Leo Delibes was born in St Germain-du-Val in France. After his
father's death in 1838 he was educated by his mother and uncle,
learning both to sing and to play the organ. He entered the Paris
Conservatoire at the age of 12 and won a first prize two years
later. In 1853, aged 17, he became organist of St Pierre de
Chaillot in Paris, and obtained his first professional appointment
as an accompanist at the Theatre Lyrique. His duties included
playing the piano for rehearsals and conducting some rehearsals to
lighten the burden of the principal conductor. He held the post at
the Theatre Lyrique for ten years. Although he continued his
organist's duties until 1871, he was clearly more drawn to the
exciting and changeable life of the theatre.
Delibes's first stage work, Deux sous de charbon, was
premiered in 1856 and this was the first of many light operettas
that he then produced at the rate of one a year for the next 14
years. It was the second of these, Deux vieilles
grades, which first caught the imagination of
the theatre-going public. It became an enormous success, praised
for its witty presentation, its tuneful melodies, and its general
lightness of touch.
Delibes was appointed chorus master at the Pans Opera in 1864,
a position presenting many new opportunities and experiences. His
last operetta, La source (1869), he wrote jointly with the
little-known composer Louis Minkus. Delibes' s contribution
conspicuously outshone that of his colleague, and served to
consolidate an already flourishing reputation as one of Paris's
leading theatre composers.
In 1870 Delibes produced what main-believe to be his finest
work, the ballet Coppelia. It was an immediate success and
has remained one of the best loved of all classical ballets. The
sheer spectacle of the work and the natural grace and vivacity it
contains show the composer's natural affinity for the medium.
The following year Delibes left his job at the Opera in order
to concentrate more fully on composition. From this point on his
output decreased in quantity; at the same time it was generally
conceived on a larger scale and is of a more complex nature. In
1877 he completed his second full-length ballet, Sylvia.
Based on a mythological subject, Sylvia is full of
Delibes's characteristic melodic charm, although it has never
achieved the popularity of Coppelia.
In 1881 Delibes was made Professor of Composition at the Paris
Conservatoire. Two years later, inspired by the vogue for all
things oriental, he wrote his most famous opera, Lakme,
about the doomed love of an Indian temple-priestess for an English
soldier. The exotic and melodic music - including the ever-popular
"Flower Duet" sung by Lakme and her friend as they prepare to
bathe — is supported by a well-constructed libretto, which ensured
a splendid first production at the Opera. The star role (for
soprano) allows the performer ample opportunity to show off her
accomplishments and the colourful orchestration contributes to a
compelling and dramatic work showing stylistic similarity to
Carmen, by Delibes's compatriot Bizet.
Above all, Delibes's great gift was for the lightness and
humour demanded by the theatre of his time, and the natural
spontaneity of his music continues to captivate audiences today.