Robert Letellier interviewed by Jean Michel Pennetier in Forumopera

Robert Letellier, author and editor of numerous books with Cambridge Scholars, has been interviewed by the online magazine Forumopera (in French).

To read the interview, please click here, and Robert has very kindly provided an English translation of his responses, which can be read in full below. His latest book with Cambridge Scholars, Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète: A Parable of Politics, Faith and Transcendence, is out now. To purchase a copy please click here.

First thoughts

My interest in Meyerbeer began when I was very young in the mid-1960s. I read about Rossini and Wagner, and always came across the name of Meyerbeer. I was puzzled by the extreme and contradictory points of view about him, and the huge strength of feeling his name seemed to provoke. No other composer seemed to elicit such intensity of reaction. Why? I also read about him in a child’s introduction to opera, and was particularly intrigued by the story of the Ballet of the Nuns in Robert le Diable. When I wanted to hear some of his music, I found that there was virtually nothing recorded other than the Coronation March, ‘Ombre légère’ and ‘O Paradis’, even though all other composers seemed well represented in the  catalogues. I soon discovered that there was almost a ban on his music, and a tendency to downplay, ridicule or despise him as a charlatan or Jewish money-maker. Always one read about the disparaging attitudes of Wagner, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and the scorn of Heine. Even the most read textbooks of the time (like the influential book by Donald Grout on Opera) were dismissive. And yet Meyerbeer was once so famous and popular, and you cannot be a composer performed all over the world for nearly a century and yet a duplicitous purveyor of shoddy goods.

Eventually in 1968 I found an old score of Les Huguenots, and at the same time the old record label Saga brought out an LP of  old re-recordings from the ‘Golden Age’. So through the crackle of these old recitals I heard some of the legendary singers of opera sing melodies from this once so famous score. Only in 1971 could I hear Les Huguenots recorded marvelously by Decca, under Richard Bonynge. I found the experience overwhelming, “one of the greatest moments of my life” (to quote a famous observation by Hans von Bülow).

As I became older, I heard of the edition of Meyerbeer’s letters and diaries, and longed to be able to read them. I needed to know German to do this (my mother-tongue is English, my father’s family is French), so I studied German at university. The papers edited by Heinz and Gudrun Becker  (who both became my friends) appeared very slowly, and when Prof Becker retired before completing the work, I wanted to do something myself, and asked for a copy of the composer’s manuscript diary from the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. To my surprise, they sent me the material, and  for the next few years I devoted much of my life to transcribing and translating these primary documents so that I could know the truth about Meyerbeer from his own  private writings.

But it is Meyerbeer’s music which must carry his fame and reputation, and with more of his operas being made available on disc and in production, I was soon able to explore the artistic content in greater detail, and to write about them. Contrary to what so many commentators, scholars and reviewers had said, I found them (and the stories of Eugène Scribe) rich and beautiful, and full of wonderful ideas and serious exploration of some of most important issues in life, each opera characterized by its own mood, colour and symbolism.

I also found myself much drawn to the whole history of French opera in the first part of the 19th century, the wonderful worlds of grand opéra and opéra-comique. Since my ancestry is half-French, I have an intuitive love for the elegance and freshness of  this music. I could not understand why the French nation itself seemed/seems to disregard the beautiful heritage of its operatic legacy up to 1870? The neglect of Auber is particularly incomprehensible to me, as this music is full of life and graciousness.

On Meyerbeer

The fate of Meyerbeer’s reputation, the violent swing from near-universal admiration to total denigration and neglect, is one of the biggest mysteries and challenges of musical history. It is also abnormal and hugely exaggerated, as though Meyerbeer became the scapegoat and victim for many of the artistic prejudices and social issues of the late 19th and 20th centuries. This is to do with Meyerbeer’s Jewishness, his personal wealth and huge success, the complexities of German and French national identities, the opprobrium brought by Wagner’s withering criticism (personal and artistic), the changes in musical taste, the universal and almost fanatical adoration of Wagner (as much in France as in other countries), and the changing artistic aesthetic, a move away from heroic opera and the bel canto tradition. There has been a repudiation of history as a subject in opera, as well as a disregard for symbolism and nature itself. The visceral power of drama in the context of  historical scenarios is central to Meyerbeer’s  urgent aesthetic.This is reflected in the bizarre developments in the staging of opera growing since the Second World War, where the staging concepts of Meyerhold and Brecht have made the Verfremdungseffekt the universal feature of modern staging (the so-called Regietheater).

Meyerbeer’s operas are about the huge realities of history and religion, of politics and prejudice, and also mythology and the nature of human worth and dignity over ideology and religious tyranny. In both theme and the musical forms he used to address these issues, he (and Scribe) showed themselves to be great innovators and thinkers about the human condition. Kindness, love and sacrifice matter, and have the power to change human behaviour. Meyerbeer’s adaptation of the formal structures and musical practices of his age (German, Italian and French), set a new directions in the genre of opera and in the style of lyric music and dramaturgy. The allegation of ‘effects without cause’ is a totally meaningless concept, since all opera and indeed any kind of music needs striking ideas and even innovation to make it interesting.

On Les Huguenots

This opera deals with an issue that becomes ever more pressing in own times: the place of religious and political ideology in the lives of ordinary men and women. Do human beings matter more than ideas? The terrible record of the Reformation and Wars of Religion (1517-1648) should have been a lesson to change our attitudes to life and tolerance, but this lesson is never learned.

The music of this opera is dramatic, highly melodious, richly textured harmonically and full of orchestral colour. It also affects the emotions and subconscious reactions of the listener, and should, through the visual power of the staging, bring details of the music to the fore. The beautiful gardens of Chenonceau are contrasted with the terror of the dark streets and alleyways of the terrible night of St Bartholomew. The ideology of many of the characters is transformed through actions and gesture of love and self-sacrifice into an idealism of compassion and forgiveness. There must be a poetry and mysterious beauty in the mise-en-scène, in the evocation of bygone times, and in depicting ageless challenges posed by the past in politics, religion and the mistakes of humanity.

The reality of the terrible history recounted needs to be confronted as historical fact and as timeless recurrence of the human condition. Meyerbeer as a Jew and an outsider in both Berlin and Paris was acutely aware of these issues that would assume such terrible ferocity and devastating consequences in the 20th century. He looks at Catholics and Protestants with equal detachment, and with the same interest, being able to conjure up their themes and self-expression in the most marvellous way. This is why his music is so prophetic, and why (with Halévy in La Juive) the attitudes of freedom and responsibility, of openness and tolerance, that came in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, are of such enduring topical application to us still. Meyerbeer’s music is both dramatically powerful and also true to the traditions of beautiful song expressed in mellifluous melody and the beguiling spectrum of orchestral colours. And it speaks to us of the most important challenges of history and life itself.

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