"Il était un Petit Navire", a disarmed opera
"Il était un Petit Navire" is an opera in three acts with music by Germaine Tailleferre with a
libretto by Henri Jeanson. At with a running time of two and a half hours and almost five
thousand measures of music, the work is by far the longest in Tailleferre´s catalogue.
The composition of this work began in 1932 and lasted almost twenty years. The stage and
film decorator André Boll was the person who introduced the composer to the screenwriter
and journalist Henri Jeanson, and the two immediately became friends. Germaine Tailleferre
was married at the time to Jean Lageat who was very involved in the political activities of the
Radical Socialist party, serving as the secretary to Leon Blum during the Front Populaire.
Jeanson was a journalist for many of the leftist newspapers in France, writing for "la
Bataille", the newspaper of the C.G.T. Union and also for the satirical newspaper the
"Canard Enchaîné". Jeanson became close to this couple who shared many of his political
and artistic ideals.
Tailleferre and Jeanson decided to collaborate together on a lyric work which would have the
City of Marseilles as its setting. The choice of the "Cité phocéenneé" was perhaps prompted
by the critical and popular success of "Marius" in 1931, a film by Korda and Marcel Pagnol
and the fact that Jeanson was working with Korda on the scenario of another film at the time
he met Tailleferre.
The aim of this project was to "take apart" the conventions of lyric theatre, as well as the
customs and rituals of the Opera-going public. The first version of this work was a one-acte
"Lyric Satire" entitled "Le Marin du Bolivar" (The Sailor on the Ship Bolivar") whose
composition took several years. Jeanson, who was very much in demand for his film
screenplay and dialogue writing, send his libretto page by page to Tailleferre, who had to
write her music "piece by piece". 1 However, the work was probably finished by 1935,
because a production was announced in "Le Cri de Paris", at the Théâtre des ChampsÉlysées.
2 This production did not take place and finally the work was premièred in January,
1942 at the Studio of Radio Marseille, in the Libre Zone, just before Tailleferre had to flee
France with her daughter for the United States.
The première was a great success and in 1946, the work was accepted by the repertoire
selection committee of the Réunion des Théâtres Lyriques Nationaux, whose president Henri
Malherbe was then director of the Opéra Comique. Malherbe found the work to be too short
and asked Tailleferre and Jeanson to expand it to its final length of three acts. 3 According to
1 Germaine Tailleferre, Mémoires à L´Emporte-Pièce, RIMF no. 19, February, 1986, Slatkin, Génève,
2 Cri des Coulisses, le Cri de Paris, March 15, 1935
3 Mitgang, Laura, Germaine Tailleferre: Before During and After Les Six in The Musical Women, Vol
11, Judith Lang Zaimont, ed. Greenwood Press, 1988 p. 203