The Opera and it’s Connections with Music, by Claude Debussy

There is a collection of writings by Debussy that I have had in my possession for an almost unbroken period of 4 and a half years. It’s a library book from UWA, but it’s never been recalled and so I just keep renewing it, reading it, and loving it and perhaps one day I will spend the twenty odd dollars to own a copy of my own, but for now I am quite content to keep this book with me. But following on from the recent cluster of posts about opera I thought it would be good to bring into the discussion the uncompromising critic that is Debussy. Not a lot seems to have changes in over a century as the vast majority of Opera does seem to still be running on the lowest possible work to payoff ratio and the lack of passion of that complacency is a little disappointing. Grass roots change seems to be the contemporary wording for a solution to circumnavigate a lazy establishment. And if you haven’t seen Debussy’s own opera, you should. 

by Claude Debussy
9 March 1903
le Gil Blas
from the Book Debussy on Music which is an edited collection the critcal writings by Claude Debussy, collected by Francois Lesure and translated into English by Richard Langham Smith, published in 1977.


Monsieur P.Gailhard has for some years managed the establishment I mentioned at the end of my column last Monday. With regard to this, I have been accused of the most evil designs! Is some mischievous anarchist had the imagination to blow up the Opera, it’s certain that I would at least be accused of having been the inspiration of this eloquent but brutal action. But such foul crime is far removed from my nature, and so would be any notion of a premeditated attack on one of our national institutions. It’s just that as music is played at the Opera, a musician is the man to worry about it; it’s even his duty to do so. I have no need, I hope, to assure you of my complete innocence of, and sincere disdain for, any such idea!

The Opera has for a long time been called “the greatest lyric theater in the world”. No mean title, but it’s hardly worthy of it anymore. Without being too emotional, and keeping an open mind, what I write today will try to discover the reasons for this. First of all, let us look at the way M. P.Gailhard manages things at present. We find serious shortcomings and a naive lack of any precise policy. Everything is determined more by chance than by what the audience would probably like. One such example, among others, is the way Pagliacci was imported. In fact, the universal success of this work was due to the causes that were really rather vulgar and of little artistic merit; it didn’t deserve all the attention it was given. Such directorial whims only give validity to the irreverent opinions out foreign visitors gleefully take home with them and whatever M.Gailhard may think, that’ not such a good idea. I shall not mention the “revival” of other out moded operas; one never knows ow much these resurrections are controlled by underhanded motives ad administrative obligations. But once and for all, the Opera ought to be a model theater, not a place where all that impressive plush serves only to conceal the poverty of what is performed. The purely mundane spectacle of beautiful ladies descending the celebrated Grand Staircase in a rustle of silk is hardly worthy of the title “music”!

And, what right has M.Gailhard to get rid of artists such as MM.Alvarez and Renaud? I don’t want to take sides, but simply from the business point of view it would seem wasteful – all the more so because he could have avoided several recent evenings when the public forces fully showed its displeasure. The presence of a great artist merely throws into relief the mediocrity of all that surrounds him.

All in all, they do very little work at the Opera, and I know from a reliable source that they revive pieces and add new elements without sufficient rehearsal because they don’t consider it necessary to bother the orchestra. And as for this orchestra, it is a curious fact that its performance is hazy: although nearly all its members are respected teachers, a wavering uncertainty is combined with a most disturbing lack of care.

But, for all this, I’m not attacking M. Gailhard personally, for I’m deeply convinced that the greatest willingness in the world would be shattered there, when it came up against that solemn brick wall of red tape. It is a place that has resolved to grow old peacefully, sheltered from any attempts to shake up its deliberate apathy.

The rot within the Opera has deeper causes: they lie in the principles of management that given the place. It is all too easy to attack M.Gailhard alone, but I don’t believe the previous management were by any means beyond criticism. It is absolutely ridiculous that one man should have to bear so much responsibility; he would need the energy of Hercules, the craft of Ulysses, and the artistic genius of Apollo all rolled into one! He would have to be God himself to be able to achieve this. And that would make things very difficult for the chorus. Without setting him such an  impossible task, one can accuse him of a baser motivation.

You can be sure that he intends to put on L’Etranger, that fine fierce by Vincent d’Indy; the considerable success with which it was received in Brussels guarantees that it will cause a sensation here. He would also be doing a service to French music. And he will no doubt be putting on Gluck’s Armide again; it’s an acknowledged master piece. Also in that vein, he would want to do something for Rameau, our own genius; perhaps he’ll revive Castor et pollux, such a fresh and convincing piece. Or Les Indes galantes, so gracefully French! He is certainly considering Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, or a few other operas of the young Russian school of whom the French know only the symphonic works … Only, of course, they do not work very hard at the Opera, and M.Gailhard has already had a lot of difficulty in reviving La Statue.

Why not let the Opera be governed by a board of people too rich to be worried about making money, but who would, on the other had be proud to spend it on beautiful things? It would only be a question of tactful choice …

There should also be a director o music who is completely free and independent; his function would be, first, to be up-to-date in artistic affairs, and then to plan in advance a comprehensive program of carefully chosen works. And when the operas of Wagner are put on, why not invite Richter to conduct the orchestra? (I merely mention this as one example). It would certainly be an attraction for the public and it would ensure a good performance. Without laboring the point, what I have proposed would not be an innovation: it’s almost a rule of thumb at Covent Garden, where the performances are perfect in every respect. It’s a pity they can’t do so well the Opera, let alone any better. I don’t believe it’s merely a question of money.

To summarise, they should put on a great deal more music, and not keep the public in a deliberate state of complacency.

It’s a pity, but certain artists are to blame for this; they know how to fight for a minute or so when it comes to haggling for a place in the musical market, but once they’re assured of selling their wares, they suddenly seem to recoil, asking the public to forgive them for all the trouble they caused when it came to being “accepted”. Resolutely turning their backs on their younger days, they shelter themselves in their own success. Thus they lose all chance for attaining true glory in life, something that is happily reserved for those devoted to the discovery of new worlds of feeling and new forms of expression. They are the ones who end their lives in the happy knowledge that they have accomplished all they meant to, and who, one might say, were successful on their last night” – if success doesn’t become a vulgar word beside “glory”. I don’t pretend to hold that the Opera ever did anything for these latter, but it ought not merely to cater to the former. I have tried to show that the faults aren’t all on one side. If M.Gailhard is guilty of a share of them, then we shouldn’t forget that he receives guidance from others, some of whom reside in high places … An unhappy conclusion, and one that leaves me reflecting on the uselessness of all such debated.