A Discussion of Operas Rebooted and Revived
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet—in short, to see themselves as Manon experts.
Some of your students may be aware that the story of Manon Lescaut holds two places in the standard operatic repertoire: the Massenet opera they have just seen and another, in Italian, Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Puccini’s opera premiered nine years after Massenet’s. When asked why he wanted to adapt an 18th-century novel already successfully translated into opera, Puccini told his publisher, “Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover. Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.”
Puccini’s statement actually isn’t quite accurate. His was the third Manon Lescaut opera. Twenty-eight years before Massenet, the French composer Daniel-François-Esprit Auber and his librettist, Eugéne Scribe, mounted their Manon Lescaut at the Paris Opera.
Many other stories from stage and literature have been recreated again and again in other media. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was reborn as an opera by Verdi, and Romeo and Juliet inspired many operatic adaptations, most famously Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. On the musical theater stage, it became Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story. Puccini’s La Bohème was rewritten by Jonathan Larson as Rent, and Elton John transformed Verdi’s Aida into a musical.
A fun way to engage students in the issue of literary revision is to play “True or False”:
Divide the class into teams.
Give each team six slips of paper. On three slips, write one of the actual variant “true facts” from these four versions of Manon Lescaut. Leave the other three blank.
Have each team make up their own “false” variants, based on their three facts as well as their experience at the Live in HD transmission of Manon.
Teams then take turns. One team presents a factoid. The others need to decide whether it’s true or false. Teams get a point for identifying the facts correctly and lose a point for guessing wrong.
Students may also enjoy discussing such changes made to Manon’s story more systematically:
Why do they think these variations were introduced in the three operas?
What other works have they seen, read, or heard in multiple versions?
What were some of the differences?
What kinds of changes do they think are legitimate? Which go too far?
What kinds of changes does an writer or composer have to make if the new work is to be more than a mere copy?
What kinds of changes make the core story unrecognizable?
Students interested in learning more about Puccini’s Manon Lescaut can refer to the Met's Educator Guide. Prévost’s original novel is available, both in French and in English translation, at the Project Gutenberg public-domain literature website, gutenberg.org.