Massenet‘s operas shared the opera vogue of nineteenth century France with Wagner‘s, their direct opposite. Massenet‘s twenty-five were of the Meyerbeer-Offenbach type, that is, light and popular, rather than "grand". Some of them helped to insure the success of Oscar Hammerstein‘s opera experiment in New York. Manon is a typical Massenet opera. Its superficial appeal is strong, thanks to its extremely singable melodies.
Massenet wrote operas with one eye on the prima donna who was to sing them. This habit was not discouraged by his wife, who knew that prima donnas were his bread and butter. She encouraged him to send them operas rather than pearl necklaces.
He studied under Ambroise Thomas at the Conservatoire, and traveled his full three years as a Prix de Rome winner, making the acquaintance of the ubiquitous Liszt while in Rome. He returned to Paris in time to shoulder a gun during the siege of 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War. He then settled down to teaching counterpoint at the Conservatoire, writing operas, and enjoying the footlight existence of the opera composer. His personal charm and the style of the particular kind of operas he wrote, at the particular time he wrote them, brought him wide popularity. When he died in his apartment in Paris, there were many more than the bereft prima donnas to mourn his loss.