Erik Charles Renaud (13 December 1838 - 20 June 1923) was a French composer, tenor, writer, painter, sculptor, illusionist, inventor, engineer, and architect. Renaud’s work is revered for its ingenuity, and is widely considered to be at the forefront of Romantic music. His innovative and expansive canon consists of over 200 operas and instrumental works.
His decade-long collaboration with Charles Garnier similarly revolutionized architecture and led to the construction of the Opera Garnier, while his contributions to early sound-recording technology produced some of the first high-quality recordings of famous voices of the day, including those of his wife, soprano Christine Daae, and several of his own.
Renaud’s voice was revered for its haunting resonance and remarkable range, and was sought after by hundreds of theater directors across the world who were well aware that an opera bill bearing Renaud’s name would herald sold-out audiences. Queen Victoria herself was one of Renaud’s most ardent admirers, and would later call his voice “the only sound that brings me true solace” and “divine proof of God’s presence on Earth.”
Renaud met soprano Christine Daae while he was attending an 1880 concert series at the Garnier. Daae was then a member of the chorus and played a fairly insignificant role, but Renaud was “utterly taken by her delicate beauty and the crystalline tone of her voice,” according to a letter he penned to Charles Garnier several weeks after the performance. Renaud, “trembling like a damnable fool,” approached Daae several weeks later and remarked on her voice’s great potential, offering “to serve as her tutor, if she would permit it.” Daae was flattered and accepted, and over the course of her lessons, would strike up a close friendship with the composer who she called, “The loveliest man in existence.”
Under Renaud’s instruction, Daae’s voice blossomed into one of the finest of the era, and the couple’s love deepened considerably. After her debut performance in an 1883 production of Faust, Renaud proposed, and the two were married that spring. They went on to star in several operas together, and Daae remained her husband’s “muse, life, and soul” throughout their marriage. The couple bore two children, the noted composer Charles Renaud II, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Annalise Katrine Renaud. The latter wrote of her parents in the forward to her 1934 bestseller Le Réfugié:
…they were the happiest couple I had ever seen, yet theirs was more than mere happiness. It was as if they were one in the same, and, intensely devoted and endlessly loving parents though they were, Charles and I knew they shared something separate that we could never be a part of. It was present in the small, secretive smiles they shared, the glittering gazes exchanged over the dinner table, the infinitely gentle way my father would take my mother’s hand in his own and then look up at her as if he could scarcely believe she was there.
Renaud died in the summer of 1923 from natural causes, leaving a legacy of contributions—and a legendary name—in his wake. His massive list of accomplishments and great intellect caused his contemporary Charles Gounod to dub him, “The last true Renaissance man, and the only genius I have ever known.”
(Above: An 1881 photograph taken of Renaud in his Paris studio. His wife found it to be “a charming, handsome likeness” but Renaud, displaying his famous wit, quipped, “I’ve yet to discover why the fellow in that photograph looks so utterly pleased with himself. With a face like that, it would be hard to be pleased with anything.”)