A History of Opera in France

  • May 14, 2020
  • Theatre in Paris exclusives
  • Aysha Ferullo

Not only is Opéra one of our favourite neighbourhoods in Paris, it’s also an art form intrinsic to French culture. While Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss and Donizetti may be among the first to come to mind upon thinking about opera, France itself is also home to some of the world’s most appreciated opera composers. Rameau, Berloiz, Massenet, Debussy and Messian are some of France’s most cherished artists. Whatever the season may be, seeing an opera in Paris is one of our favourite pastimes. Why not try it for yourself?

Opera throughout the years

  • French opera tradition dates back as far as 1673, with a performance of Jean-Baptise Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione. Performed at the court of Louis XIV of France, this milestone marks the country’s first official opera performance, and thus French opera was born.
  • Considering the next milestone, we find ourselves a century later in the 1770s, when German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck was asked to produce six operas for the Parisian stage, in this instance focusing specifically on the dramatic aspect of opera.

  • Towards the middle of the XVIIIth Century, the opéra comique genre was gaining popularity in France, championing the use of more spoken dialogue in opera.
  • The second half of the 19th century then brought the operetta genre to the foreground, including witty pieces, such as Gounod’s Faust and Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers. This was also the period in which Georges Bizet composed Carmen, which is often regarded as the most well-known French opera in history
  • More recently, Gabriel Fauré’s Penelope (1913) and Paul Dukas' Ariana et Barbe-Bleue (1907) graced the 20th-century stage, creating publicity of their own.
  • In 1957, Francis Poulenc’s greatest opera, Le Dialogues des Carmelites was staged, depicting the life of a convent during the French Revolution. 

Opéra national de Paris

There’s no better place to learn about French opera tradition than by seeing a show performed by the Opéra national de Paris, France’s leading ballet and opera company. In fact, classical ballet as we know it today was born and nourished within the walls of the Opéra national de Paris, known as the Paris Opera Ballet. Still today, the Paris Opera Ballet is an integral part of the Opéra national de Paris. They also have their own ballet school, founded by Louis XIV in 1813. 

The Opéra national de Paris primarily produces its shows at the Opera Bastille (since 1989), while ballets and other classic operas are performed at the Palais Garnier (since 1875). There is also a 500 seat Amphitheatre under the Opera Bastille in which smaller-scale pieces are frequently performed. Wherever you choose to see a French opera show, it’s sure to be an evening you’ll never forget. 

The Opéra national de Paris is a significant part of French opera culture, with up to 280 performances of opera and ballet being staged ever year to audiences of over 800,000 people. Interestingly, the company has undergone many name changes over the years, with Academie d’Opéra being the initial name upon the company’s formation in 1669. However, it’s been known as the Opéra national de Paris since 1994. 

Feeling inspired? Why not visit the Opera Garnier ?

Tosca ©Svetlana Loboff / Opéra nartional de Paris

Operas currently Playing in Paris

Whether it is at the Palais Garnier, at the Opéra Bastille, at the Royal Opera of Versailles or at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, you are sure to find an opera that will speak to your heart. In 2021 and 2022, more than 20 operas will enchant the Parisian stages. The greatest Italian composers will be celebrated throughout the year. Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore will take center stage at the Opéra Bastille from September to November 2021, followed by Verdi's Rigoletto. Puccini's astounding Turandot will delight the Opéra Bastille at the end of 2021. Mozart's operas will delight spectators in Paris and Versailles. You will be able to admire Le Nozze di Figaro in January and February 2022, Don Giovanni in February and March and Cosi fan tutte in March 2022. Two daring staging will see the light of day at the Paris Opera: 7 Deaths of Maria Callas staged and performed by Marina Abramović as well as George Enesco's Œdipe, directed by Wajdi Mouawad.
French composers will be in the spotlight throughout 2021 and 2022. You will be moved by Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, Manon and by Massenet as well as Faust by Gounod. You will laugh out loud in front of the comedies-ballets The Imaginary Invalid and George Dandin by Molière and Lully at the Royal Opera of Versailles and discover the revolutionary melodies of Richard the Lionheart . You will find it hard not to dance in front of Offenbach's operetta La Vie Parisienne, a true celebration of Paris.
The modern staging of Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer, Berg's Wozzeck and Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride won't let you down. The scores of Russian operas La Khovantchina and Eugen Oneguin will leave you speechless. Finally, you will let yourself be carried away by the baroque operas Alcina, Atys and Platée at the Royal Opera of Versailles and Palais Garnier.

Discover all the operas currently playing in Paris