Department of Music

French Opera and the Revolutionary Sublime

Guillame Tell Royal Opera House

Following a failed uprising, the entire population of Meyerbeer’s grand opera Le Prophète (1849) is engulfed by the audio-visual spectacle of an exploding palace. This sublime tableau of destruction was widely received as merging political and aesthetic ideas of 1848 with those of the 1790s, and confirming the end of revolutionary idealism. The term ‘sublime’ was used frequently by critics, and had quite specific philosophical and political (revolutionary) resonances: it signified an overwhelming of the senses, combining emotions of awe and terror, gesturing to a transcendent realm. Similar cataclysmic denouements featured in clusters of French operas in the 1790s (following the outbreak of the 1789 revolution), in the mid-1820s (in a climate of building tensions, fuelled by revolutions in southern Europe, and culminating with the 1830 July Revolution in Paris), and in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions across Europe. In these years, political anxieties were played out in the cultural sphere, and such tableaux were part of the discourse on the unrepresentable nature of revolutionary experience.

Project overview 
This project analyses the roots and evolution of this political-aesthetic moment by addressing the following questions:

  1. What was the nature of the relationship between revolution, operatic tableau and the sublime that emerged in 1790s Paris, and how did it evolve during the first half of the nineteenth century at moments of revolutionary crisis? 
    a) What sorts of explicit connections did critics (and others) make between overwhelming political and theatrical experiences at times of revolution? 
    b) How was the term ‘sublime’ used in wider political and cultural contexts by French writers, and can we establish a specifically French construction (as opposed to English, German) that is inseparable from the experience of revolution? 
    c) What role did memory play in the evolving process of revolutionary experience during the first half of the nineteenth century in France? What sorts of retrospective claims were made about political and cultural events and experiences? 
  2. How can we theorise the aesthetic effect of such sublime operatic moments and understand their impacts on audiences in the context of wider technological and sensory experiences? 
    a) How were these aural and visual effects created and received? 
    b) To what extent did opera employ (and contribute to the development of) contemporary technological innovation, and how did this shape the emergence of grand opera and its aesthetic during the second quarter of the nineteenth century? 
    c) What was the scientific understanding of sensory perception at the time? 
    d) How does an examination of ephemeral entertainments such as dioramas help us better appreciate audience expectations, and experiences of opera? 
    e) Can we establish a model for understanding musical ‘liveness’ (the experience of performance in the moment) in a historical context? 
  3. How were the techniques, aesthetic effects and political resonances of these tableaux absorbed into operatic traditions across Europe? 
    a) How were French operas adapted for London in the nineteenth century, and how did they influence adaptations of other repertory? What were audience expectations? 
    b) What is the current understanding (among audiences, performers, directors) of the legacy of grand opera? How can we best convey the genre’s continuing relevance? 


Outputs and activities

The principal piece of research will be a monograph, currently in preparation, which will examine some key operas first performed in Paris between 1791 and 1830, including: Cherubini’s Eliza, ou Le voyage aux glaciers du Mont St Bernard (1791) and Médée (1797); Spontini’s Fernand Cortez (1809 and 1817); Rossini’s Le Siège de Corinthe (1826) and Guillaume Tell (1830). But the project has also involved a variety of other activities, relating to the key themes of 1) opera and politics; 2) staging, technologies, the senses; 3) grand opera’s legacy:


Conference papers presented

  • Nineteenth-Century Music Conference (Toronto, June 2014)
  • Royal Musical Association Annual Conference (Leeds, September 2014)
  • American Musicological Society (Louisville, November 2015)
  • The Melodramatic Moment, 1790–1820 (London, March 2014): invited paper
  • Cultural Geographies of Opera (Oxford, September 2014): invited paper
  • Nineteenth-Century Grand Opera outside Paris (Copenhagen, December 2014): keynote
  • Sonic Spaces: Music and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century London (Yale, March 2015): invited paper
  • Moving Meyerbeer (Biel, April 2015): invited paper
  • Opera, Politics, and Parody in Nineteenth-Century France (Lexington, KY, November 2015)


  • ‘Immersion and Proximity: Music, Sound, and Subjectivity in The Memory Dealer’, Journal of Sonic Studies, 9 (2015) [co-written with Nanette Nielsen]
  • Music and Science in London and Paris: special issue of 19th-Century Music, 39/2 (Fall 2015) [guest edited, plus article: ‘Underground Technologies: The Lisbon Earthquake at the Cyclorama’]
  •  ‘Scenography, spéculomanie and spectacle: Pixérécourt’s La Citerne’, in The Melodramatic Moment, ed. Katherine Hambridge and Jonathan Hicks (Chicago, forthcoming)
  •  ‘Cockneys in a fever’: Gustave in London’ in Grand Opera on the Move, ed. Jens Hesselager (volume under consideration)
  • Opera on the Move: special issue of Cambridge Opera Journal (in preparation) [guest-edited by project research associate, Laura Protano-Biggs]
  • Sonorous Sublimes: Music and Sound [volume of essays, co-edited with Miranda Stanyon, in preparation]


Public engagement 
  • BBC: guest for Opera on 3: Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini (June 2014)
  • Welsh National Opera: programme notes on staging for Rossini’s Mosè (October 2014)
  • Liner notes for Bryan Hymel’s recording, Héroïque: French Opera Arias (Warner Classics, 2015)
  • Opera North: programme notes and contribution to pre-performance talk on the Parisian influences on Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (Nottingham, Royal Centre, July 2015): 
  • Royal Opera House: Writer in Residence for production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (January – July 2015): programme notes and blog
  • Opera Rara: introduction to French scores in the collection (October 2015)
Arts and Humanties Research Council

Principal Investigator

Sarah Hibberd 

Research Leadership Fellow (2014/15)



Department of Music

The University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts Centre
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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