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OPERAS CAN INSPIRE—but enough to create a country? Yes, the history of Belgium is woven into the obscure La Muette de Portici, The Mute of Portici, an 1828 opera by French composer Daniel Auber. Here are tidbits on this unique operatic/nation-building nexus gleaned from BBC History magazine, August 2020, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Daniel Auber’s Operatic Career. After several stumbles, Auber composed several popular operas, including La Muette de Portici in 1828.

Daniel François Esprit Auber, 1782–1871, French opera composer, member of the Institut de France, director of the Conservatoire de Paris, commander of the Légion d’honneur. This and other images from Wikipedia.

La Muette de Portici, a Success! According to Wikipedia, Auber’s “La Muette de Portici played a major role in establishing the genre of grand opera.” Hitherto, operas had been mainly static productions of vocal expertise, with little dramatic structure, only modest stage effects, their few passions portrayed in allegorical settings. 

In the evolving genre of grand opera, the story teller, the librettist, gained added importance. Early 19th century composers included Auber, Gioachino Rossini, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, who Wikipedia says, “eventually became the acknowledged king of the grand opera genre.”

La Muette de Porcini is basely, loosely, on the historical uprising of Masaniello, a Naples fisherman, against Spanish rule in 1647. Among its operatic highjinks is an eruption of Mount Vesuvius and plenty of mime performed by Fenelia, Masaniello’s mute sister done wrong by the Viceroy of Naples.

Anna Pavlova as Fenelia in La Muette de Portici.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands…. Today, the Low Countries include the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. However, a map of 1815 shows only the Koningryk der Netherlanden, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, stretching from present day Holland south to the French border, its southeastern portion the Groot Hertogdom Luyemburg, Grand Duchy of Luxemburg. 

A map of the Netherlands, 1815.

The Southern Provinces, as they were known then, included the cities of Brussels and Antwerp and were hotbeds of activities against King William I of the Netherlands. Reasons for unrest were many: unequal distributions of the provinces’ wealth and the kingdom’s largesse, the provinces providing militiamen to be commanded by unpopular elite northerners, the region’s 62 percent of the country’s population having only 50 percent of government seats, and, particularly, the matter of religion: The southerners were Catholic; the northerners and King William I, Protestant. 

A Night at the Opera. On August 25, 1830, Auber’s La Muette de Porcini was performed in the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels. This was planned as part of a celebration of William I’s 15-year reign, complete with the week’s fireworks, illumination, and opera. 

The Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, Brussels.

Word spread that enough was enough: Posters around Brussels advertised, “Monday, the 23rd, fireworks; Tuesday, the 24th, illuminations; Wednesday, the 25th, revolution.”  

A contemporary report described, “When Lafeuillade and Cassel began singing the celebrated duet, ‘Amour sacré de la patrie,’ [‘Sacred love of country’], enthusiasm exploded irresistibly and [the singers] found it necessary to start afresh in the midst of the cheering. Finally, when Masaniello (Lafeuillade) launched into his entreaty, the invocation ‘Aus armes!,’ the public could no longer be restrained. They acclaimed aria and actor, they booed the fifth act in order to stop the performance, and the delirious crowd [hurled itself] out of the hall—into history. Welcomed by the other crowd which waited outside, it joined in the demonstrations which loosed the revolution of 1830.”

BBC History, August 2020. The magazine concludes, “Although William sent his army to restore order, repression proved an utter failure. Just weeks later, the rebels’ provisional government declared independence. They named their new country Belgium.”

The Low Countries since 1839.

Daniel Auber’s operatic career continued into the 1850s, though in his later years he took it easy. He died in May 1871, at age 89. Today, the rue Auber leads up to the original Paris Opera House, the Palais Garnier. The nearest train station is named in his honor.

And I suspect Belgians still regard him highly. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. sabresoftware
    September 3, 2020

    Interestingly I (as many people did) used to believe that Holland and Netherlands were interchangeable names for the country. Actually Holland is the name of two provinces (North and South, and the most populous). In many parts of the world it was accepted that Holland was a name of the country, and even the Dutch themselves would sometimes used them interchangeably. As of January of this year the Dutch government has decided to enforce the distinction, particularly in their tourism advertising, but Holland has never actually been an official name for the country.

    • simanaitissays
      September 3, 2020

      Thanks for this amplification, Sabresoftware. I dwelled on these old maps and hadn’t heard about the Netherlands’ touristic nudge. Note all the different provincial names on the maps.

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