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The Interplay of Opera, Candles and the Court


If you think it's lousy to get through the shortest day of the year now, consider what it was like before there were light bulbs. Before 1875, gas lighted the way. And before gas, there were just candles - centuries and centuries of candles. They affected how we saw things, when we saw things, and what we saw.

NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg concludes her series on technology and art with notes on candles and opera.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want Candy")

Mr. AARON CARTER (Pop Singer): (Singing) I want candy. I want candy.

SUSAN STAMBERG: In her film about the doomed French queen, Marie Antoinette, director Sofia Coppola used - anachronistically, on purpose - 21st century music. But the movie looked 18th century, from its costumes to its lighting. Coppola's director of photography, Lance Acord, had to invent ways to make party scenes shot at Versailles look as if they were lit by hundreds of 18th century candles.

Mr. LANCE ACORD (Director of Photography, Marie Antoinette): We had these styrofoam balls, large ones, like two feet in diameter. We would wrap those with hundreds of small lights and then hang them from a string from a lighting stand, or the actors. And those really produced the same effect as the chandelier.

STAMBERG: For the Versailles opera scene, the entire ceiling was lined with about 10,000 lights. A mix of marquis bulbs and little Christmas twinklers. All this to replicate the brilliance of Versailles, where you went to the opera to see and be seen.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JOAN DEJEAN (Author, "The Essence of Style") People are beautifully dressed.

STAMBERG: Joan DeJean, author of "The Essence of Style," about the Court of Louis XIV, the king who made Versailles dazzle.

Ms. DEJEAN: Women with fabulous hairdos, with lots of diamonds in their hair -and all of that is sparkling because of the candles everywhere and the mirrors. It was really a glimmering world.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: It the 17th century, they didn't just sing an opera, there were ballets, there were recitations, dialogues, incredible effects - storms, flying figures, blood spurting...

Ms. DENISE GALLO (Opera Specialist): Everything, everything, everything.

STAMBERG: Opera specialist Denise Gallo says the impresario of these candle-lit spectacles was Jean-Baptiste Lully, composer, director, choreographer - he made opera the bling thing at Versailles.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: An aside now - nothing to do with candles, but such a story - Lully, for all his success, came to a sad demise - musical, but sad. Lully was also a conductor.

Ms. GALLO: The French would conduct by pounding a stick. You would hear this bum, bum, bum, bum. And he had on some rather delicate slippers at one point, and pierced the slipper with the pointed stick and came down with blood poisoning and died.

STAMBERG: Hoisted on his own baton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Early operas could last - are you ready for this? Five hours. Imagine the candle power it took then to see them?

Professor OREST RANUM (Historian): The lighting available certainly influenced the duration and performance of operas and ballets, and the same was true for plays.

STAMBERG: Historian Orest Ranum found old engravings of theatres with banks and banks of chandeliers, each holding 10 candles. His wife, Patricia, says the chandeliers were lifted and lowered with pulleys.

Ms. PATRICIA RANUM (Author): The candle, obviously, posed a problem. How long can you light an act without running out of candles? Because you can't stop in the middle and spoil everything by lowering your chandeliers and refilling them and then pulling them up again.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: So the music was tailored to the candles' staying power. Pat Ranum took a recording of Marc Antoine Charpentier's Opera Médée, checked the timing of each of its five acts, and found an odd pattern.

Ms. RANUM: Acts 1, 2, 3, and 4 were between 33 and 39 minutes long. But then at each end came something very strange. The prologue was just not quite 25 minutes, and the same was true for Act 5.

STAMBERG: What could this mean? Patricia Ranum's theory is this: the candles gave an hour's worth of reliable light. So composers factored in the lowering, replenishing, relighting and raising of the chandeliers when they wrote their middle acts.

But why were the prologue and the last act shorter? Because the audience came in to a fully lighted hall, blazing candles. They need the time to find to find their seats, take off their cloaks, settle in, inspect what the queen was wearing. The short prologue let them do all that and not run out of light.

And the last act of Médée was also short so the Versailles glitterati could see their way out. Tadah! Now, can you imagine all of the wax that must have dripped down in that hall from those chandeliers?

Ms. RANUM: Oh, luckily, I don't think it was their real hair. So it's probably not much of an issue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: That's sure, they're wearing wigs. Nell Boyce from our science desk is here.

NELL BOYCE: Candles are ancient. We have records of the ancient Egyptians and Romans using candles that they made by basically taking reeds or papyrus and kind of dipping them in animal fat. We know that in like, 600 A.D., they were using beeswax in China. And then all through the Middle Ages, basically the common people in Europe were using animal fat candles.

STAMBERG: Suet, yeah.

Ms. RANUM: Yeah, they were terrible. They were smelly and smoky. Now, if you were the nobility or the clergy, you would get wax. And wax was super sweet. I mean, it smelled like honey. It was beautiful.

But, you know, it's funny. If you think about candles, they're an example of a technology that hasn't changed for millennia. These days we have all sorts of fancy lighting and everything, but what do we want? We want candlelight.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want Candy")

Mr. CARTER: (Singing) I want candy.

STAMBERG: Marie Antoinette and the various King Louis' paid a fortune for their thousand points of wax candlelight. You needed a hundred pounds of candles to light one evening of Charpentier. It would've taken a country schoolteacher two months to earn what the palace paid to see a single performance. But those operas, written by and for candlelight, survived the revolution and are even performed under light bulb today.

Unidentified Woman #1: This is ridiculous.

Unidentified Woman #2: This, madam, Versailles.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CARTER: (Singing) Hey!

INSKEEP: You can hear all the stories in this series at npr.org. You're listening, perhaps in the dark, to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning Edition
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.