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Title: Opera
Original Title: Opéra
Volume and Page: Vol. 11 (1765), pp. 494–495
Author: Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt
Translator: Desmond Hosford [City University of New York,]
Subject terms:
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Opera." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Desmond Hosford. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2002. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Opéra," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 11. Paris, 1765.
Citation (Chicago): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Opera." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Desmond Hosford. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2002. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Opéra," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 11:494–495 (Paris, 1765).

Opera, a type of dramatic poem intended to be set to music and sung on stage with an orchestra and all sorts of decorations, machines and costumes. La Bruyere [sic] says that opera should hold the attention of the spirit, the ears and the eyes in a sort of enchantment, and Saint Evremont [sic] calls opera a chimerical assemblage of poetry and music in which the poet and musician mutually torture each other. See Lyric Poetry.

We received opera from the Venetians, among whom it was the principal entertainment of Carnival. See comedy.

While tragic and comic theater were developed in France and England, opera was given birth in Venice. The abbé Perrin, introducer of ambassadors to Gaston, duc d'Orléans, was the first to attempt this type of entertainment in Paris, and and for this he obtained exclusive rights from the king in 1669. It was not long before opera passed from France into England.

The author of the spectator (Addison) observes that French music is much better suited to the French accent and pronunciation than English music is suited to the English accent and pronunciation, and that it is even more suited to the gay humor of the French nation. See Recitative.

It is certain that the entertainment which we call opera was never known to the ancients, and that it is, properly speaking, neither comedy nor tragedy. Although Quinault & Lully, and many other poets and musicians since, have created most beautiful [ operas ], one can cite but a very small number in which are united all at the same time the marvel of the machines, the magnificence of the decorations, the harmony of the music, the sublimity of the poetry, the action of the theater, the regularity of the plot, and an interest sustained for five acts. It is rare that one of these elements is not weak. Moreover, the ballets are composed of entrées of different subjects which often have only an arbitrary and very distant relationship, and of which one may say with Despreaux [sic],

Que chaque acte en la piece est une piece entiere.

[ Each act of the piece is a piece in itself .]

This very palpable irregularity makes one think that the name poeme dramatique [ dramatic poem ] does not suit opera and that one would express themselves much more exactly in calling it a spectacle , because it appears that one seems to make more effort to enchant the eyes and the ears than to satisfy the spirit.

In Rome there is a type of sacred opera that is frequently given during Lent. It consists of dialogue, duo, trio, ritornellos, choruses, &c. The subject is frequently taken either from Scripture or the life of a saint, in a word, from some edifying matter. The Italians call it oratorio ; the words are often in Latin and sometimes in Italian.

I desire that I may be permitted to add a few reflections on this lyric entertainment. An opera is, as far as its dramatic element is concerned, the representation of a marvelous action. It is the divine of the epic rendered as spectacle. Since the actors are gods or heroes and demigods, they must announce themselves to mortals by actions, a language, by an inflexion of the voice that surpasses the laws of ordinary verisimilitude. Their actions resemble wonders. It is the sky that opens, chaos that dissipates, the elements that follow, a luminous cloud that carries a celestial being; it is an enchanted palace that vanishes at the smallest sign and transforms itself into a desert, &c.

But since one had seen fitting to join to these marvels song and music, and since the natural subject of song is sentiment, artists were obliged to handle the plot to arrive at the passions, without which there is no music, rather than [handle] the passions to arrive at the plot, and in consequence it was necessary that the language be entirely lyric, that it expressed ecstasy, enthusiasm, the transport of sentiment so that the music might produce all of its effects.

Since the pleasure of the ear becomes the pleasure of the heart, from there is born the observation that one will have made that verses set to music are more affecting than words alone. This observation resulted in setting these recitations to music. Finally one gradually arrived at entirely singing a dramatic piece and decorating it with a grand pomp. There is the origin and the performance of our opera , a magical entertainment

Où dans un doux enchantement
Le citoyen chagrin oublie
Et la guerre, & le parlement,
Et les impôts, & la patrie,
Et dans l'ivresse du moment
Croit voir le bonheur de sa vie.
[Where in a sweet enchantment
The chagrined citizen forgets
War and parliament,
Taxes and homeland,
And in the transport of the moment
Believes to see the happiness of his life.]

In this type of work, the poet must follow, as elsewhere, the laws of imitation in choosing that which is most beautiful and most touching in nature. His talent must also produce a happy versification which interests both the heart and the mind.

In the decorations, one wishes a variety of scenes and machines while one requires of the musician a music both learned and suited to the poem. That which his art adds to the art of the poet, is also added to the lack of verisimilitude that one finds in actors who express their passions, their quarrels, and their interests through singing, since it is true that pain and pleasure, joy and sadness are here always announced by songs and dances, but the music has such dominion over all that its expressions command the spirit and dictate the law.

The intelligence of sounds is so universal that it affects us with different passions which they represent as strongly as if they were expressed in our native tongue. Human language varies among diverse nations. Nature more powerful and more attentive to the needs and the pleasures of her creatures gave them the general means to depict them, and these general means are marvelously imitated by songs.

If it is true that piercing sounds express best the need for help in a violent fear or in a bitter grief, that words are understood in one part of the world and have no significance in another, it is no less certain that tender plaints strike our hearts with a much more effective comparison than words, of which the bizarre arrangement often makes a contrary effect. Do not the lively and light sounds of music inevitably carry to our souls a gay pleasure to which the recitation of a diverting tale never gives birth but imperfectly?

But, one will say, it is most strange that a man would assure us in verse that he is overcome with misfortunes and that soon afterwards he even kills himself while singing. I could respond that the idea one gives themselves of song and the custom that one has from a very young age of regarding it as only the child of pleasure and joy is partially the cause of this supposition. It would dissipate if one considered song in its real essence, that is to say, if one reflected that song is nothing really but an arrangement of different tones, so it would not appear extraordinary that the tones of a hero would be measured at the opera or to hear at the theater a prince speak to his council on important matters in verse.

Let us suppose for a moment that the king of France sent the actors and actresses of the opera to people a forsaken colony, and that he ordain that they ask for themselves only the most necessary things, and that they converse together only in the manner that they speak on the stage. The children that would be born on this island after a short time would gabble out airs and and all the inflections of their voices would be measured. The sons of dancers would always walk in cadence to go wherever they might wish, and and if this singing and dancing posterity ever came to the homeland of their fathers, their ears would be shocked by the dissonance that reigns in the tones of our conversation, and their eyes would be wounded by our manner of walking.

Opera is so brilliant by its magnificence, and so surprising by its machines that make a man fly in the heavens, or make him descend into hell, and that in an instant place a superb palace where there was a frightful desert, that if the savage peoples neighboring the island where in my supposition I relegated the opera , came to this entertainment, far from finding it ridiculous, I do not doubt at all that they would admire the genius of the actors, and that they would regard them as celestial beings.

In our countries enlightened on the strings that move the divinities of the opera , the senses themselves are so flattered by the melody of the recitatives, by the harmony that accompanies them, by the choruses, by the symphony, by the entire spectacle, that the soul which lets itself be easily seduced at their pleasure very much wishes to be enchanted by a fiction of which the illusion is, so to say, palpable.

However, it is necessary that the decorations, the music, the choice of pieces, their staging, and the actors that play them be without defects. Add to this that the halls where these sorts of marvelous entertainments are presented are so small, so neglected, so badly placed that it appears that the government does not protect this entertainment so much as tolerate it.

As for the versification of our operas , it is so prosaic, so monotonous, so devoid of the style of poetry that one cannot undertake its praise. Quinault himself, often very happy in thoughts, is not always so in expression. His most beautiful images are feeble when compared to our illustrious dramatic poets. I do not choose the least of his verses when I take these as an example.

C'est peut-être trop tard vouloir plaire à vos yeux,
Je ne suis plus au tems de l'aimable jeunesse,
Mais je suis roi, belle princesse,
Et roi victorieux .
Faites grace à mon âge en faveur de ma gloire.

Mithridate, full of the same idea, renders it in Racine by these completely poetic images.

Jusqu'ici la fortune, & la victoire même,
Cachoient mes cheveux blancs sous trente diadêmes;
Mais ce tems-là n'est plus; je regnois, & je suis.
Mes ans se sont accrus, mes honneurs sont détruits;
Et mon front dépouillé d'un si noble avantage,
Du tems qui l'a flétri, laisse voir tout l'outrage .

Does one not see so many crowns fall from the head of the vanquished Mithridate, his white hair, his wrinkles appear, and this king, whose disgrace makes him think of his age, ashamed to speak of love?