Far and away the most popular composer of Second Empire France, Jacques Offenbach dominated the Parisian theatre between 1855 and the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War fifteen years later. While best known today for his unfinishedfantasy opera Les contes d'Hoffmann, his contemporaries knew him as the creator of the "Offenbachiades," highly tuneful comic operettas that were the runaway hits of Louis Napoleon's Paris. Offenbach's success was not merely commercial; artists as diverse as Rossini, Tolstoy and Meyerbeer joined in the public acclamation.
Offenbach was exceptionally prolific; he completed 101 stage works, of which over forty were full length operettas. Many of these pieces retain their charm, vigor and theatricality today, whether one act farces like Ba-ta-clan or Lisle de Tulipatan or large-scale works like La belle Hélène, La Périchole, La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein and today's La Vie Parisienne.
Despite his solid grounding in harmony and counterpoint, Offenbach wrote very little abstract music. He was a man of the theatre who used his musical gifts to tell stories and create characters. He collaborated with France's finest scenarists and lyricists, in particular the team of Charles Meilhac and Ludovic Halèvy (who wrote the text for La Vie Parisienne, in addition to Bizet's Carmen and numerous other plays, operettas and operas).
Though Offenbach's plots were often set in distant historical periods, his main theme was contemporary life. No matter what costumes his characters wore, they sang the songs of Second Empire Paris. Offenbach celebrated his world through his music; he wooed it, praised it, mocked it and seduced it. In return, the Parisian public sang his songs, danced his dances and packed his theatres night after night. 1860s Paris was unthinkable without him.
And yet Jacques Offenbach, the epitome of Louis Napoleon's Paris, was a German Jew, who spoke French with a thick accent. His father was born Isaak Juda Eberst, called "Der Offenbacher," because he had come from Offenbach-am-Main. Soon after settling in Deutz, a suburb of Cologne, Isaak changed his name to Offenbach and started work as a cantor and music teacher in the Jewish community. His seventh child, Jakob proved to be a musical prodigy, so much so that Isaak packed him off to Paris to audition for the Paris Conservatoire. Despite a regulation against accepting foreigners (ten years before, the twelve year old Franz Liszt had been turned down), Luigi Cherubini, the elderly Italian composer who led the Conservatoire, made an exception and admitted the fourteen year old Jakob to the school's cello class. Within a year, however, Offenbach had left the Conservatoire to start his career. He didn't want harmony lessons; he wanted a theatre. It was to be a twenty-year struggle before he got one.
In 1855 the central government announced it would allow a tiny barn on the Champs Elysees to be used for theatrical performances. Offenbach was one of twenty applicants for this little property which had the great virtue of proximity to the Palace of Industry where Louis Napoleon had just opened the International Exposition of 1855. That meant the theatre would be extremely convenient for the thousands of tourists and businessmen visiting the trade fair. Offenbach called in all his favors to triumph in the scramble for the theatre and on July 5, 1855, his company, the Bouffes Parisiens, was opened to the public.
The piece de resistance on opening night was Les deux aveugles, a comic sketch about two blind beggars. Offenbach's colleagues were disturbed that he would dare to make fun about such a sensitive subject, but Offenbach was adamant. He knew that most of his patrons had been plagued by beggars on Parisian street corners. He sensed they would be delighted to hear that the beggars who pestered them weren't really the outcasts of an unjust society but con men out to earn a little extra cash.
Offenbach was right. The opening night public loved Les deux aveugles, as much for its underlying message as for its catchy dance tunes. Thus began Offenbach's love affair with Second Empire Paris. Using his formidable musical gifts, he would create comedies mocking the customs of the day, without ever seriously challenging the people who bought his tickets or paid his bills.
Offenbach soon became the insider's insider in Louis Napoleon's France. His chief journalistic support came from the main Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, whose publisher de Villemessant was an early investor in the Bouffes Parisiens. His political protector was none other than the Duc de Morny, Louis Napoleon's second in command. An immensely witty and cultivated man, de Morny so loved Offenbach's music that he wrote the text for M. Choufleuri restera chez lui, one of the composer's most successful one-acters.
No work better displays Offenbach's intoxication with contemporary Paris than La Vie Parisienne. Though many of his early one-acters had been set in modern times, this was his first full length piece to directly portray Parisian life. Absent are the historical trappings of the earlier Offenbachiades - the wild cavorting of Greek gods in Orphee aux Enfer and La belle Hélène , the macabre medievalism of Barbe bleue, the colonial satire of La Périchole. All we see onstage is Paris, 1867. At its premiere, the audience was astonished by this, thrilled.
Offenbach holds up the mirror to his times in La Vie Parisienne. And what does his mirror reflect? The excitement, the giddiness that Paris inspires in its visitors. The work's theme is simple: everyone wants to go to Paris, live in Paris, love in Paris. The first stop for all pleasure-starved foreigners is the railway station and so Meilhac and Halèvy begin their tale there. First we meet the railway personnel who proudly list all the French towns they serve, quickly transforming a railroad timetable into a nationalist salute. Soon, the Baron and Baroness Gondremarck arrive from ice-locked Stockholm for a Parisian holiday. In an intoxicating trio, they ask the tour guide Joseph Partout to show them the capitol's glittering night life. Finally, Pompa di Matadores, a Brazilian millionaire, arrives determined to spend his fortune on the joys and dissipation only Paris can provide. His couplets, the most famous In the operetta and perhaps all Offenbach's oeuvre, exude an almost savage energy. The music pulls us into the vortex of the sensual life. There is no resisting it.
Metella's song in Act II strongly contrasts with all this bustle and brio. Metella, a good-hearted prostitute, reads a letter from Baron Gondremarck's friend, the Baron Frascata. Frascata asks her to give Gondremarck the same pleasure she once had given him. The melancholic music makes clear how keenly Frascata misses Metalla's lovemaking, how isolated he feels in the frozen reaches of the North.
Offenbach was far more than a melodist. He shared with Donizetti and Rossini a great gift for building ensembles to a rousing climax. The wild party that ends Act III demonstrates this well. The guests vow to start their party calmly, so their pleasure will last all the longer. Offenbach accordingly begins with sober, straight-forward music that perfectly depicts the guests as they eye one another, waiting to see who will make the first move. The tempo picks up as Bobinet rises to greet the crowd with a drinking song. The music keeps pace as champagne starts to flow and Baron Gondremarck gets drunk. It transforms yet again, exploding into a wild polka as the party turns into a debauch.
La Vie Parisienne retains its force as a hymn to a great city at a specific, very fortunate moment in its development. It has the freshness and immediacy of the advanced art of its time; its vivid tableaux seem as fresh as the canvasses of Monet, Manet and Renoir. Yet, strangely, degas was the only Impressionist who had any contact with Offenbach (through his close friendship with Offenbach's chief librettist, Ludovic Halévy.) When Degas turned to the theatre for subject matter, he invariably depicted the more elegant worlds of ballet and opera rather than the Bouffes Parisiens. Perhaps even more than the Impressionists, the contemporary French artists who seem closest to Offenbach are Honore Daumier, satirist of the French power elite, and Constantin Guys, chronicler of the demi-monde. Yet, neither one seems ever to have had any contact with the composer, quite possibly because they disagreed with his establishment politics.
Offenbach's politics were central to his success, of course; they also proved to be his undoing. His name was indissolubly linked with that of Louis Napoleon and the Duc de Morny. As their power waned, a new generation arose with a completely different sense of the world. These liberals, Emile Zola foremost among them, saw La Vie Parisienne and the other Offenbachiades as something shameful. Zola attacked Offenbach for using his musical genius to soothe the public, to increase its smug sense of privilege and to prettify the cruel realities of Second Empire France - the terrible economic distress of the poor, the callous wastefulness of the rich. To Zola, Second Empire France was not to be celebrated, but deplored. Its future was doomed.
History proved him right. France was irrevocably changed by the fall of Paris to Bismarck's troops in 1871 and Offenbach's career faltered. He never composed another work to match his earlier successes; he was never again considered an essential part of his country's culture. Only with the posthumousappearance of Les contes d'Hoffmann did Parisians remember what a remarkable artist he was.
Offenbach's influence has been broadly felt; it ranges from Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus (based on a Meilhac play) to the masterpieces of Gilbert and Sullivan to Francis Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tiresias. Kurt Weill always cited Offenbach as the model for his own career. During the 1920s, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg joined the intellectual elite of Vienna in regularly attending one man readings of Offenbach operettas by the great Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Today, we delight in his wit and vivacity, the freshness of his musical inspiration, the brilliance of his texts. Though his best work arose from a unique complicity with the Paris of his day, Offenbach transcended his times through his unique, intoxicating artistry.
Ian Strasfogel, Theater Director and specialist on the music of Offenbach