Monsieur Dynamite’s Irish vision – Oliver O’Hanlon on Gilbert Bécaud’s L’Opéra d’Aran

Despite never having visited them, Bécaud chose the Aran Islands as the location for his opera

The Aran Islands have inspired all kinds of artistic endeavours down through the years. We need only read JM Synge’s plays or look at Seán Keating’s paintings depicting island life to appreciate how they have inspired numerous creative ventures.

Perhaps surprisingly, opera can also be added to that list. In the 1960s, a charismatic French singer and composer by the name of Gilbert Bécaud created an opera set entirely on the Aran Islands. He called it L’Opéra d’Aran.

At the time, Bécaud, who was known as “Monsieur 100,000 Volts” and “Monsieur Dynamite” on account of his electrifying stage presence, was immensely popular at home and abroad. He started off performing his own work and then took to writing songs for others such as Edith Piaf and Juliette Gréco.

Bécaud eventually penned over 400 songs, including some hits with Charles Aznavour.


A good number of his songs were translated into English and sung by stars such as Nina Simone and Liza Minnelli. Perhaps his biggest hit, Et Maintenant, was reprised by Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, and Elvis Presley, among others, under the title What Now My Love.

L’Opéra d’Aran is a full-scale opera in two acts and seven scenes. The plot has been described as one of “love and betrayal”. Music scholar Axel Klein has referred to it as Bécaud’s “largest and most controversial achievement”.

However, despite Bécaud’s success with it, Klein claims that it is usually passed over when Bécaud’s work is being assessed. Biographers tend to focus on the “public phenomenon and stage presence that he embodied” rather than his compositional talent, argues Klein.

Performed for the first time at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on October 25th, 1962, it ran for 100 performances before finishing in early January 1963.

Given Bécaud’s popularity, it received much attention in the French media. Guests at an early staging of the opera included Marlene Dietrich and Jean Cocteau.

It does not contain any spoken dialogue and characters include fishermen, islanders and a mysterious man who washed up half-drowned in the fishing nets. Many of the 30 musical numbers follow each other without a break and the first performance of the opera ran for 110 minutes.

Despite never having visited, Bécaud claimed that he chose the Aran Islands as the location for his opera because they are “away from it all”. It was, he said, a place where people have remained “pure and God-fearing” and where they believe in beauty and kindness and where they “still have a heart”.

He gave the names of Maureen, Mickey and Seán to his main islander characters. The mysterious new arrival on the island was named Angelo. The female characters were dressed in shawls while the males were clothed in tweed trousers and Aran jumpers. A boat resembling a currach sat on the stage at various points during the opera.

Bécaud’s new operatic production generated comment in France, Ireland and elsewhere. Paris Match and Le Figaro reviewed it with the former asking the question, “Bécaud – is he serious?”, with the latter describing it as a “bit rudimentary but moving”.

In the pages of this newspaper, the writer of the Irishman’s Diary predicted that a “minor boom” in demand for traditional clothing worn on the Aran Islands would develop after Bécaud’s opera was staged in Paris. This included sweaters, traditional footwear known as pampooties, bonnets and other woollen goods.

It was also noted that demand for sweaters was mounting, particularly in the larger Parisian stores. Marie France, one of the leading fashion magazines of the time, was said to have planned to send models to the Aran Islands for a photo-shoot wearing the distinctive clothing with its cable patterns. The press coverage was not all positive, however.

Writing in his Paris Letter column in this newspaper, John Montague was not impressed with this French take on Irish society. Montague referred to Bécaud’s opera as a “tuneful travesty of Irish life” and a “Gallic version of ‘Gloccamorra’”.

Meanwhile, in the American press, one reviewer was not entirely convinced of the merits of Bécaud’s opera either. He suggested that its popularity in Paris could be due to the fact that the natives were “prejudiced in favour of the handsome singer-composer”.

Regardless of some of the negative comment, the opera was deemed good enough to be staged in other places in France outside of the capital and abroad. Several cities in both North and South America and European cities played host to the opera in the years and decades after its premiere in Paris.

For someone who never actually visited the Aran Islands, they played an important role in Bécaud’s artistic and personal life. When he died from cancer at age 74 in 2001, he was living on a houseboat on the Seine in Paris. The name of the boat was Aran.