Giacomo Meyerbeer.
  • Giacomo Meyerbeer.
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What happened to Giacomo Meyerbeer? After seeing Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, Chopin proclaimed him to be immortal. His opera Les Huguenots was the first opera to be performed more than 1000 times at the Paris Opera.

Either one of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable or Les Huguenots could be considered the most successful opera of the 19th Century. The competition for most successful opera is between two operas by the same composer? Yes.

The Metropolitan Opera produced 29 performances of Meyerbeer's final opera, L’africaine, between 1923 and 1931. How many since 1931? Zero.



Placido Domingo & Shirley Verrett with the beautiful duet of Meyerbeer's opera

Placido Domingo & Shirley Verrett with the beautiful duet of Meyerbeer's opera

Why now is Meyerbeer a footnote in operatic history? There are theories.

The most prevalent idea is that Wagner and his followers waged a war of anti-semitism against this wealthy German-Jewish composer. Nevermind that Meyerbeer had supported and helped to produce Wagner’s first opera, Rienzi.

Meyerbeer had the artistic misfortune of being born into a wealthy family and then making an immense amount of money from his operas. Wagner, on the other hand, had the great artistic fortune of being born into a modest family and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on his opera productions and helped to bankrupt the kingdom of Bavaria in the process.

You see, the masses just don’t get it so there’s no money to be made. Since anything that makes money must be artistically inferior, Wagner’s disciples, including George Bernard Shaw, went on a campaign to belittle the influence of Meyerbeer.

Shaw quipped, "Nowadays young people cannot understand how anyone could have taken Meyerbeer's influence seriously."

I’m right there with them when it comes to the masses being idiots — but what about that response by Chopin? Is there any more authentic composer than Chopin?

Chopin loved opera. He was supposed to compose the great opera of the Polish Nation but fate took him a different direction. Was Chopin a fool for a populist show?

The San Francisco Opera production of L’africaine starring Shirley Verrett and Placido Domingo is the most recent video document but it is from 1988. The production was panned by critics but I loved it enough to buy the DVD when it was released.

While Meyerbeer will never be what he was in the 19th Century, we can still indulge a little bit in populist triviality. Right? Except this populism is about four hours long. What counts as populist appears to have changed a bit.

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