Buffs of Badger State lore have long been intrigued by the story of the so-called "lost dauphin," the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, both of whom were executed during the French Revolution. Some alleged that the dauphin (a term for the eldest son of a French king) had been smuggled out of France, and numerous men claimed to be Louis XVI's successor.
One such claimant was Eleazer Williams, a missionary who lived in Green Bay. While it turns out that the dauphin never made it out of France, Williams' story captured the imagination of Wisconsinites, and now Wisconsin Public Television viewers can see the critically acclaimed opera based on his life.
"The Lost Dauphin," written and composed by Gordon Parmentier, airs on Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) at 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 1. The opera can be seen on all WPT stations except for WHA-TV in Madison. It was performed by the Pamiro Opera Company in May 2000, at Green Bay's Weidner Center. To see some of the opera now, view our streaming video clips.
The opera follows the life of Williams, who brought members of the Oneida Nation to Wisconsin from New York in the early 1800s and also claimed to be the lost prince of France, spirited away from prison during the French Revolution.
Composer Parmentier is certainly no stranger to Wisconsin legends. He's a Green Bay native who graduated from East High School and later attended St. Norbert College and Bethany College. He continued his studies at the Paris Conservatory of Music, where he earned a master's degree in 1952. Parmentier's extensive teaching career spans a number of institutions: Mills College, the University of California Extension System, the Green Bay public schools and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. His other compositions include solo pieces for voice and piano, choral works, chamber music and symphonies. Parmentier's music has been performed by many ensembles, including the San Francisco, Vancouver, Indianapolis and Green Bay symphonies.
Says the composer, "People are fascinated, especially Americans, with royalty and that we supposedly had a royal figure right here in little ol' Green Bay was a very impressive thing, so it became a natural thing to do something with this legend and use it either to write a book or an opera."
But what makes opera such a suitable form for this story? "Since the conception of opera back in the 16th century, composers have used this as a means to unite drama with music. It's a good way to tell a story," says Parmentier.
For almost two centuries, believers and detractors debated the lost dauphin myth, and the legend became embedded into the folklore of northeastern Wisconsin. Finally, the mystery was laid to rest when a genetic research team announced in 2000 that DNA analysis confirmed official accounts that Louis XVII died in 1793. This disproved any claims that he made it out of France alive.
Williams' story, however, is still relevant--and the fact that part of the Oneida Nation still resides in northeast Wisconsin shows that his actions have indeed changed history.