Massenet was born in Montaud, St Étienne. In 1862, he won a Grand Prix de Rome and spent three years in Rome. His first opera was a one-act production at the at Opéra-Comique in 1867. From 1878 to 1996, he was professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory. His greatest successes were with Manon in 1884, Werther in 1892, and Thaïs in 1894. A notable later opera was Don Quichotte, produced in Monte Carlo 1910, with the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in the title-role.
Massenet used Wagner's leitmotiv device but gave it French lightness, a style considered by some to be saccharine.
In addition to his operas, he also composed ballet music, oratorios and cantatas, orchestral works, and about two hundred songs.