Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Jules Massenet's 'Manon'

Generally, opera is considered a serious art form. By contrast, composer Jules Massenet has been described as a lightweight — and at times, it's easy to hear why. Even his wildly popular Manon, an opera with a deadly serious story, has plenty of froth.

But we don't need to concentrate on the supposedly lofty world of opera to find astonishingly successful composers with lightweight reputations. For another, we can look closer to home, at a legendary figure of American musical theater.

Cole Porter was a true Broadway genius, a brilliant lyricist and a first-rate composer — the creator of dozens of hit songs and shows. Was Porter a "lightweight?" Well, plenty of his songs sound that way. His lively tune "Friendship" comes from the show Dubarry Was a Lady. Like much of Porter's work, it hardly calls high drama to mind. Still, whatever his reputation, Porter did have a serious side. His classic "Love for Sale" conjures up the gritty, work-a-day side of prostitution. The subject matter, and its sophisticated, even disturbing tone, are hardly the work of a lightweight songwriter.

Getting back to Massenet, the two-sided nature we hear in Cole Porter's familiar songs and shows can also be found in Manon — an opera that touches on the same dramatic territory as Porter's "Love for Sale." The title character starts out as an innocent 15-year-old — a kid whose "inclinations" have prompted her parents to ship her off to a convent.

At first that seems unjust, but by the time the opera is over, we might wonder. When it comes to true love, Manon is lucky right from the start. During her journey, she falls for a well-meaning young man of modest means, who adores her. Before long, though, it's clear that Manon has a taste for opulence as well as true love — and she's not above cavorting with rich men she doesn't love in exchange for a luxurious lifestyle. Despite the frothy spots, Massenet's opera doesn't pull any punches, and he gave it all the complex, emotionally powerful music it needs to drive home some unsavory realities.

On this edition of World of Opera, we'll hear Manon in a genuinely star-studded production from the Vienna State Opera. The stunning young soprano Anna Netrebko sings the title role, with acclaimed tenor Roberto Alagna as Des Grieux, her unfortunate, love-struck suitor.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit