Queen of the Paris Opera

Queen of the Paris Opera

Sat 31 Mar

As any actor would, in 1765, when David Garrick visited Paris, he went to L’Opéra de Paris many times. After a while, he decided that the greatest actress on the French stage was Sophie Arnould. On being asked why he preferred her to the great tragic actress, Le Clairon, he replied that Clairon was too “stagey”. In Arnould he must have seen something of himself – a modern exponent of naturalistic acting.

Sophie Arnould made her stage debut at the Opéra on 15th December 1757. The first words she uttered on stage were “Charmant Amour”, a harbinger of affaires de coeur to come. Nearly one hundred years later, her reputation for coquetry made her ripe material for a purveyor of erotica such as Charles Carrington who produced a biography of her in 1898. This week the antiquarian book dealer, drif field, is offering THE MEMOIRS OF SOPHIE ARNOULD, ACTRESS AND WIT by ROBERT DOUGLAS published by the exiled pornographer born in Bethnal Green.

Sophie Arnould was beautiful, she had affairs; she was witty. But she was more than that. Gluck, the composer of Italian and French opera, created the role of Eurydice for her in his Orphée et Eurydice as well as the title role in his Iphigénie en Aulide. In choosing her, he was choosing a singer with not the strongest voice but the greatest ability to convey emotion. He was not alone in appreciating her gifts. In 1760 a new opera called Les Paladins was played for the first time. The music was by Rameau, considered to be the greatest composer in France at that time. Unfortunately the libretto was poor. In spite of his reputation, Les Paladins was soon withdrawn. “The pear was not ripe,” he said.

“That did not prevent it from falling all the same,” retorted Arnould.

The fair and frail Madeleine Sophie Arnould was born, according to her memoir, in the year 1744 in the room in which the Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny had been assassinated on St Bartholomew’s Day, 1572. Her biographer, Edmond de Goncourt, later established that she was in fact born in 1740, in the Rue Louis-le-Gran, a brief stroll from the Théâtre Français. Her father was a regular bourgeois innkeeper but her mother was a friend of Diderot and Voltaire. Mme Arnould encouraged young Sophie to develop her intellect and by the age of 12 Sophie was singing for Voltaire and Madame de Pompadour. Legend has it that Madame de Pompadour told her, “With such talents, you could become a Princess.” When she was 16, Louis XV made her a member of the opera.

Arnould was not just a singer who brought intelligence and pathos to her roles, she was an astute observer who was quoted by belles-lettrists years after her death: “To enter the opera is to go to the devil,” she once said, “but what of it? It’s my destiny.”

Her critics could be equally to the point. Arnould was a singer whose most striking gift was “l’art de bien dire” and emotional subtlety. A critic described her voice as “the best asthma he had ever heard”. Whatever. For twenty years Sophie was the queen of the Paris Opera and, as a noted wit, the scourge of the green room.

Given the vibrancy of her performances and perorations, it would be a shame if she were remembered only for her dalliances. But she was notorious for her love affairs, and it's a rare woman who can rise above her reputation when it comes to sex. In the early 19th century, the writer and critic De Goncourt called her “la seuel courtisane de l’age d’or des filles”. In the late 19th century Carrington banked on her legendary status of courtesan. In the 21st century we can safely say she was the foremost diva of her time.

For the premiere of Iphigenia the audience that assemled at the Opera House was staggering in its brilliance. By half past five the Dauphin and Dauphiness had rolled up. The Comte and Comtesse de Provence were installed in the royal boxes. The Duchesse de Chartres, Duchesse de Bourbon, Princesse de Lamballe, all the Ministers and Courtiers were waiting in the stalls for the first notes of the overture. At the close of the first recitative, Marie Antoinette clapped her hands, the signal for thunders of applause to burst forth from the rest of the house. As for Sophie, it was said she never acted better.

Her salons were attended by men renowned throughout the world: Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Beaumarchais, Diderot and Helvetius, as well as all the lesser lights. Women avoided her because of her reputation and her sharp wit. But the day came when her voice gave out. If her first line was memorable, so was her last:

“You long for me to be gone.”

She was able to retire in 1778 with an enviable pension of 2,000 livres. But, like everyone else, she lost everything in the revolution of '89. The true sign of a trouper she did not lose her charm, or resourcefulness or gallantry. The Terror saw her taken up by Napoleon’s Minister of Police, Fouché, who found her a small flat where she could host her soirées.

She died in Paris in October 1803. As she lay dying she told the priest who was administering last rites, “I am like Mary Magdalen: much will be pardoned to me because I have loved much.”

Arnould left her Souvenirs and an abundant correspondence for future biographers to plunder. She was painted by de La Tour and Greuze, whose portrait of her hangs in London’s Wallace Collection. The composer Gabriel Pierné wrote an opera based on her life entitled Sophie Arnould in 1927. But she is largely forgotten.

Article by Lilian Pizzichini



Experimental Lecture (1878) by the pseudonym "Colonel Spanker" for the "Cosmopolitan Society of Bibliophiles". Contents: The Colonel and his circle have a house in Park Lane where genteel young ladies are kidnapped, humiliated, and flagellated.

Raped on the Railway: a True Story of a Lady who was first ravished and then flagellated on the Scotch Express (1894) by Anonymous for the "Cosmopolitan Bibliophile Society"

The Loves of a Musical Student - being the History of the Adventures and Amorous Intrigues of a Young Rake (1897) by Anonymous

Memoirs of Private Flagellation (1899) by Anonymous

The Old Man Young Again or Age-Rejuvenescence in the Power of Concupiscence (1898) translated to English from the original Arabic. The Arabic text was written by Ibn Kemal.

The Memoirs of Dolly Morton (1899) by Anonymous (generally attributed to Jean de Villiot, aka Hugues Rebell). 

Nell in Bridewell (1900) by Wilhelm Reinhard, translated to English from the original German Lenchen im Zuchthause (Lenchen in jail) (1840). Also published in French as La Flagellation des femmes en Allemagne (1901).

The Magnetism of the Rod or the Revelations of Miss Darcy (1902)

Le Fouet à Londres (The Whip in London) (1902), part of the series La Flagellation a Travers le Monde.

The Satyricon of Petronius, a new translation (1902) the translating originally ascribed by Carrington to Oscar Wilde (who had died two years earlier), later (1930) attributed to Alfred Richard Allinson.

Femmes Chatiées (1903) by Jean de Villiot. French translation of Charles Carrington's Whipped Women short stories.

Woman and Her Master (1904) by Jean de Villiot, pseudonym of Georges Grassal. Flagellation erotica translated into English by Charles Carrington from the original 1902 French edition, La Femme et son maître.

La Flagellation amoureuse (1904) by Jean de Villiot, pseudonym of Georges Grassal.

Le Fouet au Harem (1906) by Jean de Villiot, pseudonym of Georges Grassal.

The Beautiful Flagellants of New York (1907) by Lord Drialys

Clic! Clac! Précédé d'un conte "Home-Discipline" (1907) by Jean de Villiot 

Sadopaideia: Being the Experiences of Cecil Prendergast Undergraduate of the University of Oxford Shewing How he was Led Through the Pleasant Paths of Masochism to the Supreme joys of Sadism (1907) anonymous, possibly by Algernon Charles Swinburne.


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