Who are the Dissenters and Rebels of opera? In celebration of our 2018/19 Season, we took a tour through opera history to find seven examples that upended societal expectations, charted their own course, or inspired others to imagine the world anew. Entry #5 chronicles a life of adventure, rebellion, scandal, love, and (of course!) music: LA MAUPIN.
REBELS & DISSENTERS:
Julie d’Aubigny led a short, incredible life that was full of adventure and defied any and all expectations for “ladylike” behavior. She carried on public love affairs with both men and women; often dressed in men’s clothing; was once sentenced to death; and achieved acclaim on the leading operatic stages of Paris and beyond. Everything she did, she did with drama: her feuds with other opera singers were legendary, her love affairs were intense and passionate, and she was both the toast of society and a source for gossip sure to scandalize. 17th-Century France couldn’t get enough of her.
Julie was born around 1673, the daughter of a secretary to the Count d’Armagnac, who served as King Louis XIV’s Master of Horse. Her father was in charge of training all of the court’s pages, and so he naturally brought his daughter up in the same manner – she dressed in boys’ clothes and learned fencing alongside dancing, reading, and drawing. By the time she had reached the age of 14, the Count d’Armagnac (her father’s employer), had taken her as his mistress. She was married off to the Sieur de Maupin – whom the Count promptly shipped off on an administrative assignment.
Before long, Julie began an affair with an assistant fencing master named Séranne, who was wanted for murder. The pair fled to Marseille and earned money through giving fencing demonstrations and singing at fairs and taverns. The story goes that at one demonstration, a man in the crowd refused to believe that Julie was a woman because she was too good. In response, she took off her blouse and told the crowd to judge for themselves!
She began a passionate affair with a young woman, whose family shipped her off to a convent in Avignon when they found out. Undeterred, Julie entered the convent as a postulant nun, then stole the body of a dead elderly nun, placed it in her lover’s bed, and set a fire to serve as a diversion while they ran away. The lovers spent three months together before the woman returned to her family, and Julie was charged – as a man – with kidnapping, body snatching, and arson, and sentenced to death.
She continued her journey through the countryside, and got in an altercation with a duel with a young nobleman, the Comte d’Albert. He challenged her to a duel, not realizing she was a woman; she beat and wounded him, then inquired after his health the next day and became his lover and lifelong friend.
Later, Julie began an affair with Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, an opera singer, and the two traveled back to Paris. Her old lover, the Count d’Armagnac helped arrange a pardon for her death sentence, and she joined the Paris Opéra. She sang with the Opéra for about 15 years, with a few interruptions – in 1695, for instance, she kissed a young woman at a society ball and was challenged by three noblemen. She fought off them all, but had to flee to Brussels because the king had outlawed duels in Paris. While in Brussels, she briefly became the lover of Maximilian II Emanuel, while appearing at the Opéra du Quai au Foin.
Audiences adored “La Maupin,” as she was known, for her beautiful voice, strong acting skills, seductive looks, and all the offstage drama and excitement that inevitably followed her. In one notorious incident, she beat up fellow opera star Louis Gaulard Dumesny after he propositioned and harassed several of the female members of the opera company (hard not to cheer that!). La Maupin first sang as a soprano but transitioned to leading roles in her natural lower register and helped popularize mezzo-soprano and contralto roles in French opera; for example, the role of Clorinde in Tancrede was written for her.
La Maupin spent two happy years living with the Marquise de Florensac, perhaps the great love of her life. When La Florensac died of a fever, La Maupin was desolate and entered a convent, possibly in Provence, where she died in 1707. La Maupin, an irresistible force of nature, was gone, but her life and many escapades have inspired numerous works of art, a novel, a French TV series, a musical, and more.
Perhaps an opera should be next? If anyone deserves it, this singular woman does.
Learn more about La Maupin:
- Julie d'Aubigny
- Kelly Gardiner's book, Goddess
- Headstuff.org: La Maupin
- Mademoiselle Maupin Home Page