Written and presented by Marisa Lenhardt. Marisa is a conservatory trained opera singer who, in her dotage, has developed an intense need to know the backgrounds of history’s most renowned musicians. Marisa created Third Wall Music as a way to bring music – and the backstories of that music – into people’s homes.  These intimate experiences are a call back to the early days of chamber music – in people’s homes, with opportunities for discussion.

The famous story goes that the king heard her sing and d’Aubigny’s voice was so glorious that he granted her a pardon for that convent incident. Likely closer to the truth is that d’Armagnac called in a favor from his boss and got a king’s pardon for his former lover.

In this episode, opera singer Marisa Lenhardt looks into the history and legacy of one of opera’s most audacious singers, who counterbalanced her stage time with sword fighting.

A sword-fighting bisexual opera singer who set fire to a convent to get her lover out? [yawn] But she could SING. King Louis XIV and Paris Opera thought so, and the first non-Soprano role in French opera was written for her. Her about her exploits, her sword fights, her royal pardons and, far more interestingly, her vocal journey


The two young women, alternating between giggles and sombre awareness of their crime, dragged the dead body from its repose into the bedroom of the younger woman. Emboldened by the swagger of young love, they set fire to the room, the corpse, and their meager belongings, before fleeing the scene.

It was not the perfect crime. 

The young novice, the one who had been seduced, returned to her family, in shame. The main perpetrator, the novice who had entered the convent in pursuit of her lover, the lover who had been sent there to her get away from exactly this sapphic seductress, was sentenced to death in absentia and it was only her voice – the voice of an angel – that saved her. 

Let’s back up.

La Maupin – sword-fighter, bisexual, opera singer who enjoyed wearing men’s clothing, and who was granted two pardons by King Louis XIV. She was born Julie d’Aubigny, around 1673. Her father, Gaston d’Aubigny, was secretary of master of the horse for King Louis XIV. In 1682, when they were completed, she and her father moved to the Great Stables of the Palace of Versailles, where her father trained the court pages. As she showed an aptitude for it, her father trained her in fencing, alongside the pages. It was during this time that Julie began to dress like a man. 

At 14 or 15 years old, Julie became mistress to Count d’Armagnac, her father’s employer. It seems there was more than one type of grooming going on in the great stables at Versailles. So when, in 1687,  the Count married her to Sieur de Maupin, it’s not surprising that her new husband was soon assigned to a position in Southern France, while the Count had her stay in Paris. From that marriage, Julie took her husband’s last name, the name under which she would become notorious – Madame La Maupin. 

While still in Paris, and still known mostly by her maiden name, Julie took up with her fencing instructor and, after he killed someone, ran off with him. To make ends meet, the two performed fencing exhibitions at fairs. It was during this time that D’Aubigny both began to sing (there are rumors of her singing songs to humiliate those she had bested in fencing), and also when she had her first lesbian affair. At this time, opera was not yet a century old. The history of women as good friends and roommates was somewhat older.

Jacopo Peri, who was Italian, had composed Dafne, now considered the first opera, around 1597/8. Because the art form was so new, it was enough to be a good singer, and formal training had not yet been established for opera. Opera’s evolution in France was largely through Cardinal Mazarin, who was Italian-born. He facilitated the arrival of Italian Opera in Paris in the 1640’s and 1650’s, though it initially had a tepid reception. This may have had something to do with the fact that the French weren’t fans of the castrato voice (and the castrati deserve their own talk). The Italian castrati had been around for over a century by this time, with Pope Sixtus V decreeing in 1589 that the boys of the St. Peter’s choir be replaced with them, and records of eunuch singers going back to the Byzantine Empire. When, in 1661, Mazarin died and Louis the XIV assumed control of the government, Louis got rid of the Italian opera group and supported the creation of a French Academy of Poetry and Music. This led to the founding in 1669 of the Académie d’Opéra, or Académie Royale de Musique, known as the Opéra or Paris Opera. The first production at Paris Opera was the pastorale Les fêtes de l’Amour et de Bacchus (November 1672), composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully. In 1673, Lully took over management of the opera and, for the rest of his life, the only works performed at Paris Opera were his own. Louis the XIV had befriended Jean-Baptiste Lully in February 1653, when they danced together in the Ballet Royal de Nuit. In March 1653, Lully was made royal composer for instrumental music, composing nearly 30 ballets between 1654 and 1685. In 1685, Lully granted a privilege to Pierre Gautier to present operas in Marseilles, the first one premiering on the 28 of January 1685. 

Julie d’Aubigny had her operatic debut in Marseilles, just a few years later, singing an opera by Gautier. Little is known about Gautier’s operas, and none survive. And what became of Lully? Soon after granting this privilege of operas in Marseilles to Gautier, Lully’s love of dancing indirectly led to his death. He had dropped a conducting staff onto his foot, causing infection. A conducting staff was the predecessor to the modern conducting baton; it was a heavy staff that was used to keep the beat by banging it on the floor. Lully’s foot became infected and, rather than have it removed to prevent the spread, Lully opted to forgo surgery, as this would mean he could no longer dance. The infection spread and Lully died in 1687 at the age of 54. 

A series of events brought d’Aubigny back to Paris. As you know, it was while she was in Marseilles that she had her first lesbian affair. In a tradition going back to at least Hildegard von Bingen and Richardis von Stade, the parents of the young woman who was the subject of D’aubigny’s affections sent her to a convent in Avignon (about 100 kilometers from Marseilles) to get her away from d’Aubigny. Naturally, this sword-fighting opera singer was not so easily deterred. She followed the young woman to the convent, took vows, and, one night, under cloak of darkness, they worked together to concoct a scheme to convince everyone that the young novice had died in a fire. It didn’t work; D’Aubigny was stuck with a death sentence – death by fire, in fact – putting a damper on her singing career and making a return to Paris challenging. It’s worth noting that this in absentia sentence referred to D’Aubigny under the male title “Sieur”.

During this … respite … from her onstage career, she began formal vocal training. D’Aubigny had began her career in Marseilles as a Soprano, the highest voice type, and the most common among female opera singers. While not specified in any writings about this time, it’s logical to assume that, as she refined her voice and learned technique, her natural voice evolved from soprano to contralto. There are three main female operatic voice types – soprano, the highest, mezzo-soprano – or middle soprano, and contralto, the rarest of female voice types. At this time, many singers couldn’t read music, and musicians often learned music by rote – the act of hearing, and then repeating, music until it was memorized. D’Aubigny’s great capacity for memorization put her at an advantage.

Her instructor, Maréchal, encouraged her to apply to the Paris Opera… But there was that small issue of the sentencing to death by fire.

So, with the help of her old lover, Count d’Armagnac, she returned to Paris. 

The famous story goes that the king heard her sing, and D’Aubigny’s voice was so glorious that he granted her a pardon for that convent incident. Likely closer to the truth is that d’Armagnac called in a favor from his boss and got a king’s pardon for his former lover.

Once back in Paris, she began using her married name, and the name under which she became notorious – La Maupin. She rekindled things with d’Armagnac, and picked up a new lover, Gabriel-Vincent Thévenard, who worked with the Paris Opera. Familiar with her exploits, the Paris Opera hadn’t wanted to oblige La Maupin with an audition but, at the request of Thévenard, they did, and she joined the company singing the Soprano role of Pallas in a 1690 revival of Lully’s first opera, Cadmus et Hermione. Despite not being cast as a lead (that honor went to Marie Le Rochois, as Hermione), La Maupin was a sensation, in large part because the audience was familiar with her offstage exploits. 

Between 1690 and 1694, La Maupin appeared in several productions at Paris Opera. But, as her operatic career was taking off, once again, her offstage exploits interfered. While attending a ball hosted by the kings’s brother, La Maupin caused a huge scandal. Dressed as a man and not recognizable, she monopolized the attentions of a gorgeous noblewoman. La Maupin, dashing regardless of gender presentation, enticed the woman to several dances and, finally, in the midst of the glitter of a court ball, kissed her – possibly against her will. This incited the ire of three noblemen who had also been competing for the noblewoman’s attentions, and they challenged her to a duel. La Maupin dueled – and bested – all three men but, as Louis XIV had outlawed dueling, she once again had to flee Paris pursued by the law. This time, she headed North, to Brussels, where her antics – and her singing – continued. 

She sang with the Opéra du Quai au Foin between late 1697 and mid-1698, singing works by Franck, among others. During a suicide scene in Énée (Aeneas), La Maupin intentionally stabbed herself with a dagger. Offstage, she was the mistress of the Elector of Bavaria, who offered her 40,000 francs to leave. La Maupin refused the money, throwing it at his feet, but did leave the Elector – and Brussels – heading back to Paris, where she required another pardon from the king. This pardon was granted at the request of the King’s brother. Was it because, as some historians say, La Maupin argued that she couldn’t be tried because the law against dueling only applied to men? Or is it because the King’s brother, Philippe the first, Duke of Orleans, was gay, and sympathized with the reasons she had ended up in the duels in the first place? We may never know.

Now, La Maupin’s operatic career could begin in earnest. Le Rochois, at the ripe age of 40, was retiring, leaving an opportunity for La Maupin to step in to leading roles at the house. Her first role after her return from Brussels was as Minerve in Lully’s Thésée (thuzee) in November 1698. Between 1698 and 1705, La Maupin sang 29 roles at Paris Opera. But the role that most validated her onstage vocal work and her offstage identity came in 1702 – a collaboration with the composer Campra. For La Maupin, Campra wrote Tancrède; the first French opera in which the female lead role was not a soprano. The role of Clorinde, the lover of the title character, was written for La Maupin. While the range on the staff most closely matches that of the modern mezzo-soprano, it’s important to note that singing ranges at the time were a whole tone lower than they are now, as equal-tempered tuning wouldn’t be widely adopted in France and Germany until the end of the 18th century. So, while the ranges written would, in modern times, be considered to be that of a mezzo-soprano, the vocalization was that of a lower voice – a contralto. 

So, the beginning of La Maupin’s career as Pallas in Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione.  sounded like: [singing] 

At her peak, singing a role written for her, it sounded like: [singing] 

After Tancrede, La Maupin sang 10 more roles at the Paris Opera before she retired in 1705. Some accounts say that she left the stage upon the death of her lover, Madame la Marquise de Florensac, who died after a two-day fever. Rumors abound as to how she spent her final days – languishing in a convent after the death of a lover, penitent for her life, or quietly, with her husband, before dying of unknown causes in 1707.

Imagine if La Maupin hadn’t come back into Paris – twice. The opera world would never have benefited from her unique voice, from her impact on music into the 18th century.  

We may never know the exact reasons behind the royal pardons – both for crimes that manifested as brash acts of heated passion. We know that the King loved the arts, and that he knew La Maupin was a singer. And that, without his pardon, she would never be able to grace the Paris Opera – the stage he built – with her whole being – her bisexuality, her penchant for dressing like a man, her fiery temperament, or her unique voice. We know that the French opera stage – and thus the stage of the operatic world – is changed for the better because of it.

In the words of La Maupin, “I am made for perils, as well as for tenderness.” 

CREDITS: This episode was written and performed by Marisa Lenhardt and recorded by Mig Miner in Oakland, California. The Odd Salon Podcast is produced by Annetta Black and Tre Balchowsky. 

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