Offenbach, operetta and Orpheus

Article by George Hall

Jacques Offenbach is one of the most significant creative figures in the entire history of music and theatre. That may seem a large claim, but consider this: if Offenbach cannot quite be credited for inventing operetta, it was certainly he who established the genre and gave it an international presence. In Vienna, he encouraged and was emulated by Johann Strauss II, who provided the local variant with its first permanent classic in Die Fledermaus. In England, Gilbert & Sullivan sprang up in the wake of the success of London transfers of his shows. From Strauss grew the entire later tradition of Viennese operetta, while from Gilbert and Sullivan and their followers came the musical comedy and later the American musical. All the musicals playing in the West End or on Broadway today, and thousands of other pieces of lighter musical theatre performed over the last 150 years or so, can trace their ancestry back to Offenbach.

Who was this individual with such an extraordinary impact? Jacques (originally Jacob) Offenbach was born in Cologne in 1819. His father, Isaac Juda Eberst, had moved there from the city of Offenbach-am-Main, and in Cologne became known as ‘der Offenbacher’ and later just ‘Offenbach’. He pursued a career variously as a bookbinder, musician and cantor in a synagogue. He also encouraged the musicality of his two sons, Julius and Jacob, the younger of whom soon developed considerable proficiency on the cello; he also began to compose, publishing his first work at the age of 14. That same year (1833) Offenbach’s father took his two talented boys to Paris, then the centre of the musical world, and auditioned them for the celebrated Conservatoire. As foreigners, they were not qualified for admittance, but the director, Luigi Cherubini, decided to relax the rule on this occasion. Leaving his sons behind at this prestigious institution, Isaac Offenbach returned to Cologne.

Formal study seems not to have suited young Jacques (as he now was) and he left after a year. But he continued his studies privately, notably with the renowned Fromental Halévy, composer of the hugely successful grand opera La Juive, meanwhile gaining work as a cellist in various orchestras and eventually settling into the pit of the Opéra-Comique. Gradually he became known as a soloist, launching a career as a virtuoso and in 1844 making the first of his visits to England, where he performed with Mendelssohn and Joseph Joachim and played for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as well as the Tsar at Windsor Castle. He must clearly have been an outstanding performer, but his ambitions lay elsewhere. He had set his sights on composition, and specifically on comic opera.

This already had a long history in France, though Offenbach himself had noted a tendency for the genre to become more serious over the years. The theatre known as the Opéra-Comique was its natural home, though the form known as ‘opéra comique’ is not, confusingly, merely the equivalent of the English term ‘comic opera’; it meant specifically opera with spoken dialogue. According to some ancient and arcane laws governing exactly what could or could not be performed at the various Parisian theatres, only the Opéra itself was allowed to perform a work sung throughout in French. Dialogue was obligatory at the Opéra-Comique, but librettists and composers were continually stretching out towards more serious subjects. For Offenbach, the result was becoming closer and closer to ‘small grand operas’. He aspired instead to cultivate a genre that was purely humorous.

For years he beat on the doors of Parisian theatre managements without managing to persuade any of them to let him in. After several disappointments, he determined to promote his own works in future. After a concert performance of his one-act L’alcôve in 1847, he staged a handful of similar small pieces in 1853-5, then seized the opportunity of the International Exhibition held in Paris in 1855 to hire and renovate a tiny theatre near the Exhibition site which he called the Bouffes-Parisiens.

The venue was minute, seating only 50 spectators and – by another Parisian theatrical law – only three performers were allowed to sing on its stage. But his triple bill containing the wry comedy Les deux aveugles, which opened on July 5 1855, was the hit of the season, and both Parisians and other Exhibition visitors flocked in. Offenbach, as both manager of and chief composer to the venture, kept up a steady production of new works for the Bouffes-Parisiens, all in one act and necessarily small-scale. At the end of the year he moved to a larger theatre, where he was allowed four people on stage. Only when such laws were entirely relaxed in 1858 was he able to achieve a long-held ambition: to write a bigger, two-act piece involving multiple principal roles and a chorus.

The subject, which his librettist Ludovic Halévy (nephew of the composer) had been pondering for years, was the well-known classical legend of the musician Orpheus, who is grief-stricken by the death of his wife Eurydice and is allowed to go down to the Underworld to bring her back to the realm of the living. Unfortunately Halévy, whose day-job was as a civil servant, had recently been appointed General Secretary to the Ministry for Algeria (then a French colony), and in his new-found respectability had neither the time nor the inclination to sacrifice his position in the cause of frivolous entertainment. His colleague Hector Crémieux thus did most of the work, but Offenbach appealed to Halévy to supply some lyrics, which he did on condition that his name should not appear on the bill. Instead, the work was dedicated to him.

Orpheus in the Underworld opened at the Bouffes-Parisiens on October 21 1858. The first-night reception was mixed, but from the second night the piece began to win admirers. Offenbach and his collaborators were undoubtedly helped a few weeks later by the attitude of an important critic who had written a negative review. In fact, they seem to have laid a trap for him, into which he duly fell. Jules Janin was France’s most eminent theatre critic, having written for the influential Journal des Débats for nearly thirty years. He had been much amused by Offenbach’s previous efforts and had said so in print. But to a high-minded individual steeped in the world of classical antiquity, Orpheus in the Underworld was a step too far – a vulgar profanation of the ancient authors who still provided the ultimate models for France’s academic literary elite. He loathed and despised it.

Unfortunately, Janin had not noticed that the libretto put into the mouth of Pluto a substantial speech that was lifted, bodily, from an article he himself had written only six months previously. Once his negative review had appeared, Offenbach wrote a letter to Le Figaro pointing this out. A contretemps ensued in the newspaper columns. The public controversy ensured that Orpheus became a production that everyone simply had to see. It was the talk of artistic Paris. It ran for an unprecedented 228 performances and was only taken off because the cast was too exhausted to continue.

Offenbach now entered upon a decade of glory. He followed Orpheus with another piece based on classical world, La Belle Hélène (1864), turned to French medieval legends for Geneviève de Brabant (1859) and Barbe-bleue (1866), viewed modern Paris sceptically in La Vie Parisienne (1866), took a sideswipe at Prussian militarism in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), and purloined recent French literature in La Chanson de Fortunio (1861) and La Périchole (1868). Meanwhile, his works became ever more international in their appeal and did the rounds of theatrical Europe. The Vienna Court Opera granted him musical respectability by commissioning his three-act opera Die Rheinnixen in 1864. Even the Opéra-Comique, which presumably still thought of him as an orchestral cellist, changed its mind and commissioned Barkouf (1860), Robinson Crusoe (1867) and Vert-Vert (1869) – musically slightly more ambitious than his operettas, yet still sticking to the comic vein in which he specialised.

The crisis of Offenbach’s career came as part of a much greater disaster that engulfed the French nation in 1870-1. The Prussian chancellor Bismarck had long schemed to establish German dominance on the continent of Europe by toppling the French. By some clever doctoring of a genuine telegram, he succeeded in goading Emperor Napoléon III into declaring war on Prussia in July 1870. Within six weeks Napoléon and his entire army were taken prisoner at the battle of Sédan. This catastrophic humiliation resulted in Napoléon being deposed by a Government of National Defence which hastily reassembled the remainder of France’s troops and endeavoured to fight on. This in turn led to the miseries of the Siege of Paris, which was followed (after the exultant Germans had left, taking Alsace and Lorraine with them) by the chaotic revolution of the Commune, which was itself brutally quashed by French troops under General Thiers. By then much of Paris lay in ruins, and many thousands of its citizens had died. Who would want operetta now?

Offenbach had additional problems. He was German by birth. His operettas, according to his scapegoat-seeking critics, had not only been relished by Napoléon III and the leading lights of his discredited regime but had also, through their incessant mockery and underlying cynicism, helped to undermine France’s moral strength. Offenbach, who had wisely taken himself and his family off to Spain for the duration, defended himself ably in print, was forgiven by the public, welcomed back and resumed his activities.

The pieces he wrote following this great debacle contained less of the satire that had, in retrospect, proved so controversial, and more of the sentiment that was the other side of his unique coin. Even with more competition now –from composers like Charles Lecocq, whom he had earlier helped to launch – he had further significant successes with pieces such as Fantasio (1872), Madame Favart (1878) and La Fille du Tambour-Major (1879). Orpheus returned in triumph in a much-expanded version in 1874 (at Opera Holland Park you will hear the original, which is widely preferred by Offenbach experts). He also worked, from 1877, on a major project that he hoped would affirm his credentials as a composer of serious opera – The Tales of Hoffmann, which, sadly, he did not live to complete. As (largely) orchestrated, rearranged and even rewritten by other hands, the work became a mainstay of the French repertoire following its premiere at the Opéra-Comique on February 10 1881. Offenbach had died four months previously. He was buried in the cemetery in Montmartre after a service at the Madeleine (he had converted to Catholicism in 1844, shortly before his marriage) with the full military honours to which he was entitled as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

But were Offenbach’s contemporary enemies correct? Were works like Orpheus, La Belle Hélène and La Vie Parisienne essentially flippant and destructive satires? The answer cannot be a simple one. Offenbach and his collaborators, like W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, were not bent on bringing down a society in which they were keen to play a prominent part and from which they benefited significantly. But they could all see the ridiculous side of things. When Jupiter is attacked in Orpheus for his constant amatory escapades, frowned on by his wife Juno, the work’s creators and its first audiences would instantly have thought of Napoléon III’s notorious string of mistresses, so thoroughly disapproved of by the Empress Eugénie. When the inhabitants of Olympus rush in singing a parody of the Marseillaise and threatening revolution, audiences might have thought of those who wanted to tear down the rackety glitter of the Second Empire and everything it stood for – though it was not these opponents that would eventually do so. And everything and everyone in Orpheus finally has to bow before the hypocritical morality of Public Opinion.

One of Offenbach’s French biographers, Alain Decaux, defined his position vis-à-vis his own society very neatly: ‘Second Empire society discovered in Offenbach a barometer of its own sensibilities. Politically stifled, it liberated itself through laughter. Offenbach was that laughter.’

Equally pertinently, early audiences, like today’s, might have seen in the reversal of the traditional Orpheus and Eurydice story – in which, far from being devoted, the two cannot stand each other – or in the carefree libidinousness of most of the operetta’s characters, a wider satire on human nature that is not, arguably, such a parody of reality as idealists might like to suppose. And all set, in Offenbach’s consistently inventive score, to music of a melodic vitality, rhythmic buoyancy and orchestral elegance that would summon from Rossini an enormous compliment when he dubbed its creator ‘the Mozart of the Champs-Elysées’.

George Hall writes widely on operatic matters and is a contributor to the New Oxford Companion to Music and the Penguin Opera Guide