Tag Archives: French opera

Character names in French Opera, and how to pronounce them.


The scene of the crime: an audition or a coaching session.
The perpetrator: a well intentioned young singer who spent a lot of time perfecting her diction.
The Crime: The above mentioned young singer neglected to learn how to pronounce the title of her aria, or the name of her character.
The consequence: a questionable first impression, or an unimpressed coach.

I have witnessed this scenario more than once. It is somewhat understandable, however, since  these are often words that will never be sung. I do believe however that one should know how to introduce a song, or an aria properly, and this poses certain challenges.

We’ve already dealt with composers names in a previous post (Click here)

This post is dedicated to the names of the characters in some of the most prominent French operas (Feel free to request more, in the comment section).
There are two things to keep in mind here:
1- A fair amount of French operas use foreign names. As has already been discussed in the post about composer’s names, these names will not be pronounced as they would in their original language, but rather, they will be “Frenchified”. For instance, the stress will be on the last syllable, even in a name like “Mercutio”.
2- There will be slight variations depending on whether the name is to be sung, or spoken in an introduction. (Most notably: final [ə] will be dropped when the name is spoken, but may be pronounced when sung, depending on the musical setting. I will indicate this with the use of parentheses)

So here goes whit this non-exhaustive list of characters (by opera).

Faust (Gounod): after Goethe. All names have been adapted to French, with Gretchen becoming Marguerite, for instance.
Faust,Méphistophéles, Marguerite, Valentin, Wagner, Siébel, Marthe
[fost] [me fi sto fe lɛs] [ma rgə rit(ə)] [va lɑ᷉ tɛ᷉] [sje bɛl] [mart(ə)]
(Listen here)

Roméo et Juliette (Gounod): A French opera, after an English play, about Italian lovers!
Here again, all names have been adapted to French.
Juliette Capulet, Roméo Montaigu, Frère Laurent, Mercutio, Benvolio, Stéphano, Le Comte Capulet, Gertrude, Tybalt, Le Comte Pâris, Grégorio, Le Duc de Vérone, Frère Jean
[ʒy ljɛt(ə) ka py lɛ] [rɔ meo mo᷉ tɛ gy] [frɛr(ə) lɔ rɑ᷉] [mɛ rky sjo] [bɛ᷉ vɔ ljo] [ste fa no] [lə ko᷉t(ə) ka py lɛ] [ʒɛ rtryd(ə)] [ti balt] [lə ko᷉t(ə) pɑ ris] [gre gɔ rjo] [lə dyk də ve rɔn(ə)] [frɛr(ə) ʒɑ᷈]
(Listen here)

Carmen (bizet): Set in Spain. Some of the names still look spanish, but should be pronounced according to the rules of French diction.
Carmen, Don José, Micaëla, Escamillo, Frasquita, Mercédès, Le Dancaïre, Le Remendado, Zuniga, Moralès, Lillas Pastia
[ka rmɛn] [do᷉ ʒo ze] [mi ka ɛ la] [ɛ ska mi jo] [Mɛ rse dɛs] [lə dɑ᷈ ka ir(ə)] [lə re mɛn da do] [zy ni ga] [mɔ ra lɛs] [li las pa stja]
(Listen here)

Manon (Massenet): The first in the list so far where all the names are of French origin. Not that this makes them easier to pronounce (au contraire!)
Manon Lescaut, Le Chevalier des Grieux, Lescaut, Guillot de Morfontaine, Monsieur de Brétigny, Le Comte des Grieux, Poussette, Javotte, Rosette
[ma no᷈ lɛ sko] [lə ʃə va lje dɛ gri ø] [lɛ sko] [gi jo də mɔ rfo᷈ tɛn(ə)] [mœ sjø də bre ti ɲi] [lə ko᷈t(ə) dɛ gri ø] [pu sɛt(ə)] [ʒa vɔt(ə)] [rɔ zɛt(ə)]
(Listen here)

Werther (Massenet)
Le bailli, Werther, Charlotte, Sophie, Schmidt, Johann, Bruhlmann
[lə ba ji] [vɛ rtɛr] [ʃa rlɔt(ə)] [sɔ fi] [ʃmit] [ʒɔ an] [bry lman]
(Listen here)

Cendrillon (Massenet): Interestingly, some of the names (and characters) are unique to the opera and not to be found in the original fairy tale by Charles Perrault. (who knew that Cendrillon’s name was “Lucette”?)
Lucette, Le Prince Charmant, Madame de la Haltière, Pandolfe, La Fée, Noémie, Dorothée, Le Roi
[ly sɛt(ə)] [lə prɛ᷈s(ə) ʃa rmɑ᷈], [ma dam(ə) də la ha ltjɛr(ə)] [pɑ᷈ dɔlf(ə)] [la fe] [nɔ e mi] [dɔ rɔ te] [lə rwa]
(Listen here)

Pélléas et Mélisande (Debussy): Maybe the quintessential French opera. The names, unlike most of the text, are fairly straight forward.
Mélisande, Geneviève, Arkel, Pelléas, Golaud, Yniold
[me li zɑ᷈d(ə)] [ʒə nə vjɛv(ə)] [a rkɛl] [pe le as] [go lo] [i njɔld]
(Listen here)

There are of course many more, but these are some of the ones that tend to occur frequently.
Stay tuned for a post about proper names in French Mélodies: between Shéhérazade, Bilitis and Don Quichotte, there will be some food for (diction) thought!