Opératrice dans les coulisses: Re-evaluating filles de l’Opéra Through the Case of Élisabeth-Claire Le Duc (1721-1793)

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Wilson, Aubrae 

Aubrae Nichole Wilson Abstract: Opératrice dans les coulisses: Re-evaluating filles de l’Opéra Through the Case of Élisabeth-Claire Le Duc (1721-1793)— Since the eighteenth century, filles de l’Opéra—women employed at the Académie royale de musique as singers and dancers—have garnered much attention due to their controversial morality and socially transgressive sexualities. Analysis of extant texts by their contemporary critics has flourished in recent years. Yet as much as the contextualization of the period, and circumstances, in which these women lived has rendered a deeper understanding of their place in Parisian society of the Old Regime, a great number of questions remain as to the material realities of the filles de l’Opéra. What were they paid? Where did they live? Why did they pursue prestigious lovers? Did they obtain social and financial mobility? What did they achieve from this mobility? And how do these material realities permit further enquiries into the relationship between the institution of the Opéra and its female performers? This thesis seeks to move past discussions of the actress/prostitute trope to probe the ways in which this group of women were both constrained and liberated by the institution to which they belonged. Archival and manuscript sources are utilized to investigate their financial and cultural activities off the operatic stage. The case study of Élisabeth-Claire Le Duc (1721-1793), a figurante (low-ranking dancer) at the Académie royale de musique, allows greater examination of the opportunities afforded to women of the theatre in the domains of finance, social mobility, and cultural patronage. The first chapter considers the institutional history of the Académie royale de musique, the wages of its female performers from 1713-1738, their sites of residence, and the institutional practices that contributed to the behaviour of filles de l’Opéra. Chapter two analyzes the surviving historiography concerning Le Duc, the role of anecdote in relevance to its production, and reviews the span of her short, five-year career (1737-1742) at the Opéra as a means of emphasizing how the majority of what is known about filles de l’Opéra has been based on rumour and anecdote. The third chapter investigates Le Duc’s financial dealings, such as her investments and property ownership, in order to more fully explore the opportunities for financial independence available to filles de l’Opéra. Finally, the fourth chapter examines Le Duc’s role as a broker at the society theatres of her lover, the comte de Clermont (1709-1771), and her influence in their output. The material realities of Le Duc’s life as a fille de l’Opéra ultimately demonstrate that each woman’s experience of social and financial mobility was unique, and that further examination of individual filles de l’Opéra is needed to best grasp their role in society—rather than continuing to lump these female performers together by relying on eighteenth-century anecdote.

Darlow, Mark
filles de l'opera, 18th Century France, Paris Opera, French Theatre
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge