The Marriage of Opera and Ballet

 Marcelo Gomes and Diana Vishneva in Manon. Photo courtesy of Gene Schiavone

Marcelo Gomes and Diana Vishneva in Manon. Photo courtesy of Gene Schiavone

This year, it seems the lines between opera and ballet are blurring a little more than usual.  I thrive on the blurring of those lines because I love ballet as much as I love opera.  For years I drove myself crazy trying to decide which one I love best, but I have decided not to decide.  It's okay to love them equally, especially because they have such a shared history and storyline.

While it only rarely happens that one hears opera in a ballet (two exceptions being Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream and Glass's In The Upper Room), many opera performances feature ballet.  This is most often the case in French opera, most certainly because ballet is an art form which originated in France.

In 1653, Louis XIV danced in Lully's ballet Le Ballet de la Nuit.  He took on the role of Apollo who is the god of the sun, hence Louis XIV would be known as The Sun King.  At the same time he was also promoting the advent of opera, which had recently crossed the borders from Italy.  Lully was the first Frenchman (although he was born in Italy) to compose opera in France.  It was an art form he dubbed "tragedies en musique."  As the decades progressed, ballet and opera got into a strained marriage; one could not sustain without the other.  Gluck for example, one of the most important opera composers after Lully and Rameau, featured ballet in Orfeo ed Euridice.  

Despite the fact that opera and ballet became two distinct art forms around the 1780's (mostly due to influences from abroad), ballet featured prominently in French opera well into the 19th Century.  One of the French Grand Opera rules (which became popular at the beginning of the eighteen hundreds), is to have a ballet performance during the opera.  This was the only way you made a chance of having your opera performed at the prestigious Paris Opera.  Even though Berlioz added an extensive ballet interlude to Les Troyens, he was not allowed to perform at the Paris Opera.  Les Troyens would remain an obscure work until some major revivals in the 1960's.  The Met staged Les Troyens a few seasons back, ballet and all.  If the ballet became a little boring to you at some point, it is okay, because it probably also did to audiences in 1863.  The only difference was the lights were on in the opera house at that time, and it was perfectly acceptable to start playing cards or talking to your neighbor.    

Even though the tradition of Grand Opera came to an end around that time, some of its traditions stuck. Composers kept including ballets in their operas, including  Massenet's Manon.  Manon was based on Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost, and was turned into a full-length ballet by Kenneth Macmillan in 1974, set to music by Massenet as well.  This is only one example of a ballet and an opera based on the same subject, book, poem, play...  Though it is the case with Manon, the music for a ballet does not always have to be from the same composer as the opera.  Frederick Ashton, whose ballet based on Lady of the Camélias was called Marguerite et Armand, saw the whole ballet come to life in his mind as he listened to Liszt's B Minor piano sonata.

 So if you are new to ballet, but you like opera, why not give one of the following ballets a chance.  You know the story, all you need to do is turn that switch and remember the story is told in movement, and not words.  And just as Wagner uses Leitmotifs to express certain ideas, so do ballet dancers use Pantomime to express their thoughts and feelings.  



Romeo and Juliet


La Dame aux Camélias




The Tempest

Midsummer Night's Dream




Romeo and Juliet

Eugene Onegin

La Traviata

Manon & Manon Lescaut

La Cenerentolla

Les Contes d'Hoffman

The Tempest

Midsummer Night's Dream





Novel by Fouqué


Novel by Pushkin

Novel by Alexandre Dumas

Novel by Abbé Prévost

Folk Tale 

Short stories by Hoffman