Julie d'Aubigny: La Maupin and Early French Opera

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
French duellist and opera singer Julie d'Aubigny (1670–1707). Anonymous print.

LGBT Pride Month gives us an opportunity to discover a fascinating character from the early days of French opera.  The life of Julie d'Aubigny (1670-1707) became a subject of interest at a time when French society began re-examining gender roles and sexual identity. Known under her stage name, La Maupin, she was a bisexual, cross-dressing, swords-woman who killed at least three men in duels. Popular retellings of her brief, but action-filled life sometimes focus more on the adventurous aspects of her life, glossing over her accomplishments in opera. She was a renowned singer, who brought roles to life written for her by the leading French composers of the day. She also made a permanent impact on French opera by pioneering an operatic vocal range.

Early Life

Julie d'Aubigny-La Maupin (1670-1707)
Julie d'Aubigny, La Maupin (1670/73-1707)

Many facts of La Maupin's life are not known with much certainty. Her name is found under several variations including Julie, Émilie or Julie-Émilie, though on stage she was known as Mademoiselle Maupin. She is kown to history under all these names, but currently she is most often called by her maiden name, Julie d’Aubigny, or her common stage name, La Maupin. Apart from a few letters and legal papers, her opera career is perhaps the best-documented aspect of her life, through the notices and records of her performances.

She was born in Paris or its environs either in 1670 or 1673. Gaston, Sieur d'Aubigny, her father, was employed by the Count of Armagnac, King Louis XIV's Master of Horse. A master swordsman, as well as a habitual gambler, drinker and participant in other aspects of the nightlife, d'Aubigny passed on his skills as well as his vices to his daughter. Sieur d'Aubigny saw that Julie, his only child, received an education usually reserved for boys at the time. Learning academic subjects alongside future court pages, she also excelled at fencing which she took up around the age of 12. Though this sport was not unheard of among women of the time, La Maupin was unusual for competing against men. Moreover, she was also known to be the best fencer of the group. Julie took up her life-long practise of dressing in male attire at this time.

She became the mistress of Count d'Armagnac, her father's employer at the age of 14 or 15. Around 1687, after her father's death, Julie married a clerk, Sieur Jean de Maupin. Maupin gave Julie the surname by which she was to be known professionally. However, Maupin could not give her a traditional married life, as d'Armagnac promptly sent Maupin out of Paris to serve as a tax collector, while he and Julie continued their relationship. Accounts vary as to whether d'Armagnac became fed up with La Maupin's wild ways, or whether La Maupin herself became bored with d'Armagnac, but soon she became involved with a fencing master named Séranne. After Séranne killed a man in a duel, she fled Paris with him, pursued by Nicolas-Gabriel de La Reynie, Lieutenant-General of Police, founder of the first modern police force.

The couple traveled the countryside, making their living by giving fencing demonstrations, both dressed in male attire. Since they both had good voices, they added singing to their performances. During this period of travel with Séranne, she had her first experience with professional opera singing. Though she had no formal musical training, her pleasing voice, natural gift for music and physical attractiveness enabled her to take some roles at the recently founded Opéra de Marseille. A lack of a formal musical education was not a hindrance for an opera career at the time, and her natural singing and acting talent and prodigious memory compensated for her inexperience.

It was at this time that she had her first lesbian affair. The family of the young woman with whom she had fallen in love with, sent the young woman away to a convent in Avignon to avoid contact with La Maupin. Julie followed the young lady and joined the convent so they could resume their relationship. The two then escaped the convent by placing the corpse of a recently deceased nun in Julie's paramour's bed, and setting the room on fire. The scheme was to prevent a search for the young woman by the authorities, as the couple hoped that the deceased nun's body would pass for the young woman herself. The plot was discovered,  and the Parliament of Aix-en-Provence sentenced La Maupin in absentia— under the male title "Sieur"— to death by fire.

After a few months on the run with La Maupin, her new lover returned to her family. La Maupin took advantage of this break in her onstage career to take professional singing lessons. Her instructor, Maréchal, was a middle-aged musician-actor impressed by her talent. He encouraged her to apply to the Paris Opera, the greatest opera stage in France. Though he was a good teacher who gave Maupin valuable training, he had a fondness for drink as well as for singing. When Maréchal's drinking began to get the better of his ability to teach, La Maupin took her leave to seek her fame at the Paris Opera.

Origins of French Opera

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687)
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), founder of French opera (illustration by Henri Bonnard)

The artform of opera was not yet a century old when La Maupin returned to Paris. The first opera is generally considered to be Jacopo Peri's Dafne, written in the late 1590s. Peri was a member of the group of Italian intellectuals known as the Florentine Camerata, which included composer and musical theorist Vincenzo Galilei (the father of Galileo Galilei). The Florentine Camerata began working at the beginning of the Baroque era in music. One of the goals of the Florentine Camerata was to counter the complex choral polyphonic and chromatic mannerism of late Renaissance music with a simpler style in which texts were comprehensible to the listener. Through musical discussions and experiments the Camerata sought to revive the vocal style of ancient Greek drama. They employed monody— a single voice in ornamented melody, supported by a bass line— which led to the recitative of mature opera. Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo of 1607 expanded and advanced the new artform, bringing it closer to opera as we know it today, and remains the oldest opera still part of the standard repertoire.

After the introduction of Italian opera to France in 1645, the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687) set about creating a distinct French national opera. Louis XIV had founded the Académie d'Opéra, or Académie Royale de Musique, known as the Opéra or Paris Opera in 1669. Lully was in charge of the Opéra from 1772 until his death, during which time only his own operas were performed. Working from verse libretti, Lully tailored his music in a manner considered more natural to the French language, emphasized the drama of the story in his operas with a variety of instrumental and vocal musical forms, and, rather than following the Italian model of simply alternating recitatives and arias, Lully sometimes combined the two. Lully's first opera, Cadmus et Hermione, was performed in 1673, and he wrote fifteen "tragedies in music", as he termed them, before his premature death. Lully's life was cut short in a rather unusual way. Before the use of the modern conducting baton, the leader of an orchestra would indicate the downbeat by thumping the floor with a large staff. While leading an orchestra Lully hit his foot with the staff. His leg became infected with gangrene, but he refused the doctor's wish to amputate, as this would prevent him from dancing. The infection spread and Lully died in 1687 at the age of 54.

At the Paris Opera: 1690-1694

The Paris Opera about 1790
The Paris Opera (Acadèmie Royale de Musique) about 1790

Once back in Paris La Maupin took up with her old lover d’Armagnac, who arranged for the King to issue her a pardon for the Avignon affair, removing this hindrance to a professional stage career. A new lover, Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, was hired by the Paris Opéra and helped to get La Maupin accepted into the company. La Maupin's Paris debut was in the role of Pallas in a December 1690 revival of Lully's first opera, Cadmus et Hermione. The main draw for this production was the appearance of star soprano Marie Le Rochois (c. 1658–1728) in the title role of Hermione. La Rochois had been performing roles for Lully and other top composers with the Paris Opera since 1678. Quite the opposite of La Maupin, her reputation was built on her artistic skills as a trained musician, rather than her offstage exploits. La Maupin's notoriety had preceded her, and this as much as her singing talent caused a sensation at her debut. After finishing her part, La Maupin acknowledged the audience's approval by doffing her helmet and bowing, allowing her long blond hair to flow over her shoulders, thereby inspiring even more frenzied applause. Debuting three years after Lully's death, she was to sing in revivals of most of the great composer's operas throughout her career. Between 1690 and 1694 she appeared in many major productions for the Paris Opéra, becoming famous under the stage name "La Maupin."

Among the composers she worked with at this stage in her career were Henri Desmarets (1661–1741), performing the role of a female magician in the 1693 debut of Didon, his first opera for the Académie Royale de Musique. Years later, after Desmarets had been exiled from France over a romantic scandal, La Maupin played the role of Diana in the 1704 Paris debut of his Iphigénie en Tauride, arranged and completed by André Campra.

La Maupin's audacious behavior offstage led to her own scandals, eventually curtailing her professional career in Paris while at its ascent. Dressed as a man at a court ball, she kissed a woman whose attentions three noblemen were seeking. The three nobles challenged La Maupin to a fight, and she defeated all three in fencing duels. Since Louis had outlawed dueling, she now had to flee the city, again pursued by the law.

Escaping to Brussels, she resumed her singing career, appearing with the Opéra du Quai au Foin between late 1697 and mid-1698. Her wild behavior showed no sign of abating. During a suicide scene in Johan Wolfgang Franck's Énée (Aeneas), La Maupin intentionally stabbed herself with a dagger. During her stay in Brussels she was the mistress of the Elector of Bavaria. Finding her too much to handle, he offered her 40,000 francs to leave him. She left to return to Paris, but threw the money at the Elector's feet as a parting gesture.

Return to the Paris Opera: 1698-1705

Mademoiselle Maupain dansant à l'opera
Mademoiselle Maupain dansant à l'opera
ill. from La Maupin (1670-1707): Sa Vie, Ses Duels, Ses Aventures (1904)

La Maupin arranged to get a second pardon from Louis XIV, this time through the intervention of his brother, allowing her to legally return to Paris. She resumed her operatic career just at the time star La Rochois retired from the stage in 1698. With La Rochois now living a quiet life teaching music, La Maupin was able to take more leading roles, and her operatic career reached its peak between 1698 and 1705. Her first role after returning to the Paris Opera was in a November 1698 revival of Lully's Thésée (1675), in the role of Minerve. She received particular recognition for her performance as Cérès, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, in a 1699 staging of Proserpine (1680).

Her offstage dueling and and romantic escapades ensured that her name was well known even among non-opera-goers, as the subject of gossip and popular songs. Her old lover Thévenard, who had helped to get her hired with the Paris Opera in 1690, was still with the company. Re-acquainted, the couple resumed their tempestuous relationship on and off stage. During one of their spats, La Maupin bit Thévenard's ear during a performance, drawing blood.

Besides her continued appearances in revivals of Lully's operas, she also debuted many roles in operas by composers such as Campra, Destouches and Collasse. She appeared in over two dozen different stage productions, including operas, opera-ballets and concerts. She originated 25 roles for the opera, and existing roles were sometimes rewritten to better suit her lower vocal range. Though a soprano, her lower range and assertive character made her unfit for the gentle and naive qualities then associated with soprano roles. Instead she excelled in roles of goddesses, and strong fighting women. Perhaps taking a queue from her habit of cross-dressing offstage, some later biographers claim that she specialized in "trouser roles" (i.e., male characters). But, in fact, all the roles she is known to have sung are female characters.

Campra's Tancrède

The next major composer of the French Baroque after Lully was Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).  Rameau rose to prominence as a theorist and composer in the 1720s and '30s. In the period between Lully's death in 1687 and Rameau's first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), opera was kept on the French stage by several composers who are not as well known to posterity. André Campra was perhaps the leading composer of French opera of this time, and La Maupin debuted many of his opera roles. Her first appearance for Campra was in the two roles of the Priestess of the Sun in the prologue, and A Priestess of Flora in the main opera of Hésione, which debuted to high praise on December 21, 1700. Other debuts for Campra include the pastiche opera, Télémaque, ou Les fragments des modernes which Campra put together from exerpts from his own past works, as well as the work of other composers.

First page to the score of André Campra's Tancrède
First page to the score of André Campra's Tancrède (1702)

La Maupin's most significant role for the Paris Opera was a 1702 collaboration with Campra: Tancrède, which is claimed to have introduced the contralto voice in a leading role to French opera. There is some debate as to whether this is exactly accurate, but it is the first French opera in which the female lead role was not a soprano. Campra wrote the role of Clorinde, the lover of the title character, Tancrède, specifically for La Maupin, fitting the part to best show off La Maupin's vocal range. There is some problem in determining exactly what that range was, in modern terms. In her day, her vocal range was called "bas-dessus" or low treble. This most closely matches the modern mezzo-soprano. However since singing ranges were about a whole tone lower at the time than they are today, this range does overlap with the modern contralto, which La Maupin's voice is usually termed. In either case, whether a modern mezzo or contralto, Clorinde was the first "bas-dessus" in a leading role in French opera. With the three lead male roles baritone/bass, the overall low vocal tessitura of the opera helped give it a dark and sombre tone which made it unusual, and popular among the French public.

The librettist, Antoine Danchet, wrote the part specifically for La Maupin, even working her notorious off-stage cross-dressing into the role. The story takes place during the Crusades, and concerns a Christian knight, Tancrède, who falls in love with Clorinde, a Saracen warrior princess. While Clorinde is disguised in male warrior armor, Tancrède fights with and kills her, believing her to be a man. Tancrède was Campra's most popular work, and was still being performed well into the 1760s, thereafter dropping out of the repertoire until its revival at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1986.

The famous diarist Philippe de Courcillon, Marquis de Dangeau saw La Maupin in a performances of Omphale by André Cardinal Destouches (1672–1749) at this stage in her career. The writer declared that La Maupin had "the most beautiful voice in the world." La Maupin performed the two roles of A Grace and Céphise in this opera, which was to inadvertently lead to controversy half a century later. A 1751 revival of Omphale sparked a battle between the "Lullists" (followers of the older, Lully-influenced style of music, represented by this opera) and the "Ramists" (followers of the more current Rameau). This argument foreshadowed a larger argument a year later between admirers of the more dramatic "Opera Seria" and advocates of the lighter "Opera Buffa". This musical argument, sparked by a visit to Paris of an Italian opera buffo troupe, was called the "Quarrel of the Bouffons", and raged among partisan pamphleteers between 1752 and 1754.

Mademoiselle Maupin de l'opera
Mademoiselle Maupin de l'opera
ill. from La Maupin (1670-1707): Sa Vie, Ses Duels, Ses Aventures (1904)

About 1701 La Maupin's husband— M. Maupin— returned to her life, though this appears not have hindered her extra-marital relationships at all. Her bisexual affairs, cross-dressing, sword fighting all continued unabated. Among her more prominent scandals of this time, she became smitten by soprano Fanchon Moreau, and attempted suicide after her attentions were rejected.

Perhaps the most famous role in her career was that of Médée in the opera Médus by François Bouvard (c. 1684-1760). Originally from Lyon, Bouvard had begun singing with the Paris Opéra about two years previous, at the age of sixteen. Finding that his voice was not adequate to sustain a career, he turned to the violin and composition. The role of Médée in Bouvard's first opera was such a demanding one the retired diva La Rochois claimed she would not have considered taking it on. It is an indication both of La Maupin's ability and her phenomenal memory that when Mlle Desmatins, who was to perform the role, fell ill, La Maupin replaced her at short notice. She received high praise for her performance of this difficult role.

Besides her opera performances, she was popular for parties and chamber events for the nobility at this time, including for the King at the Palace of Versailles. She is known to have sung a chamber music concert accompanied by harpsichordist, organist and composer François Couperin (1668–1733) in 1702. In 1703 she began an affair with the famous and wealthy Madame la Marquise de Florensac, considered one of the greatest beauties in France. Although she was also scandalously promiscuous, de Florensac does not appear to have been involved in a lesbian relationship until she encountered La Maupin. The two lived together relatively quietly for the next two years, the longest continuous romantic relationship of La Maupin's life.

In May 1705, La Maupin debuted what was to be her last role, as Isabelle in La Vénitienne, by the famous flautist Michel de La Barre (1675-1745). Known more as an instrumentalist than a composer, La Barre wrote a series of eighteen books of solo flute music, the first such music published for flute. During the run of La Barre's opera, De Florensac became ill with fever, and died two days later on July 2. Devastated by the loss, La Maupin retired from the stage. According to some accounts she lived quietly with her husband for the remainder of her life. Other accounts have her spending the rest of her life in penitence in a monestary. She died from unknown causes at the age of 37 in 1707.

Julie d'Aubigny, La Maupin (1670-1707)
Julie d'Aubigny, La Maupin (1670-1707)
(1898 Aubrey Beardsley illustration to Mademoiselle de Maupin)

In the three centuries since her death, La Maupin's life has been depicted numerous times in print, on stage and in film. Historical portrayals— some based on careful research, and some wildly fictional— have alternately celebrated and condemned her short but extraordinary life. In 1835, Théophile Gautier wrote a famous Romantic novel whose main character is loosely based on La Maupin. La Maupin (1670-1707): Sa Vie, Ses Duels, Ses Aventures , a thoroughly-researched investigation of her life, was written in 1904. More recent depictions include a 1966 Italian film, a 2004 French TV miniseries, and Goddess, a 2014 novelization of La Maupin's life by Kelly Gardiner. Retellings of her life often focus on the more sensational aspects of her life at the expense of noting the achievements of her operatic career in the early days of the Paris Opera. As La Maupin herself once wrote, "I am made for perils, as well as for tenderness."

Chronological List of the Roles of La Maupin at the Paris Opera

  • December 1690: Pallas in Cadmus et Hermione (Lully)
  • September 11, 1693: Female Magician in Didon (Desmarets)
  • November 1698: Minerve in Thésée (Lully) Audio CD & Score
  • April 27, 1699: Cidippe in Thétys et Pelée (Collasse)
  • July 31, 1699: Cérès in Proserpine (Lully)
  • November 29, 1699: High Priestess of the Sun in Marthésie, Reine des Amazones (Destouches)
  • February 1700: Cérès in Les Saisons (Collasse; revival, debut - 1695)
  • May 16, 1700: Venus and Campaspe in Triomphe des Arts (La Barre)
  • July 11, 1700: Singing Shepherdess and Female Musician in Le Carnaval (Lully)
  • November 4, 1700: Dawn and Nérine, confidante of Circé, in Canente (Collasse)
  • December 21, 1700: Priestess of the Sun and A Priestess of Flora in Hésione (Campra)
  • July 14, 1701: Nymph of the Seine and Thétys in Aréthuse (Campra)
  • September 16, 1701: France, Ismène, Female Magician, and Thétys in Scylla (Gatti)
  • January 12, 1702: Clymène, mother of Phaéton, in Phaéton (Lully)
  • November 12, 1702: A Grace and Céphise in Omphale (Destouches)
  • June 13, 1702: Scylla in Acis et Galathée (Lully)
  • July 23, 1702: Médée in Médus, Roi de Mèdes (Bouvard)
  • September 10, 1702: Polymnie, Iris, and Valfrina in Fragments de Lully (Campra)
  • November 7, 1702: Clorinde, lover of Tancrède, in Tancrède (Campra)
  • January 21, 1703: Pénélope in Ulysse et Pénélope (Rebel)
  • February 9, 1703: Cassiope, Queen of Ethiopia, in Persée (Lully)
  • June 8, 1703: Venus and Distressed Woman in Psyché (Lully)
  • November 27, 1703: Armide in Armide (Lully)
  • February 3, 1704: Madness in Le Carnival et la Folie (Destouches)
  • February 14, 1704: Junon in Isis (Lully)
  • May 6, 1704: Diane in Iphigénie et Tauride (Desmarets/Campra)
  • November 11, 1704: Felicity, Thétys, and A Nymph of Calypso in Télémaque (Campra)
  • January 15, 1705: Mélanie, Princess of Iceland, in Alcine (Campra)
  • May 26, 1705: Isabelle, lover of Octave, in La Vénitienne (La Barre)


Books in the Library

Online Sources

Depictions of La Maupin

On Stage

  • 1839 La Maupin, ou, Une vengeance d’actrice: comedie-vaudeville en un acte, by Charles Labie and Joanny Augier
  • 2003 “Strumpet Voluntary” in Blood and Beauty: 12 Combat Plays for Women, by Terry Kroenung
  • 2004 Mademoiselle de Maupin, ballet by the New York-based company DanceGalaxy
  • 2012 The Duellist, by Steven Burley with music by Paul Shilton

In Film

In Literature

  • Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) by Théophile Gautier
  • Amande (1980) by Henri Evans
  • La petite Maupin (1985; sequel to Armand) by Henri Evans
  • Julie, chevalier de Maupin (1995) by Anne-France Dautheville
  • Goddess (2014) by Kelly Gardiner