Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Edouard Lalo's 'The King of Ys'

Margared and Rozenn, played by Sophie Koch (left) and Inva Mula, are sisters in love with the same man in Lalo's <em>The King of Ys</em> from Toulouse.
Margared and Rozenn, played by Sophie Koch (left) and Inva Mula, are sisters in love with the same man in Lalo's The King of Ys from Toulouse.

According to legend, Ys was an opulent city that stood on the coast of Brittany in ancient times. It boasted a splendid cathedral with towering spires that seemed to rise straight out of the ocean. And that was the catch.

The mythical city of Ys was built below sea level, protected by a great dike with a single sluice gate. Anyone with the key to that gate held the power to destroy Ys in a catastrophic flood — and that's exactly what happened.

How it happened, and who did it, varies according to the legend's many versions. In some stories, Satan himself is the villain who drowns Ys. In others it's a vengeful god, a jealous lover or an enemy warrior. In Edouard Lalo's evocative opera, The King of Ys, the culprit is a heartsick princess, who discovers that she and her sister are in love with the same man. And, while the opera preserves the legend of Ys as a sunken city, in Lalo's version of the story it only sinks temporarily. In the end, the city's patron saint arrives in the nick of time and allows Ys to survive.

Lalo worked on the opera for more than ten years before it was finally premiered in Paris in 1888, and that first performance was very nearly a disaster. The Opera Comique issued 3500 invitations to the performance — which was held in a theater with only 2000 seats. The resulting uproar lasted through the entire first act, though the audience eventually settled in and gave the opera a resounding ovation.

Since then, The King of Ys has been less fortunate, and it's rarely heard in today's opera houses. Still, Lalo's score is a work of high drama and great beauty, with a musical style that hints of Wagner, yet preserves the elegance of the story's French roots.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of The King of Ys from one of France's most noted theaters, the historic Capitole in Toulouse.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit