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I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this on my blog (mainly because most people who read it heard all about it last fall), but technically I’ve been awarded a fantastic grant in order to study French operetta repertoire. I did Orphée aux Enfers last summer in Périgueux (and there is some really embarrassing footage on Youtube to prove it), but otherwise I don’t know a whole lot about the genre (though I am working towards an encyclopedic knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan!). As recently as last year, there was a year-long performance course on operetta at the Schola Cantorum, and this class was going to form the base of my project. But upon arrival in Paris, I discovered that the class was not being offered this year. So a couple of days ago, inspired by some correspondence with the grant administrators, I decided to do an independent study of French operetta. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France has a music department with a colossal number of operetta scores, and it’s also got a department called “arts du spectacle,” which is concerned with all things theatrical. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to do some research on the roots of French operetta, its composers, its defining features, and then put together a sort of one-woman operetta cabaret in the spring?

Yes, it would be fun, but it would also be a lot of work. So I resolved to go to the Médiathèque Gustav Mahler as soon as possible and spend some time with their resources. It’s a small library, but they have a couple of books on the history of French operetta. The librarian pulled down the book I wanted–a blessedly slender volume called simply “L’Opérette”–and then suggested another, which was something of a tome. I took them both and sat myself down at a table in the corner with my new notebook and a pen, determined to work my way through whatever I could and write down everything (this is a tip from a friend of mine’s advisor at the Sorbonne, where she is studying history).

This is the moment when I realized how rusty my French is. The last time I had to read anything in French was freshman year of college when I took French lit to fulfill some requirement. Well, maybe “rusty” isn’t quite what I mean in this instance. It’s more that you don’t realize how much it takes to really know a language until you’ve tried to read a scholarly work in that language. They always say that musicologists need to be able to read at least French and German, depending on their specialization–I can’t even imagine having that kind of facility with a foreign language. I think about people who move to the States to do graduate work, especially in the humanities, or law, and I shudder to think of what a struggle it must be. There are certainly words in English that I’ve never seen before, or don’t immediately know the meaning of, but in English I have the advantage of understanding every word surrounding those words, and can infer the meaning via context. Not so in French, which makes reading a devilish chore.

But I pressed on. I made it through about forty pages (skimming) of the smaller book, and took two-and-a-half dense pages of notes in a hilarious mish-mosh of French and English (Franglais, if you will). Then I photocopied the introduction to the enormous book. For the moment I don’t really need to be an expert in French operetta–just the facts, ma’am. I think the bulk of what I learn from this project will be learned from scores and libretti, and what the music itself can tell me. In fact, there was this great quote that I wrote down yesterday: “L’opéra-comique…est une comédie en musique tandis que l’opérette est une pièce musicalement comique.” It means that opéra-comique is a comedy told in music, while opérette is a piece that is musically comedic. The composers of opérette reveled in musical, not just textual, in-jokes and parodies–like the bit in Orphée aux Enfers where Offenbach quotes “Che farò senza Eurydice” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice, but Offenbach’s Orphée is completely insincere when he sings “On m’a ravie mon Eurydice”–he’s trying to charm the goddesses into telling him where his wife has gone. There’s also a quote of “La Marseillaise” in the “Aux armes” chorus from the same piece. I think this will be a really fun project–if I can get past the not-so-fun part.

Anyway, after about an hour, I gave up the struggle (gluggle uggle uggle) and bought myself a well-deserved pain aux raisins.



P.S. Today’s earworm. You’re welcome.