This reviewer suspects that most Meyerbeer ‘opera buffs’, will be familiar with a basic outline of his life and the dating of the openings of his main grand operas. The author goes further and embraces much of Meyerbeer’s less well known music. But there is so much more in this very fine biography, whose scholarship is immediately apparent from Letellier’s consideration of his sources. This is a Critical Life, which has to take account of the music for which he dedicated his life, but also the man.
General historians should also find this book of interest, through a musical perspective, of the international liberal bourgeois elite of the Western Europe of Meyerbeer’s lifetime. The author’s account of how Meyerbeer’s family contributed to the emancipation of the Prussian Jews in 1812 is fascinating. It is interesting how states in major wars seek to draw on hitherto neglected sections of their populations. The text is woven with an historical background as to how the ideals of the French revolution were transported to Prussia under Frederick William IV (r. 1840-61) and then, until the Prussian constitutional crisis of 1862, Wilhelm I (r.1862-1888), first as regent for his elder brother from 1858. Political historians will distinguish between the France of the Restoration, Louis Philippe and Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III) and between France and Germany. Letellier’s perspective is musical at a time when liberalism and nationalism, uneasy bedfellows, had not departed company. At the risk of crass over generalisation, this reviewer would argue that Romanticism and liberalism walk together in the grand operatic world. The ‘Enlightenment’s’ stress on reason over-accentuates just one human faculty. The release of emotion, and imagination allow the metaphysical aspects of existence, emotion, love, death and eternity to be explored. Meyerbeer’s attention to drama, dance and the voice allowed full expression to these other faculties of humanity, which because of mystery, reason cannot wholly grasp.
In the absence of film and TV, music was the main source of bourgeois (and above) entertainment. Because of Meyerbeer’s international status and acclaim, he came to have contact with most of the notable western European composers of his time, and anyone pursuing research into them will find pertinent references to them, if only in the compressed biographies in the footnotes of the text. This extends to actors, particularly singers. Meyerbeer was honoured by the royalty of ‘republican’ France, Germany, Sweden, Austria and Queen Victoria. The Critical Life presents an attractive western cultural scene of western continental Europe after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which extended through Meyerbeer’s lifetime. The Critical Life also has value as a travelogue with many delightful accounts, particularly of spas and mountains as Meyerbeer travelled, and almost idyllic when accompanied by his wife.
There are many delightful vignettes. A personal favourite, to this reviewer, was Bismarck’s reaction in 1857 in Paris, on hearing Meyerbeer’s rehearsals on the hotel floor above him, probably working on his Pater Noster. It conjures up a contrast between Beethoven’s deafness whilst composing his 1812, with the future Iron Chancellor and his wars. A longer story is Meyerbeer’s personal witness of the 1848 revolution in Paris and his following news from Berlin, and hearing guns in Prague whilst seeking to skirt it. Meyerbeer’s concentration on music did not allow him to develop much of a political stance. Readers must decide whether Wagner’s offensive Jewishness in Music, originally published under a pen name in 1850, helps to mark this divide of the century, or to choose 1870, when Bismarck did not so much as unify Germany but extend the Prussian state. Letellier contrasts the choice of Meyerbeer to write the Kronungsmarsch at the coronation of Wilhelm I and, following the composer’s death, the choice of Wagner to write the new march for Wilhelm as Kaiser of the Second Reich in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles following the defeat of France.
Meyerbeer is presented as a man consumed by his art. The Critical Life is not a hagiography and is essential reading for those seeking the man.
At 10 Meyerbeer was acknowledged as a talented pianist. The family wealth meant he was able to benefit from gifted private tutors, perhaps the most notable being Abbe Georg Vogler (1749-1814). Although, his huge international acclaim was achieved in mid-life, by 20 he had produced his first oratorio and first opera. Those interested in Meyerbeer, from a musical operatic perspective, will be aware that he spent 10 ‘enchanted’ years in Italy (1816-26), which resulted in Il Crociato in Egitto (1824). He then went to Paris, where most of his time was spent (1827-40), resulting in the astounding grand opera successes of Robert le Diable (1831) and Les Huguenots (1836). He returned to Berlin where he spent most of his time between 1841-46. In Austria and Paris (1847-50), where Le Prophete was first presented in 1849. Then Berlin again (1851-3) but he became interested in Opera Comique (1854-9), which led to personal tensions with Eugene Scribe (1791-1861), the most important librettist in his life, because of the delay in presenting L’Africaine, which first saw the world in 1865, shortly after the composer’s death, with the guidance of Francois-Joseph Fetis.
Meyerbeer did not keep a diary in his Italian years, but the period is important to his subsequent development. The author provides a short biographical note on Gaetano Rossi (1780-1855), the Italian librettist who contributed 120 libretti to various composers, including Romilda e Costanza, Emma di Resburgo, the uncompleted Almanazor, and most importantly Crociato in Egitto, to Meyerbeer. A lifelong friendship developed with the contralto Caroline Bassi (1781-1862). At the height of her fame, when Meyerbeer was relatively unknown, she created the principal role in Semiramide, for which Meyerbeer was most appreciative. Margherita d’Anjou, an opera semiseria, first performed in 1820, but substantially revised in 1826, was the first opera Meyerbeer used to turn historical persons and events into fictional characters and situations. This opera, and Il Crociato (1825). were to bring Meyerbeer international acclaim. The grand operas took this acclaim to even greater heights.
It was in Paris, Meyerbeer’s musical spiritual home, where Meyerbeer acquired his international fame, first with Robert and Les Huguenots. The French musicologist, Joseph d’Ortigue (1802-1866) wrote on Robert that the composer “realised the alliance…between the vocal genre created by Rossini and the instrumental genre developed by Beethoven and applied by Weber to dramatic music.” Ortigue himself was to achieve recognition as a critic. Both Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) are major composers in their own right. There is no evidence that Meyerbeer met Beethoven, although he participated in the premiere of Beethoven’s Wellingtons Sieg (Die Schlacht bet Vittoria), 1814, hesitantly playing the timpani. Apparently it is a 15 minute orchestral piece, so if the criticism is correct, it did no long term harm to Meyerbeer’s career. The composer admired and listened to Rossini’s music through his life. Meyerbeer’s enthusiastic and emotional attendance at the premiere of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle, despite ill health, on 14 March 1864, is touching. The two grand operas established an art form which became a model for nearly a century. The author considers that it superseded the melodramatic formula finally codified by Rossini and was a ‘vital constituent element’ of the Wagnerian music drama. Elsewhere, Letellier has outlined the pivotal evolution of 19th century opera through Rossini, Meyerbeer and Wagner.
Les Huguenots was the most popular of Meyerbeer’s grand operas. The four grand operas are the basis of the composer’s international acclaim and the modest revival of contemporary interest in his work are focused on them. This reviewer will leave the Critical Life to speak for itself, including the author’s highlighting of particular musical moments with superb literary prose.
The author, in his Bible in Music, places Meyerbeer firmly in the French romantic tradition. At the risk of crass over generalisation, this reviewer would argue that Romanticism and liberalism walk together in the grand operatic world. The ‘Enlightenment’s’ stress on reason over accentuates just one human faculty. The release of emotion, and imagination allow the metaphysical aspects of existence, emotion, love, death and eternity to be explored. Meyerbeer’s attention to drama, dance and the voice allowed full expression to these other faculties of humanity, which because of mystery, reason cannot wholly grasp.
The Critical Life presents a fascinating account of the Prussian royal family, and in particular Frederick William IV (r. 1840-61), who with his wife, included Meyerbeer as a personal friend. Of cultural importance was the difference between the censorship under Frederick William III (1770-1840) and the new king’s favour who commanded the composer to bring Les Huguenots to Berlin and conferred various honours on Meyerbeer and appointed him director of music of the Berlin Royal Opera (1843-45).
The musical versatility of the composer was outstanding. He is known as a composer, but his relationship to Eugene Scribe (1791-1861) was almost a partnership, (in the non legal sense), with active co-operation between composer and librettist/ playwright. Born in the same year, Scribe’s death not long before Meyerbeer’s was a heavy blow to the composer. Meyerbeer also remained a pianist and conducted. As director of music of the Berlin Royal Opera Meyerbeer directed not only many revivals but also was responsible for Court music such as the masqued entertainment of Das Hoffest zu Ferrara. For the opening of the new Berlin opera house, the composer produced Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (1844), the only German opera of his maturity, with the specific aim of celebrating the Prussian royal house. This was to become a base for L’Etoile du Nord with which he had began work in 1849 with Scribe but went through various stages of composition over the five years to its premiere in 1854, which was translated into German as Nordstern and, when produced in London in 1855 (in Italian) as La Stella del Nord. At royal command in 1846 he organised the performance of his late brother Michael’s tragedy Struensee, for which Meyerbeer contributed ‘some of his most original music for the stage…(which) waits for proper rediscovery’. In 1859 he produced another opera comique, Le Pardon of Ploermel, which is more widely known as Dinorah.
A puzzle which Letellier sets himself is why Meyerbeer (1791-1864), the most internationally acclaimed operatic composer for at least three quarters of the 19th century, who established the dramatic and musical genre of grand opera, has fallen into such oblivion. The author’s answer is that much of the blame lies in Meyerbeer’s instruction that all his private papers (Nachlass), particularly his letters and diaries, remain in the possession of his family and not be published. Indeed, without musical heirs he wanted them destroyed. His wife, Minna (1804-1886), was faithful to this wish. Their youngest daughter, Cornelie Richter (1842-1922) entrusted the papers to the Protestant Moravian Community and her son, Raoul Richter, became official custodian in 1895. He died in 1912 but in 1895 had lent the Royal Library in Berlin many papers for 99 years, with the proviso that the unpublished manuscripts and diaries be closed to scholarly investigation until 1935. The library’s director of its musical department , Wilhelm Altmann, made a transcript of much of these unpublished documents in 1919, (particularly the diaries) but publication did not proceed because of a legal challenge by Cosima Wagner (1837-1930) , Richard Wagner’s second wife ,who devoted herself to his memory. Although many documents were lost during the second world war, Altmann’s transcript remained within the family. The Diaries no longer exist outside this transcript.
After the war, Prof Heinz Becker, a German musicologist, with a university post ,from 1952, at the Berlin State Library, had a chance encounter with Hans Richter, Meyerbeer’s great-grandson, who revealed all the personal papers. They were archived in the State Institute for Music in 1952, which Becker worked on for 40 years and over that time published in German. In 1984 a Dr Rudolph Elvers purchased the private papers at auction which Dr Letellier translated for the English world over 1999-2004. The author acknowledges Becker’s 8 volumes on the Meyerbeer papers is the longest version of the papers, but his 4 volumes opened Meyerbeer to the English speaking world and the Critical Life has reduced much of the material to one volume.
The Diaries (Tagebucher) are not the only source for Meyerbeer’s life, and as in the case with most young men, his early resolve to maintain a diary (1811) was particularly deficient for the 1820’s when he spent many ‘enchanted years’ in Italy (1816-26), then Berlin (1824-6) and Paris (1826-40). These locations can at best be placed as part of the time, because Meyerbeer’s wealth, family love, health cures and musical interests meant that he was frequently on the move. As a citizen of a European elite musical world he sought to promote his work and keep in touch with his family and friends. Indeed, the author uses the heading ‘ A Life of Wandering’ to provide an overview. Thus, the diary must be accompanied by his small pocket appointment books (Taschenkalender) , written for his personal recollection and often, merely, just an appointment book. The daily record of his diaries began in earnest in 1846, by which time Meyerbeer had achieved international musical acclaim, which continued to the end of his life and beyond. The complete extant narrative of his life requires his correspondence and external observations. If the reader wishes to access musical scores the reader must refer to other books in the author’s extensive study of Meyerbeer, and no doubt will be familiar with the music—which must be heard and witnessed, a task beyond books. The Critical Life brings all these materials together in this single volume. What the author emphasises is that the most important aspect of the diaries is the record of Meyerbeer’s own music-making. ‘From Le Prophete onwards, there are references to every stage of development, interest in various subjects, discussion with his librettists, the process of composition, rehearsal, modification and presentation. Indeed, the compositional histories of Le Prophete, L’Etoile du Nord, Le Pardon de Ploermel and L’Africaine provide one of the most comprehensive accounts of a composer’s working methods on record’.
This overview of the sources explains the structure of the book. In the first chapter the author provides his personal evaluation of the composer’s life. There follows an excellent chapter on the Jews in Prussia and Meyerbeer’s family ancestry to dramatise the historical assessment. Chapter 3, itself divided into 9 chapters takes the reader chronologically over Meyerbeer’s life. All this is accompanied with an Iconography of 344 figures, which will delight readers, a bibliography and, as usual for the author, extensive indexes which will facilitate use of the Critical Life by serious scholars
Meyerbeer was born in Berlin as a Prussian Jew from a rich and distinguished Reform Jewish family. He was born Jakob Meyer Beer but Italianised his name when he was in Italy and as Giacomo Meyerbeer he is remembered. He became even richer as a result of his musical success.
The roots of the family wealth are attractively outlined through brief biographies of Meyerbeer’s grandfather Liebmann Mayer Wulff (1745-1812), ‘the Croesus of Berlin’, and his father Jakob Herz Beer (1769-1825). By 1815 Jakob was considered the wealthiest man in Berlin who added to his fortune through opening more sugar refineries. He married Meyerbeer’s mother, Amalia (1767-1854), who had an immense influence on her son. She kept a very popular salon which drew influential people. Her intelligence, sense of civic pride, and generosity meant that when she died she was ‘a well respected and admired figure’.
Short biographies of Meyerbeer’s younger brothers are also provided: Heinrich Beer, ‘the forgotten brother’ (1794-1842), Wilhelm Beer (1796-1850), and Michael Beer (1808-1833). The author fairly deals with their respective talents and critics. They were of concern to Meyerbeer all their lives, amplified in the chronological portrayal of the Critical Life, as was his grief at their passing.
“One of the greatest enigmas ‘ of Myerbeer’s life is his marriage to his first cousin , Minna (1804-1886) (nee Mosson) , daughter of Johanna Mosson, Amalia’s sister in 1826. The author notes that Meyerbeer’s father Jakob Herz Beer died in Berlin on 27 October 1825 and his son did not attend his funeral. This was not a mark of disrespect as the composer was in Paris and the first French railway was not opened until 1827. Cars and aeroplanes came much later. But as the author notes Meyerbeer returned to Berlin by 28 November 1825 ‘to fulfil his duties as new head of the family’ concluding his engagement to Minna. Perhaps this was not a particularly inspiring way to start a marriage. Yet the Critical Life provides much evidence that it was a happy marriage, which resulted in five children: Eugenie (–D1827) , Alfred (-D 1829) , Blanca (1830-1896), Caecilie (1837-1931), and Cornelie (1842-1922). The two boys did not survive into adulthood, but the three girls did. The Critical Life contains many references to his familial concerns for his daughters.
However, Meyerbeer’s devotion to his mother, appears to have resulted in an ‘awkwardness’ between Minna and her aunt. She was unable to adapt to life in Paris. Whilst keeping abreast of ‘every development’ in her husband’s artistic career, she insisted on living in Berlin from 1836, with frequent visits to health spas. From 1838 she never visited Paris again during her husband’s lifetime. His letter to her in September 1836, is poignant, recognising their different needs would inevitably result in frequent absences from each other. Indeed, sometimes they were more than half a year apart. Perhaps, the best way of describing their relationship was of fierce independence analogous to many seafarer’s families. Their devotion is best expressed in their correspondence but affirmed by external observers.
Certainly Meyerbeer was hugely talented but as a person what cannot be doubted is the hard work and endeavour he brought to reinforce this talent. Put shortly his life was committed to his love of music. He attended the theatre or playhouse virtually every day of his life. He was a great follower of musical criticism, perhaps over sensitively. He didn’t learn the politicians ‘knack’ of switching off from reading the critical press. He never employed a press officer—probably because he was so interested in music, he wished to personally assess the musical criticism himself. He was outward looking, interested in music generally, not just his own. He worked extensively on his scores, adapted them to specific performances, and languages, played much attention to the detail of his operatic performers, musicians and the drama of producers of his work.
This reviewer is always impressed by multi linguists. Whilst German was Meyerbeer’s language for his most intimate correspondence, he was entirely comfortable in French and Italian and took English lessons through his life. The Critical Life’s account of Le Prophete is illustrative of the huge demands on the composer’s time in selection of singers, handling the politics of theatre management and translation.
Letellier emphasises Meyerbeer’s modernity in seeking to influence the reception of his music. To-day ‘megastars’ have a team of professionals handling their public persona. Meyerbeer did the same through his agent Louis Gouin in Paris and his secretary Georges-Frederic Burguis in Berlin. The author convincingly answers all charges that Meyerbeer sought to corrupt the press.
Letellier considers various friends of the composer but his consideration of the relationship with Scribe, not only Meyerbeer’s principal collaborator, but also ‘seems to have been his friend….though too busy and independent an artist himself to have developed undue personal involvement’. Other friends are mentioned, such as Alexander von Humboldt, but on the whole, Meyerbeer’s most selfless friends were his artistic agents such as Louis Gouin—his ‘confidant and homme d’affaires in Paris’ and Dr Joseph Bacher in Vienna after 1847.
The author also responds to Meyerbeer’s health issues, which some have ascribed to hypochondria. The author attributes to ‘a chronic disease like ‘ulcerative colitus’, ‘ a genuine physiological affliction, no doubt exacerbated by a highly nervous physiological disposition’. This can be compared with his wife’s “illusionary” cares for a cure from her own afflictions.
It is not surprising that through overwork and increasing ill health, Meyerbeer became increasingly lonely as he pursued his musical career. This is particularly reflected in the author’s account of Meyerbeer’s final illness. This devotion to music and overwork is shown by his declining to have a message sent to his wife to be present at his peaceful death in Paris, passing silently in the night on 2 May 1864. He had returned in failing health to Paris in September 1863. He worked fiercely to complete L’Africaine, particularly on Selika’s dying operatic piece, the full score brought to him on 1 May 1864. In his last stay in Paris, he saw much opera, including both reproductions of his own works and Rossini’s Petite Messe Solenelle, continued correspondence and saw friends. The doctors had summoned his two youngest daughters, Caecilie and Cornelie, from Baden Baden, his nephew Julius Beer and a couple of intimate friends. His business manager Louis Brandus stayed with him in his illness but Meyerbeer refused that he summon his wife from Berlin, who was with his daughter Blanca: “I am not that sick. Besides…it is impossible to be a universal man. You must either be a family man or a worker. I have been a worker. Do not notify my family’.
Meyerbeer was a Reform Jew, in the dominant ashkenazi tradition, as were his parents, so for example Amalia is never portrayed wearing a head veil. The author describes the composer’s religion as rather ‘denominational’, just as are many to-day who follow the Jewish and other faiths. There are few references to synagogue attendance in the Critical Life. It was not until aged 62 he attended a synagogue in the sephardic tradition, on the installation of a rabbi of the Portugese synagogue in Paris on 13 October 1853.
A Jewish Meyerbeer scholar claims that he composed a Hallelujah for choir and organ for his friend Eduard Kley in 1815; and 30 years later, contributed music for a first cantor to Samuel Naumbourg (1815-80), for the Jewish Paris congregation. After consulting Letellier, the latter advised that whilst the Nachlass showed he met Naumbourg, there is no evidence that he contributed music. This must be a tribute to the author’s scholastic approach.
Meyerbeer joined a Paris freemason lodge, but there is no evidence as to the frequency of his attendance. He was comfortable in composing for Christian audiences: his 8 part setting for Psalm 91, produced at royal command of the Prussian King Fredrick William IV (1853) for the Berlin Cathedral is his most popular religious work. He also composed a Pater Noster. His specifically religious work was composed relatively late in life and for detail the reader is referred to Letellier’s Meyerbeer’s Sacred Works.
He accepted his daughter Blanca’s conversion to Catholicism in 1851, even though he knew it would cause Amalia distress. It would appear that Cornelie, the youngest daughter, converted to Lutheranism. Although the Critical Life acknowledges her role in preserving the Nachlass, it does not mention her baptism. Evidently, Meyerbeer, put his familial devotion first. He celebrated Christmas and Easter with his children, although he recorded birthdays using the Jewish calendar. He attended funerals and memorials of family and friends, whatever their religion.
However, there can be little doubt that Meyerbeer was more than a nominal Jew. He had promised his maternal grandmother in 1825 on the death of her husband that he would die in their faith and on his death his body was escorted from Paris to Berlin in great style and dignity to rest in the family tomb at the Jewish Cemetery, Schonhauser Allee, Berlin.
Letellier records various prayers of Meyerbeer, particularly the ‘ Daily Prayer’ of 8 December 1863, which he intended to be recited as part of his daily routine. It is clearly marked with ‘intimations of mortality’, rather than a pattern acquired as part of the practice of his prior life. Only God can judge the quality of a man’s religious practice.
The tragedy is that Meyerbeer never found in his faith a source of solidity, let alone solace. The word that the composer used to describe anti-Semitism was ‘richess.’ The author ascribes to his Jewish faith , in a decidedly German culture which was innately hostile to it, the reason for the composer’s ‘deeply traumatic psychological reaction’ to richess. The author attributes to this causation much of Meyerbeer’s underlying depression in his later life.
Comparative reputational decline
A puzzle which Letellier sets himself is why Meyerbeer (1791-1864), the most internationally acclaimed operatic composer for at least three quarters of the 19th century, who established the dramatic and musical genre of grand opera, has fallen into such oblivion. Opera statistics and net searches confirm this assessment as fact, despite some revival of interest.
The author suggests that anti-Semiticism and nationalism are the main culprits. He writes: ‘With his large nose and dark complexion, Meyerbeer had a distinctly Semitic appearance, and it was the cause of prejudiced observation’. The large nose has been used for centuries to caricature Jews. Yet the Icongraphy almost invariably presents him dressed formally in a three piece suit and cravat, a model of bourgeois prosperity. This reviewer would hesitate to describe any ethnic group by reference to a stereo typed racial appearance. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that that some do and did so to Meyerbeer, including certain sections of Berlin elite society which should have known better. The France which acclaimed Meyerbeer simply rejoiced in the musical offerings of their ‘alien’ German Jew. Despite the aggressive nationalism inspired by the desire to recover Alsace-Lorraine after 1870 and the Dreyfus affair, France did not abandon Meyerbeer until, say, the First World War. Letellier cites both Martin Cooper and Theodore Zeldin to support his proposition that “the abandonment of Meyerbeer was part of a wider, tacit rejection of much of the French nineteenth century musical heritage, particularly the tradition associated with the Opera and the Opera Comique which were gradually eroded after 1870”.
Apparently, the Paris Opera is still going strong with some 200m Euro subsidy. This reviewer is insufficiently aware of the objectives imposed on the principal opera centres of Europe, including Russia, the USA and elsewhere for public subsidy to comment. The author is much more conversant on the politics of theatre management.
The negative criticism of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), Robert Schuman (1810-1856), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and even Hector Berlioz (1803-69) is noted. The Critical life informs how their criticism was influenced by professional jealousy, Meyerbeer’s failure to satisfy importunate financial demands and frankly in some cases their undeniable anti-semiticism. The author is clearly frustrated that as these ‘have entered the popular cannon of good taste’ their criticism has become such a standard reference point in assessing Meyerbeer. This is an insightful observation as modern opera goers appear to be conservative in their tastes so reinforcing both popularity and exclusion. Opera goers can only choose to support what is on offer.
The author is precise and polished in his withering critique of April Fitzlyon’s biography of Pauline Garcia-Viardot (1821-1910), published in the centennial year of Meyerbeer’s death (1964). Viardot was a celebrated mezzo-soprano who played Fides in Le Prophete and Valentine in Les Hugenots. The critique of her biographer shows how easy it is to perpetuate unlovely loose remarks. True, to retain her selection as Fides, she sacrificed her disfiguring front tooth, but after her performance the composer presented her he presented her with a bracelet in the centre of which the tooth was returned to her in white enamel set in precious stones.
The charge of anti-semitism for the failure of revival of the composers’ works, is the one point this reviewer is hesitant in following the author’s wonderful exposition on Meyerbeer. The UK population census of 2011 with its voluntary questions on religion and ethnicity showed how difficult it is to handle and analyse these issues. Clearly, journalists have recorded the statistically significant increase in anti-semitic incidents across Europe. Most recently, in the UK , the extent of revealed anti-semitism has been exposed at a political level. Yet, in the spirit of Aesop’s the man who called wolf, a more prosaic offering is made. The grand operas of Meyerbeer’s time required enormous subsidy and many operas today would be reluctant to replicate the huge expense of the grand opera. Has taste changed?