A Day at the Opera


The nature of Opera  
Marie Duplessis – her life  
  Consumption (TB)
  Salons of France
  Gambling in France
La Dame aux Camélias  
La Traviata – synopsis  

The nature of Opera

For more than 400 years, Opera has been one of the most alluring forms of musical entertainment. A special glamour attaches to it – some roles are famous, such as Carmen, Mimi, Aida, Figaro, Brünnhilde, and Don Giovanni – and many of their songs are well-known and some singers have become icons, such as Joan Sutherland and Nellie Melba. Even for people who have never been near an opera house there will still be a surprising number of things about opera that they will already know or have heard, such as Pavarotti singing Nessum Dorma, or the Geelong football team singing the Toreador's song.

At first glance Opera would seem to make impossible demands on the credulity of those who go to a performance. It presents us with human beings caught up in dramatic situations, who sing to each other instead of talking. What could make so much nonsense bearable? For example, how could two mortal enemies, before trying to kill each other, join in singing a long and fine-sounding duet?

A reasonable question is: how can an art-form based on such an unnatural procedure be convincing? To answer that question, it need only be pointed out what must always remain the fundamental aspiration of art, and that is, not to copy nature but to heighten our awareness of it. People in real life do not sing to each other, nor live in rooms of which one wall is conveniently missing so that anyone, or everyone, can look inside. Opera, just like all the arts, employs conventions that are accepted both by the artist and the audience, so as to capture our attention beyond the everyday things of life.

An opera is a drama that is sung. That may seem to be a very tricky thing to take on board. But if we look at what an opera basically consists of, we find it has two parts. Surprisingly, each part when looked at independently is perfectly acceptable to everyone. The first part is that it is a story – and we all like stories. The second part is that it is music – and we all like music. So, given that we like both the parts separately, why ought we not like them even more when they are brought together? Logically, there should be no problem, so maybe it's just a matter of getting used to the mix.

Opera began in 1594 but that first opera is lost. 1600 is considered to be Opera's real birthday when an opera called "Euridice" was performed in Florence. To give another perspective of that year, Shakespeare had just published "The Merchant of Venice"

That very first opera, "Euridice", was a story from mythology and for the first 250 years of opera's existence it was always mythological characters or famous figures of history that operas were about. In 1853 Giuseppi Verdi got away from that convention of gods and heroes, when he wrote an opera about an ordinary person, a young woman, an ignorant peasant girl from a tiny French village who went to Paris and there became famous. Why there is an opera about this peasant girl and why we know anything about her is a fascination in itself.

Marie Duplessis


Alphonsine Plessis baptismal name


Marie Duplessis adopted name

Oct 1841

"       "

Stackelberg's "foster" daughter

Dec 1842

Vicomtesse de Perregaux married


"       "



Marguerite Gautier La Dame aux Camélias novel


Marguerite Gautier La Dame aux Camélias play


Violetta Valéry La Traviata opera


Marguerite Marguerite & Armand ballet


Marie Duplessis — Her Life

Marie Duplessis by age 23 was one of the most famous, or perhaps one should say infamous, women in France. Also, she was dead! But in death to be immortalised in a novel, a play, an opera and a ballet. Immorality attained immortality, for she was a courtesan.

Marie Duplessis was born Alphonsine Plessis, on the 15th of January, 1824, in the tiny village of Nonant in Normandy. Her father was an habitual drunkard, violent and vile. At one time, he attempted to set fire to the house with the family inside. His brutality continued until, finally, the family broke up.

Alphonsine, aged only 15, set out for Paris, 156 km away. She worked in a laundry and next became a seamstress. Seamstresses were very poorly paid. Most lived with their parents and so could manage to get by. On her own, Alphonsine earned less than a living wage because she had to rent a place to live, however squalid. It is likely that it was in this period of her life that she contracted the tuberculosis that was to kill her.

She was very poor and often hungry. The Director of the Paris Opera, Monsieur Roqueplan, recalled seeing her on the Pont Neuf eating a green apple, but gazing hungrily at the fried potatoes being sold nearby. He bought her a large portion and watched as she wolfed them down and licked the paper they had been wrapped in.

By age 17, Alphonsine had become one of the most beautiful women in Paris and thus, given Paris's fame for beauty, one of the most beautiful women in the world. Another wonderful quality she had was a natural refinement, enabling her to make friends, both men and women, above her station in life.

One friend was a restaurateur who set her up in an apartment as his de facto wife. She quit her job as a seamstress. Like many a teenager, she liked dancing. She danced at the Prado but found that the restaurateur's maid had been assigned to spy on her. She sought to end the relationship.

At the Prado, she met a rich young nobleman, Antoine, Duc de Guiche who not only found her a better apartment, but arranged for his grandmother to educate her. Alphonsine could neither read nor write but had a natural intelligence and worked hard at her studies. Under the grandmother's guidance she attained an appreciation of the arts and began attending the Opera and theatre and learnt the piano. She took to horseback riding in the Bois de Boulogne, where it was a fashionable pastime, or would go there in her carriage. To complete her transformation, she changed her name from Alphonsine to Marie and added Du to Plessis. Why did she change her name and who had instigated it?

In an amazingly short time she was able to mingle and converse ably with educated people. An English gentleman said of her "Her inbred tact and instinctive delicacy compensated for a totally inadequate education. Whatever she recognised as admirable in her friends she strove to master herself, so that her natural beauty was enhanced by the flower of her intelligence."

When Monsieur Roqueplan, the Paris Opera director, next saw her, he was astonished to find that the little waif from the Pont Neuf, to whom he had given a packet of pomme frites, had become the sophisticated lady on the arm of the Duc de Guiche. It is thought that she may have had a son and that he was raised by the de Guiche family. Eventually, Marie's affair with de Guiche broke up but he remained her friend for life.

Marie moved on, but to what? Suddenly, Marie's home entered the salon circuit. It was not possible for Marie alone to establish such a place. It seems very likely the de Guiche family set her up in the salon. They had educated her, and she lived in their palatial property, beautifully decorated and lavish with paintings and ornaments. They knew the people who ought to be invited to the salon and how to entertain them, and provided the staff and the food and wines, things far beyond Marie's experience. Marie with her beauty of looks and beauty of personality was the perfect hostess.

Salons were brilliant centres of elegant Parisian society. The participants went along to enjoy intellectual conversation, entertainment, music, dancing, and gambling.

Attention, in particular, is drawn to gambling. Gambling was not usually found in the salons. There were gambling clubs, casinos and the like elsewhere to cater for that interest. But that had suddenly changed. Gambling was made illegal in France from 1838 (and for 20 years) – but that was not going to stop it. Gambling, during those years of prohibition, moved into private residences, that is, the salons. Such places were a means of accessing the vast wealth of Paris and became money-spinners. Salon invitees now included those with money. France had invented the great gambling games of roulette, chemin de fer, and trente et quarante. These games were very profitable because the odds favoured the "house" and winners were also generous in tipping Marie, the "lucky" hostess!

Marie's salon was soon to be the leading salon in Paris. She became a celebrity – one of the world's first. It was a great honour to be invited to attend Marie's salon because of her fame and because she chose the participants based on their brilliance as well as their money. She had become so famous that no foreign VIP or diplomat visiting Paris wanted to return without having called on la Duplessis and having left a costly gift.

At some time, Marie became a courtesan. Exactly when is not known. Although her salon included celebrated and fashionable guests, they were rarely the moneyed rich of the city. The vast number of gifts she had received made her wealthy, but not in money terms. She was asset-rich, cash-poor. Marie needed money to finance her endeavours and her expensive life-style but when her rich guests were few in number she needed credit. Credit besets business of every age and Marie was not immune. In those days of no credit cards, she got credit by pawning some of her gifts. Wisely, she never sold gifts, otherwise donors would cease to give her any if they found she did not retain and display them. But if the cost of redemptions and interest accumulated, where was a large sum of money going to come from?

Marie resolved that issue by becoming a courtesan. She was not a prostitute who sold her favours casually and privately. A courtesan of Marie's type was a woman who lived a regular social life, attaching herself to one man at a time; a wealthy man, to whom her debts were a mere triviality to discharge. Marie made friends but no enemies. even among wives and parents. She had no affairs with married men, or with those of limited wealth who could potentially send themselves broke, or into debt, or be disinherited.

There was no artificiality in Marie, she being perfectly natural and honest – a liberated woman. That did not go down well with the moralistic, self-righteous, church-going Parisians.

At a soirée, she met Edoard, Vicomte de Perregaux. He was rich but only because his grandfather, who was his guardian, and had been a financier of Napoleon, gave him a generous allowance. Perregaux fell in love with Marie. He bought a home in Bougival, a beautiful village 20 km from Paris, where they could be alone and away from the distractions of the city. Marie ceased to be in the salon business. She and Perregaux contemplated marriage. His family, though, became alarmed at his prolonged dalliance with this peasant girl.

When Perregaux had become hopelessly in debt from gambling, his guardian offered to pay his debts if he would leave Marie. He agreed to it but didn't have the heart to tell her, and so it was the grandfather, who came to tell Marie that the affair was over. Marie returned to Paris and formed a new salon. One must wonder how she did that. Perhaps it was Perregaux's grandfather, the financier, who set her up! It makes good business sense.

Her new salon's adherents included the writer Balzac and the playwright, Alfred de Musset. Musset, called the French Shakespeare, was an upper-crust dandy, who had had an affair with George Sand. He now had a short-term affair with Marie.

About this time, she began to realise that her cough was the symptom of a serious illness and she consulted the best-known doctors in Paris. Their diagnosis was tuberculosis. She went to the celebrated spa resort of Bagneres, in the Pyrenees. Among the invalids at the hotel was a lovely girl, the same age as Marie, suffering the same complaint, and bearing such a strong resemblance to her that, wherever they went, they were called the twin sisters. This girl was the daughter of a septuagenarian, a Swedish Count, Gustav von Stackelberg. Suddenly, the daughter died and he was heartbroken. Because Marie was so like his lost daughter, he asked her if she would be a "daughter" to him. She agreed, and he set her up in a new apartment on the Boulevard de la Madeleine, and that was to be her last home.

It was an exquisite residence with an anteroom devoted to flowers, with gilded, vine-laden trellises mounted on the walls to which Marie added baskets of fresh flowers in season. The flowers she wore were usually camelias, the most expensive corsages to be had at that time. She had bouquets of all descriptions in her home up until the doctors told her that her respiratory condition was being aggravated by them.

Was this a facade; being Stackelberg's foster daughter, or was she his mistress? That of foster daughter seems the more likely. In fact, she had only agreed to the "daughter" arrangement if he did not oppose her seeing other men. Stackelberg had not opposed her condition and so she began seeing other men, for example, her old beau, Edoard de Perregaux, the man who loved her. Once again, their relationship soon ended. Why? Perhaps his grandfather broke it up a second time.

A little later, August 1844, she met Alexandre Dumas, the younger. One evening, when they were at a party, Marie was seized by a fit of coughing. Dumas was horrified to find her coughing blood. She told him that as nothing could be done for her illness, she chose to be among interesting people who would distract her from her pain rather than staying home and suffering. In September 1844, they began an affair that lasted eleven months. They lived in Bougival, she in a house out of town, said by Dumas to have been bought by Stackelberg at Marie's request, and he in a hotel in the town! Strange, is it not, that Bougival is where Edoard de Perregaux had set her up in a house out of town? The Dumas affair ended when he claimed she was seeing other men, and he, at age 21, and not yet famous, could not have supported the Duplessis household.

Marie still consulted famous doctors but to no avail. A flamboyant charlatan, Dr Koreff, during May and June 1845, treated her with strychnine but that only made her condition worse. In November, Koreff introduced her to Franz Liszt, the famous piano virtuoso and composer.

Marie, as a distraction from her illness, pleaded with Liszt to take her away with him but he, possibly fearful of catching her disease, left without her. He promised to return and take her to Constantinople but never did. He said she was dying, and that was 15 months before she did die! He described her as "of truly exquisite nature, for, what is generally, and perhaps rightly, described as corruption, never touched her." and later: "I am not normally interested in the Marion Delormes or the Manon Lescauts (courtesans), but Marie Duplessis was an exception. She had a great deal of heart, a great liveliness of spirit and I consider her unique of her kind. She was the most complete incarnation of womankind that has ever existed."

Marie turned again to Perregaux and they went to England. They were married at the Kensington Registry, in London, Feb 21st, 1846. The marriage was not valid in France and Perregaux never lived openly there with her. Marie had gained a title and a bit of respectability which made her very happy.

Visits to German spas improved her health slightly but the relentless decline was evident to those who knew her. One party guest wrote: "Her great eyes, dimmed and dark circled, were slowly burning themselves away under her eyelids." Her capacity to attend social functions only lasted a few more months and one night, at the theatre, she fainted. She remained in bed except on January 15th, her birthday, when she put on a ball gown and jewels but was too sick to go out. Her faithful maid, Clothilde, cared for her in her last days.

Despite its certainty, time of death from consumption cannot be predicted within days, weeks, or even months, therefore those most likely to have witnessed Marie's death are those who lived in the same house as she. On Feb 5, 1847, two people who loved her dearly were at her bedside, Count Von Stackelberg, who had adopted her as his "daughter", and Vicomte de Perregaux, her husband. Suddenly, she sat upright in bed for a moment and then fell back dead. Marie passed into eternity and became a legend.

Most of fashionable Paris, including former lovers, showed up at Marie's lavish funeral at the church of La Madeleine. Charles Dickens was in the crowd. He commented: "One could have believed that Marie was Joan of Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness." She was buried in Montmartre cemetery.

Within a few weeks of her death, her innumerable possessions, including 200 books, were auctioned off to a huge crowd realising a substantial sum, a fortune, even after all debts were paid. The proceeds were inherited by her sister, Delphine, who started a business in Nonant, but put most of the cash on deposit at 4½%.

One newspaper called her 'the most elegant of women, having the most aristocratic taste and the most exquisite tact: she set the tone for a whole area of society'.

By general consent, Marie Duplessis was exceptionally beautiful. Her passport's plain facts state that she was five feet six tall, with auburn hair, brown eyes, well-shaped nose, round chin and an oval face. Dumas expressed it less prosaically: 'She was tall, very slim, with black hair and a pink and white face. Her head was small, and she had long, lustrous, Japanese eyes, very quick and alert, lips as red as cherries and the most beautiful teeth in the world.'

Marie spent only a short time on earth and lived her few adult years outside the conventional morality of the time, but within the corrupt immorality of a sophisticated few. As they were the apparently successful, she lived as they lived, and for that short while, at least, she was able to make her dreams come true.

Marie Duplessis's grave

grave2.jpg (67317 bytes)  

"Leaves from a surgeon's casebook"

by James Harpole

The Great White Scourge
There was a teashop round the corner and it was there that I first saw Doris Ford. Doris was very beautiful. Even on looking back all these years I know that she must have been — her tragedy made such a deep impression on me. For the tragedy of the beautiful seems to us always infinitely more pathetic than the tragedy of the plain.

She had found out that I was a doctor.

"I want you," she said, "to examine my chest. I have got a cold."

I cannot describe what a shock I got when I looked at her. The head, the face and the white column of the neck where uncannily beautiful. Then, suddenly, there came the chest. It was the chest of an old woman. Great salt cellars above and below the collar bones; skeleton ribs sticking out between hollows of wrinkled skin; withered breasts. It was horrible – as if some old witch had stolen the neck and head of a lovely princess, intending to work some evil spell.

A layman could not have borne to look at her. A great wave of pity came over me. This lovely girl was in a galloping consumption. She was doomed.

I kept away from the tea shop for a week, partly because I was busy, partly from reluctance to see her. When I went in again she was not there. Her mother came to the surgery to get more medicine. She was not so well, and I promised to go to see her after surgery hours.

In the dim light of the oil lamp her eyes were like great pools of velvet. She was very frightened, and clung to my hand. I sat down beside her and soothed her with comfortable words until she grew calm.

In a fortnight she was dead.
(1901 approx.)

The Salon

A salon was a gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings, often consciously following Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "to please and educate" (aut delectare aut prodesse est).

The first renowned salon was the Hôtel de Rambouillet in Paris, which its hostess, Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet ran from 1607 until her death in 1665. The salon evolved into a well-regulated practice that focused on and reflected enlightened public opinion and functioned as a major channel of communication among intellectuals. In 1652, a rival salon began, Le Marais, of Madeleine de Scudéry. Her salon gathered the original "blue-stockings" (les bas-bleus), whose nickname has continued to mean "intellectual woman" to the present day.

A feature that distinguished the salon from the court was its absence of a social hierarchy. There was a mixing of different ranks and orders and socialising between the nobles and bourgeoise, men and women, equality, fraternity. Under the guidance of Madame Geoffrin, Mlle de Lespinasse, and Madame Necker, the salon was transformed into an institution of Enlightenment.

The role of women
At a time when society was defined and regulated by men, women could exert a powerful influence as salonnières. Women had a very important role in the salon and were the centre of its life. They were responsible for selecting their guests and deciding whether the salon would be primarily social, literary, or political. They also assumed the role as mediator by directing the discussions.

The salon was really an informal university for women in which women were able to exchange ideas, receive and give criticism, read their own works and hear the works and ideas of other intellectuals. Ambitious women used the salon to pursue a form of higher education.

It is hardly surprising that U3A, the University of the Third Age, an international organisation whose aims are the education and stimulation of retired members of the community, began in France in 1972.

Gambling in France


To eliminate the thousands of illegal gambling dens countrywide, Napoleon legalized the five gambling clubs of the Palais Royal in Paris and half a dozen elsewhere across the country.


Loterie Nationale closed.


December 31 – The Chamber of Deputies banned games of chance – all gambling clubs closed, (for 20 years).
Roulette had been invented in France in its present form in 1796.
With a 0 and a 00 it gave a 5.26% advantage to the house (casino).
Chemin de fer "Shimmy" – a card game, (James Bond's preferred game – several movies).
House advantage is about 1.2%
Trente et Quarante (thirty and forty)
Two separate rows of cards (called red and black) are dealt. Whichever row comes closest to 31 wins even money.
House advantage is about 1%.

La Dame aux Camélias – Camille – La Traviata

Alexandre Dumas the younger wrote a romantic novel called "La Dame aux Camélias" (The Lady of the Camelias). It appeared only a few months after the death of Marie Duplessis, the original of the novel's heroine, Marguerite Gautier.

The novel's hero Armand Duval, shares his author's initials, A D, and an almost identical signature, (if it had ever been written), but it ought not be assumed that the novel was intended as a self-portrait. Because Duplessis and Dumas had an affair, it is tempting to think that Dumas has included autobiographical elements in the novel. That this may seem likely to be so is attested by the novel's opening:
In my opinion, it is impossible to create characters until one has spent a long time in studying men, as it is impossible to speak a language until it has been seriously acquired. Not being old enough to invent, I content myself with narrating.
But the unnamed narrator of the novel may represent Dumas contented with recounting biographical details of another person, i.e. Duval, the heroine's true love. However, do not lose sight of the fact that it is a fiction. Regardless of what parts may be based on fact and what are pure fiction, it is still a tragic tale.

Dumas adapted La Dame aux Camélias as a play (sometimes called "Camille"). It premiered in Paris, 2nd February, 1852, five years, almost exactly, after the death of Marie Duplessis. Italian composer Guiseppi Verdi saw an early performance of the play and decided to make the story into an opera, "La Traviata". His librettist, Francesco Piave, followed Dumas's play fairly closely and "La Traviata" is one of his finest libretti, in some respects improving upon the play from which it was taken. Marguerite Gautier of the play becomes Violetta Valéry of the opera.

The usual English translation of "la traviata" is "the fallen woman" but that does not capture its full, elusive meaning. The "fragile" or the "weak woman" is nearer the mark: one who is not only easily led astray, not only weak in a physical sense, which might also encompass ill health and disability, but also one who is extremely vulnerable in a male-dominated world.

"La Traviata" always held a special place in Verdi's affection. It is quite possible that he saw in the play something of the emotional truth of his own situation with his mistress, Guiseppina Strepponi, mother of two illegitimate children from a former relationship. When Verdi was asked what was his favourite of his own operas, he replied, 'As a professional "Rigoletto" but as an amateur "La Traviata".' The rest of us are all amateurs!

La Traviata – synopsis

Act 1
1850, Paris. Among guests at Violetta's party are her doctor, her friend Flora, Violetta's escort Baron Douphol and Alfredo Germont. Alfredo tells Violetta he loves her and tries to persuade her to give up her life as a courtesan and go away with him. She thinks about the idea, likes it, but on second thoughts, rejects it.
Act 2
Three months later finds them living together in Violetta's country house near Paris. The maid, Annina, tells Alfredo that Violetta has had to sell valuable items to meet their expenses. Feeling remorseful, he goes off to Paris to raise money. While he is away, Violetta is visited by his father, Giorgio Germont. He tells her that his daughter's marriage prospects are threatened because of her brother's affair with a courtesan. He begs Violetta to give up Alfredo for ever. She agrees to do so. Alfredo returns and Violetta tells him she has to go out. Annina brings him a letter from her, in which she says that she is returning to her old admirer, Baron Douphol. Alfredo is terribly upset and his father tries to console him but Alfredo runs off seeking revenge. At a party given by Flora, Violetta attends with Douphol. Alfredo is present and wins at the gaming tables. In front of the guests, he throws his winnings at Violetta's feet. This angers his father and everyone else.
Act 3
A few months later: Violetta is dying from tuberculosis. She has received a letter from Alfredo's father. He has told Alfredo of her sacrifice for their family and Alfredo is on his way to seek forgiveness. There is a passionate reunion as they express their love for each other and their dreams of the future. But it's too late – Violetta dies.

camelia bloom

When I think of poor Marie Duplessis, the mysterious
chord of an ancient elegy resounds in my heart.
Franz Liszt