operas were playing in Marseille, which ties in with the whole question of where la Maupin was performing. Some sources say that she actually performed in Gautier's Opera. Others doubt that and relegate her to lesser stages. Since I want to tell the tale of the young Marseillaise and the burning of the convent in Avignon, I need to settle how I'm going to handle it. This blog posting will serve to collect some of what we know and as a place for me to ruminate a bit about what makes the best story.

Background - The Opera in Marseille

I've found a couple of sources for operas that were playing in the Marseille Opera. They include "Jean-Baptiste Lully and the music of the French Baroque" by James R. Anthony and John Hajdu Heyer and "The birth of the orchestra: history of an institution, 1650-1815" by John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw. The following chart summarizes what I've found so far:

Marseilles Opera Performances
Date Locale Opera Composer Source
1680 Marseille? Bellérophon? Lully Anthony/Heyer
1685 Marseille Le Triomphe de la paix Gautier Spitzer/Zaslaw
Oct, 1685 Marseille ? Lully


1686 Marseille Le triomphe de l'amour Lully Anthony/Heyer
Sep 29 1686? Marseille Phaëton Lully Anthony/Heyer
1686 Marseille Armide Lully Anthony/Heyer
1688 Marseille Atys Lully Anthony/Heyer
1688 Marseille Bellérophon Lully Anthony/Heyer
Feb, 1689 Marseille Atys Lully Anthony/Heyer
1689 Marseille Amadis Lully Anthony/Heyer
1689 Marseille? Atys? Lully Anthony/Heyer
1692 Marseille Le triomphe de l'amour Lully Anthony/Heyer

Pants Roles?

One of the interesting questions about her career in Marseille is that of "trouser roles". According toa few sources, the Marseillaise at first mistook la Maupn for a man, suggesting that she was crossdressing on stage at the time. Clayton, for instance writes that:

A foolish girl of the city saw the supposed M. d'Aubigny on the stage, and, struck with his appearance, fell in love with him. Mdme. la Maupin, for a whim, encouraged this predilection.

Elsewhere she writes that,

She was excellent both in comic and serious parts, but it was in male characters that she shone more especially: for these her appearance and manners were well suited.

On the other hand, Gilbert makes no mention of pants roles or la Maupin pretending to be a man, merely writing:

It was in the first tier of boxes at the theater where she was singing that Mademoiselle Maupin discovered the ideal, the faultless blonde of whom she was in search.

This was a young lady who went to the theater with her father and mother and was to be seen several times a week in the costliest boxes of the Opera. She seemed to look at la Maupin with an expression in which admiration and passionate affection were equally intermingled.

Mademoiselle Maupin quickly sensed the promptings of love which began to ferment within her and immediately the masculine attributes slumbering in her female breast were aroused to activity.

After a while she succeeded in discovering the fair one's address, schemed to get a word with her, obtained an interview and bewildered the poor child with her passionate declarations. The parents soon discovered the unwholesome flame which was consuming their child, and accordingly put sudden stop to her theater-going. That troubled la Maupin but little, for she arranged to meet the young woman at a friend's house.

Letainturier-Fradin's story is not much different, so I can go either way. The easiest would be to say that she only went disguised as a man for specific purposes, such as the ambushing of Dumesnil, and taht the talk of trouser roles, which are quite uncommon in the French opera of her day, are a modern misunderstanding. On the other hand, given that d'Albert, Dumesnil, Servan and the three unfortunates at Monsieur's ball all mistook her for male, practice at the travesty on the stage would prove useful. If so, then what stage and what roles?

So far as I can tell, trouser roles—women playing men or boys—became moderately common in French opera in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in England in the 16th century, but I don't find references to the practice in the France of la Maupin's day. If any one can point me to a source on this, I would be grateful.

Bookmark and Share Comments (5)
Pants roles

Thanks for posting the information about the operas performed in Marseille!

As I wrote in my mail to you (but will post here for the benefit of everyone, although cut and paste makes for different font sizes, sorry) women in French baroque opera didn't

sing pants roles. That was something the French were quite proud of
and as you also pointed out, one way they contrasted themselves with
the Italians. Le Cerf
wrote in his famous "Comparaisons" of Italian and French music: "Our
women are women and our men are men"... they thought the Italians were
kind of queer (in all senses of the word) with their castrati, pants
roles, and general gender confusion.

The Marseille theater was a spin-off of the Opera in Paris which at the time it was founded was
under the strict control of Lully (in case anyone was wondering why they performed so many of Lully's operas there, ha ha...) who was quite conservative about keeping up good French tradition (even though he was Italian! go
figure) so I can't imagine she sang pants roles in an official
theater anywhere.

(In a pub or more low-life cabaret as part of a
drag-fencing show with Séranne that they made up themselves out of
whatever songs they knew, I could well imagine it and people being
entertained by it, precisely because that sort of thing didn't exist
in the high-class opera scene).

By the way, speaking of pants and other roles, Lajarte (1876) lists in
his list of roles that she sang the role of L'amour medecin in "Les
Muses" by Campra in 1703 (which isn't on Campardon's or Letainturier-Fradin's list of her roles). Strangely, the opera doesn't even have a role
with quite this name in it, but there is a role for a woman who
disguises herself as a (male) doctor (medecin) in order to trick
herself out getting married to the old disagreeable guy and marry her
true love (the son of the disagreeable guy) instead. I could
definitely imagine her playing it for the drag aspect and this might
be the closest thing to a pants role that one might find in French
opera (or ballet -- "les Muses" was another comedie-ballet, light
entertainment sort of thing, partly in French and partly in Italian).

Le Cerf is a good source about this, as he is from the time period in question, and there seems to be an English translation that someone made as a doctoral dissertation. Otherwise I can copy out the relevant parts next time I'm in Versailles.

Les Muses


I can confirm that Les Muses opened on 28 October 1703, but can't confirm that La Maupin appeared.

But ...

In James Anthony's French Baroque Music, he writes:

"'La Comedie', the fourth entree from Campra's and Danchet's opera-ballet Les Muses of 1703, is the first comedie to have had a measure of success.  A one-act comic opera of considerable charm, 'La Comedie' is an improbable pastiche made up of elements from Moliere's L'Amour Medecin (1665) and an episode described in Plutarch's Lives between Antiochus and his beautiful stepmother, Stratonice."

Just guessing, but it's hard to see the Opera premiering a new opera-ballet with a major comedy component - without its best comedienne.

Hope that helps,


l'Amour Medecin

Yes, it does help, and it also suggests to me why Lajarte lists la Maupin as playing the role of l'Amour Medecin, as Clorinde noted. He could easily have mistaken the name of the source material of the title attributed to 'la Comedie' for the name of the role or Ericine. So, it all comes together. All in all we can say that she was fairly active in the Opera during this period, and Ericine is a role I can have her playing, and offers an opportunity to have her doing something like a "pants role".

The wolf hunt


Just came across a performance I didn't have listed, and the detail is so tantalising I thought you'd enjoy it: it's an entry in Le Mercure Galant which says that 'on Monday, July 7th. 1702, after a wolf hunt in the forest of Senart, supper was served
at 7 o'clock and afterwards there was a concert given by Messieurs
Cocherot and Thevenard of the opera and Mesdemoiselles Couperin and Maupin. The first is one of the King's Musicians and niece of Monsieur Couperin, organist to His Majesty, who accompanied on the spinet'.

You never see a good Royal wolf hunt nowadays.



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