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Thursday, June 13, 2013

The French do it better

Paris, 2012

Putting together my "musical trilogy" has been even more fun than I had expected. Mom, (whose fault it is, after all) happily got involved and sent me comments and suggestions. We "talked" about music endlessly through email. 

The kids got involved too. You would be surprised at children's enthusiasm for opera! It's easy with R, who since she learned she shares a birth date with Mozart, has been passionate about him. Eventually she realized that not all classical music was composed by him, and other "big names" have made their way to her heart (Tchaikovsky among others). A, on the other hand, is my skeptical child, the one who always wants things justified and explained: her main interest for the longest time has been to discover why Beethoven always looks so pis*ed off (we have a bust of him on the piano). Not the kind to give anything for free, she grimaced while listening to Pavarotti, and said to me: "Mom, you sing better than this guy". I would take it as a compliment if it wasn't for the fact that I'm not quite sure how a (powerful, incredible) tenor voice can be compared to an (amateur, untrained) mezzo-soprano one!

R got to visit Mozart's birthplace
when we traveled to Austria in 2009

As it is usually the case with music, I got carried away this week (sorry for those of you I am exhausting!), and a trilogy apparently wasn't enough. So here we are again, this time for a little French opera add-on.

I had the pleasure of teaching French as a second language to adult students for a couple of years before translation became my main occupation. I absolutely LOVED teaching. I love the act of teaching in general (it's in my blood I think!), and the specifics of teaching a language in particular. Language classes encompass so much more than just the language! They involve working on communication skills and learning about a whole new culture. See for yourself! (I love this video as it features a Vizsla, the same breed of dog we have!)

One of my priorities when teaching French was to embed the learning in realistic situations as much as possible, or to call upon my students' passions. 

Once every semester, there was a weekend long "mini-immersion" for which all teachers got to organize talks on the topics of their choice; students simply picked the ones they wanted to attend. We could talk about anything, as long as it was done in French and actively involved the participants. For example, I once held a "French yoga class". I also organized a game of "French trivial pursuit". Hours of fun! 

But one of my favorite talks has to be the one I did about French opera. The participants got to listen to numerous excerpts and "fill in the blanks" on partial lyric sheets I gave them. They were also invited to comment (in French) on their impressions about the music, a strategy to help them build their vocabulary and improve their sentence construction. Many students were surprised to learn that some of the songs they knew were in French: they had never noticed! We had a great evening.

Let me have the pleasure to share with you the beautiful excerpts of French "art lyrique" I shared with my students back then. I have arranged them by composer, then by opera. Enjoy! (And don't forget to leave a comment!)

Georges Bizet 

Bizet is one of the first opera composers I discovered (thanks to mom) in childhood. He has a special place in my heart for that reason. His well-known opera is CARMEN. It's inspired from the eponymous short story by Prosper Mérimée. 

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera) (Act I)

We are in Sevilla, where Carmen tells her admirers that she might love them... one day! According to the song, love is unpredictable like a rebellious bird, and the man Carmen will love should be cautious!

Votre toast (Chanson du toréador) (Act II)

Escamillo, the famous toreador, arrives with a crowd of fans. They have a toast to his most recent successes.  Carmen and her friends are impressed by his bravery.

La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (Act III)

Don José declares his love to Carmen, telling her he kept the flower she gave him while he was in prison. 

LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES, another opera by Bizet

Au fond du temple saint (Act I)

Zurga, chief of the pearl divers, and his friend Nadir reminisce on how they both fell in love with Leila, a beautiful Brahman priestess. The men have promised to each other that their friendship was more important than this love rivalry. Here is a powerful duo one can hear in the movie Gallipoli.

Léo Delibes (1836-1891)


Viens, Malika (Flower Duet) (Act I)

This exotic opera features the clandestine love affair between a British officer and Lakmé, daughter of a fanatic Brahman priest. Lakmé and her friend Mallika are about to bathe in the temple garden's stream. Their song is inspired by the water, the flowers and the birds. This melody has been used by British Airways; one can also hear it in the movie True Romance.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
His opera FAUST is based on the tragic play by Goethe. Marguerite is seduced by Faust after he sold his soul to the devil.

Tintinophiles will recognize this aria!


Based on the eponymous masterpiece by Shakespeare!

Jules Massenet


Toute mon âme est là! Pourquoi me réveiller? (Act III)

Werther, the melancholic, falls for Charlotte, but she marries another man to keep her promise to her mother.  Werther reads a poem and finds that the words are the perfect expression of his despair. This opera is based on Goethe's novel,  Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther).

Jacques Offenbach  (1819-1880)


Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour (Barcarolle) (Act II)

This opera is a collection of stories retelling how the poet, Hoffmann, loses each of the four women he loves, and eventually gives in to alcohol and poetry. One of the stories takes place in Venice. It's a full moon night on the lagoon. This song can be heard in the movie La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful).


This is an "opéra bouffe", meaning it contains comedy, satire and parody. La Périchole is about to get married and everyone gets a little too enthusiastic with wine! One of the best, most colorful description of the  - fun - effects of alcohol!

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)


Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix (Act II)

Samson, Hebrew slave to the Philistines, knows he has to resist Dalila, but his determination escapes him when he hears this sensual love song. He allows Dalila to discover the secret of his strength: his hair. She cuts it, taking all his power away from him.

There's a composer/opera that I hadn't evoked during my "French opera conference", that mom now suggested I should add... and I said why not? Plus, this is a wonderful performance by The Legend!

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)


And to finish, proof that opera does make it into mainstream media, take a look at this commercial.

So, did you recognize anything? Any favorite?


  1. Julie, these posts are about to give me a musical.....



    Lovin' it.


  2. I love how you share your love of music with your kids. I like opera in general, but honestly, I haven't heard that many. I've been to a few college operas and listened to some on the radio but that's about it.

    1. Music being one of the greatest pleasures in life, I feel it has to be shared! :-)

      Glad you like opera! It's a whole universe to discover.

  3. I love the photos of the kids!!

    I did not have that look too often when I was living in France. Not speaking the language made it a more difficult soiree :-)

    1. Ah, that's too bad Dr. J. It must have felt frustrating to not be able to communicate.

      Next time you plan a trip to France, call me first, I'll give you a crash course! :-)

  4. Love the photos of your kids in Paris! I would love to take my girls to France when they're a little bit older. My husband and I watch the Tour de France every year, and it gives me a major case of wanderlust every time. Even more than visiting the City of Lights, I'd love to hike and bike some of the beautiful places around the country.