Bibliothèque de l’Opéra Garnier, Paris/Bridgeman Images

Jacques Offenbach; engraving by André Gill from the cover of La Lune, 1866

By the time he died in 1880 at the age of sixty-one, Jacques Offenbach had composed more than one hundred works of musical theater, from two-character sketches to full-scale operas. Yet today, in the United States at any rate, his reputation rests primarily on just one piece, his very last—Les contes d’Hoffmann. Hoffmann is a staple of the operatic repertoire and has been recorded many times, while the works that made Offenbach world-famous in his lifetime—comic operettas like La belle Hélène, Orphée aux Enfers, and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein—are known only to devotees. And even they represent just the peaks of Offenbach’s immense output; there must be many hours of his music that no one alive today has ever heard.

This bifurcation of Offenbach’s achievement, into Hoffmann and everything else, makes it hard to appreciate his real significance—not just as a composer but as a major figure in the history of popular culture. For Hoffmann is, both musically and thematically, unrepresentative of his work. It is an intellectual, poetic, and melancholy creation, the story of a poet’s disillusionment in love. But if you asked a Parisian theatergoer in the 1860s what was unique about the shows known as offenbachiades, he would have named quite different qualities. They were comic, knowing, exciting; they lampooned everything respectable, from classical mythology to military glory to the sanctity of marriage; they featured actresses baring their legs and shoulders as they danced the cancan. The contrast can be captured in the two tunes of Offenbach’s that are best known today: the Barcarolle from Hoffmann, with its swaying langour, and the galop infernal (often referred to as Offenbach’s cancan), with its mad propulsion.

The moral insouciance of Offenbach’s stage works was crucial to their appeal from the beginning. His first hit was a sketch called “The Two Blind Men,” which featured a pair of beggars who fake blindness and quarrel over prime begging spots. Several of Offenbach’s collaborators urged him not to stage the piece, on the grounds that it was in bad taste to mock the poor; but he was vindicated when it drew cheers and laughter. He pushed the envelope further with Orphée, which became a worldwide sensation by spoofing classical myth, turning Orpheus and Eurydice from symbols of deathless love into a pair of quarreling, adulterous spouses. Offenbach, who delighted in musical parody, impudently quoted the aria “Che farò senza Euridice?” from Gluck’s version, sticking out his tongue at its sublimity.

The show’s popularity was ensured when an indignant music critic, Jules Janin, lambasted it in print as a “profanation of holy and glorious antiquity.” It was as if Janin was auditioning for the role of Public Opinion, who serves as the moralistic chorus in Orphée. (It is Public Opinion who compels Orpheus to try to rescue Eurydice from Hades, even though he is quite glad to be rid of her.) That kind of officious high-mindedness was the butt of Offenbach’s music, and of the witty libretto by his frequent collaborator Ludovic Halévy. Offenbach, knowing the publicity value of a scandal, replied gleefully in the pages of Le Figaro: “Bravo Janin! Thanks Janin, good old Janin, excellent Janin, the best of friends, Janin, the greatest of critics!”

By then, Offenbach was already one of the best-known figures in Paris, his face—long nose, bald head, benevolent smile—made familiar by caricaturists. It was an improbable fate for a man born to a poor, obscure family of German Jews, and a sign of how powerful a solvent of social boundaries fame had become in the nineteenth century. The composer’s father, Isaac Eberst, had been a cantor, itinerant singer, and violinist who eventually settled in Cologne, where he adopted the name of his hometown, Offenbach am Main. His son Jakob was born in 1819, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars that brought Jewish emancipation to Germany. The doors now stood open to a much wider world, and when Jakob proved to be a prodigy on the cello, his father seized the opportunity, bringing him to Paris to audition for the Conservatoire in 1833. Family legend had it that the director, Luigi Cherubini, initially turned young Jakob away on the grounds that he was not French, only to drop his objection after hearing the boy play just half a page of music.

As it turned out, however, it was the teenage Offenbach, now going by Jacques, who rejected the Conservatoire. After a year he dropped out, preferring to earn a living as an orchestra player for the Opéra-Comique, one of the city’s leading theaters. To understand why, one only has to look at the memoirs of Hector Berlioz, who had been a student at the Conservatoire a few years earlier. Berlioz depicts his own first run-in with Cherubini, who chased him out of the library for using it without authorization. It was a foretaste of things to come. The Conservatoire was a hidebound, hierarchical institution, more concerned with musical politics than musical progress, and it drove the young Berlioz wild with impatience.


Perhaps Offenbach had the same reaction, or perhaps he simply realized early on that the theater, not the academy, was his native element. His dream was to see one of his works staged at the prestigious Opéra-Comique. But while his career as a cello virtuoso took off, and he had the opportunity to tour Europe and play for crowned heads, he could not budge the theater’s management. It was not until 1855 that Offenbach the composer got his big break. This was the year of the Exposition Universelle, with which Napoleon III aimed to outdo the famous Great Exhibition that had brought so many tourists to London four years earlier. Knowing that Paris would be flooded with visitors, Offenbach used his government connections to obtain the lease on a small, unused theater on the Champs-Elysées. At the time, the law strictly regulated what kind of work could be performed at each Paris theater, and the license for Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, as Offenbach’s house was named, specified that it could feature no more than four characters on stage.

Yet within this limitation, Offenbach’s comic genius flourished. “In an opera which lasts only three-quarters of an hour…and [in which] an orchestra of at most thirty persons is employed, one must have ideas and tunes that are as genuine as hard cash,” he observed. Instead of the pompous, overstuffed pageants that played at the Opéra, the Bouffes would give people what they actually wanted—entertainment. “The Two Blind Men” premiered on the opening night, soon to be followed by Ba-ta-clan, a farce set in China. (The title, which was meant to sound Chinese, was popular enough for a Parisian theater to be named after it; the Bataclan became known around the world in 2015, when terrorists killed eighty-nine people at a rock concert there.) The Bouffes became one of the city’s most popular theaters, and Offenbach was dubbed—by no less an authority than Rossini—“the Mozart of the Champs-Elysées.”

By 1858, Offenbach was permitted to put on shows with bigger casts, and he seized the chance with Orphée aux Enfers, his first full-scale operetta. The next decade was the peak of his success. His great operettas followed in quick succession: La belle Hélène, another Greek travesty, this time of Helen of Troy; Barbe-bleue, a retelling of the Bluebeard legend; La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, set at a fictional German court, which was seen by just about every royal visitor to the 1867 Paris Exposition. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about Offenbach’s shows is that, for all their burlesque of gods, kings, and generals, the powerful found them highly congenial.

In his influential book about Offenbach, Orpheus in Paris (1937), the German cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer argued that in the France of the Second Empire, theater became a cultural power because power itself was just a variety of theater. Napoleon III was a play-emperor who maintained his grip on power with a series of showy adventures abroad and grands projets at home. No wonder he admired Offenbach and showered him with signs of favor, including making him a French citizen and awarding him the Légion d’honneur. Indeed, the overlap between theater and government was sometimes even clearer: Offenbach’s favorite librettist, Halévy, held a senior position in the civil service. Halévy’s boss, the Duc de Morny, who was Napoleon III’s half-brother, served as foreign minister but wrote plays in his spare time. If our own era is characterized by the intersection of politics and celebrity—when a reality Tv personality can be elected president of the United States—we are following in the footsteps of the Second Empire.

For Offenbach’s critics, by the same token, his music stood as a symbol of everything they detested in the public culture of their time—the flash, the decadence, the frivolity. Kracauer saw Offenbach as an ambivalent figure whose music hastened the very social decay it embodied. In a dialectical fashion, Offenbach was a progressive because he exposed the Second Empire’s reactionary corruption for what it really was: he “had done more than anyone else to destroy the Empire from within,” Kracauer wrote. (In its deft Marxist analysis of Paris as the capital of the nineteenth century, Orpheus in Paris is the book that Walter Benjamin hoped his Arcades Project would be.)


Of course, it was not lost on Offenbach’s enemies that this agent of corruption was Jewish. (By birth, at any rate: he converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-five, in order to appease his wife’s family, and was generally irreligious.) As Laurence Senelick shows in Jacques Offenbach and the Making of Modern Culture, his comprehensive study of Offenbach’s reception around the world, the composer’s Jewishness was always close to hand as a hostile explanation for his irreverence. When La belle Hélène was performed in Berlin in 1875, a local newspaper described it as a “Jewish speculation on the spirit of modern society [that] caricatures whatever is regarded as sublime and sacred in family life.” In the same spirit, Édouard Drumont, one of the leading French anti-Semites during the Dreyfus Affair, railed against the “obscene innuendo, the lecherous rhythms” of Offenbach’s music.

In these attacks, Offenbach’s Jewishness is made to serve as a shorthand for corrosive modernity and the vulgarization of mass culture. In the twentieth century, Tin Pan Alley and rock and roll would face similar attacks; and as with those genres, it was precisely the democratic, irreverent, liberating energy of Offenbach’s music that made it so popular. Because listeners in the English-speaking world tend to associate operetta with Gilbert and Sullivan, it can be hard for us to appreciate just how transgressive the genre originally was. For Gilbert and Sullivan, knowing English taste and Victorian prudery, deliberately excised the qualities that made Offenbach so original—the overt sexuality, the rhythmic agitation. To his first listeners, Offenbach captured the thrill of being modern: “La belle Hélène is the present, our society, it is us, our beliefs and our tastes and our gaiety and our spirit of analysis which knows not parents nor friends nor tradition,” wrote a Parisian journalist in 1864.

The year before, in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire had declared that beauty is a compound of the ideal and eternal with the ephemerally modern, which he called “the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake.” Offenbach was the musical equivalent of that icing—not nourishing, perhaps, but undeniably delicious. Indeed, many qualities of his work—its abundance and novelty, its catchy melodies and exciting rhythms that people loved to sing and dance to—bring it close to today’s studio-generated pop hits. If he were alive today, he would probably not be a classical musician but a music producer.

Because Offenbach was so closely associated with the Second Empire, the fall of Napoleon III in 1870 marked a turning point in his career. After a long run of hits, he seemed to lose his touch, and a couple of box office failures reduced him to bankruptcy. He was forced to lease his country house, the Villa Orphée, and undertake a well-paying tour of the United States in 1876. When he returned to France, he dedicated himself to a new project that was very different from anything he had done before: an opera based on the stories of the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, who had been a favorite in France since the 1820s. In 1851, a play incorporating the plots of several Hoffmann stories and featuring the writer himself as the hero had been a success in Paris. The authors, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, went on to write the libretto for Gounod’s Faust, among many other works. By now Carré was dead, but Offenbach and Barbier joined forces to turn Les contes d’Hoffmann into an opera.

Offenbach typically composed at a frantic pace: in 1873 alone he had five new works on the boards. His carriage was equipped with a desk so he could keep writing music on the road. But with Hoffmann he took a different approach, working on it for three years, and he achieved a musical and dramatic complexity beyond even the best of his earlier work. In his last days, he was heard to say that he was living only to see Hoffmann performed. The wish wasn’t granted. By the time he died, Offenbach had mostly completed the piano score, but the orchestrations had to be entrusted to another composer, Ernest Guiraud. Just as important, Offenbach was not able to guide the production or revise the opera in response to audience reaction, as he usually did.

The result was that, for decades after, producers and directors felt free to alter Hoffmann in accordance with their own dramatic instincts or the needs or limitations of their troupes. In the very first production, in 1881, one of the opera’s three acts was cut. Later versions of the score reassigned tunes to different characters and even included a spurious aria, “Scintille, diamant,” based on a melody borrowed from another Offenbach work. (There was at least good precedent for this: the opera’s most famous tune, the Barcarolle, was recycled by Offenbach himself from an earlier opera.) In recent decades, musicologists have used Offenbach’s manuscripts to restore the opera to something like its original form, but there will never be a single, authentic version of Hoffmann.

This protean quality seems oddly appropriate for a work so resistant to formula and fixity. In an age that set great store by genre distinctions—Offenbach’s catalog includes opéra-comiques, opéra-bouffes, operettes, and more—the composer gave Hoffmann a unique designation: it was an opéra-fantastique, a fantastic or supernatural opera. In The Real “Tales of Hoffmann, a phonebook-sized new volume that includes the full libretto of the opera, the script of the 1851 play, and a collection of scholarly essays, the editor Vincent Giroud explains that Hoffmann’s stories were translated into French as contes fantastiques—supernatural tales. For the first generation of French Romantics, the unique atmosphere of Hoffmann’s tales—the way they combined magical elements with depth psychology, giving the effect of nightmares come to life—came as a revelation. Gérard de Nerval proclaimed, “In literature we aim at the fantastique.”

What makes Les contes d’Hoffmann so appealing and so dramatically challenging is the way Offenbach filters this German Romanticism through his own French psychological realism, thus uniting the two halves of his identity. The opera’s three central acts each depict Hoffmann’s doomed love for a different woman. The first, Olympia, turns out to be a living doll, an automaton built by her mad-scientist “father”; the second, Antonia, is a singer who can’t resist the call of performance, even though she is doomed to die if she sings; and the third, Giulietta, is a heartless Venetian courtesan who aims to steal Hoffmann’s reflection.

Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Mark Schowalter as Spalanzani and Erin Morley as Olympia in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann

These stories are framed by a prologue, in which we see the drunken Hoffmann at a tavern with friends, and an epilogue, in which we learn that each of the love objects is fictional, meant to represent a different aspect of the woman he really loves, the actress Stella. In this way, the three episodes are made to serve as stages in a young man’s sentimental education. First comes blind love, based on first impressions, without knowledge of the woman’s real nature; then an idealistic, romantic passion thwarted by circumstances; and finally a debauched love that alienates him from his true self. The psychological acuity of the composite portrait gives the opera the unity that it lacks dramatically.

In the original Hoffmann stories, each of these unrelated characters points to a different moral than they do when brought together by Barbier and Offenbach. Take Antonia, who appears in the story “Councillor Krespel.” In Hoffmann’s version, Antonia’s singing is clearly a version of sexual passion: it leaves her flushed, “intoxicated with bliss,” “swimming in delight,” yet it terrifies her father, Krespel, who refuses to allow her to meet with her suitor, the composer B. When B. finally does get Antonia to sing, she perishes in a kind of Liebestod.

In the opera, on the other hand, sex is absent from the equation. Instead, Antonia’s singing is seen—in terms that Offenbach surely understood and identified with—as a form of theatrical ambition. When the diabolical Doctor Miracle tries to coax Antonia into singing, it is by using the lure of fame:

All the blessings that heaven entrusted to you,
Must they be buried in the shadow of a household and family life?…
Did you not proudly dream of hearing,
Like the wind through the trees in a forest,
The soft murmuring rustle of the packed crowd,
Praising your name and following you with their eyes?

The substitution of ambition for desire has the effect of lowering the emotional temperature. Indeed, Les contes d’Hoffmann is a self-conscious, self-reflexive work, in a way that Hoffmann’s own tales are not. Because everything in the opera is a symbol or parable, the audience experiences Hoffmann more as the artist devising the tale than as the hero living through it. This makes it difficult to keep the stage action unified and give it narrative momentum. The recent revival of Bartlett Sher’s production of Les contes d’Hoffmann, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009, often lost sight of Hoffmann himself: Vittorio Grigolo sang beautifully and cut a handsome figure, but was generally to be found off to the side of the stage, striking a tragic pose while events unfolded around him.

By contrast, Tara Erraught as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s sidekick who is actually his muse in disguise, was more central to the action. Always on stage as an ironic observer of Hoffmann’s follies, she shares the audience’s point of view, and thus serves as a more natural focus of identification than the nominal hero. Meanwhile, the set design, by Michael Yeargan, gave in to the almost irresistible temptation to disintegrate the work into a series of spectacular tableaux. The Olympia act, in particular, was awash in Surrealist imagery, which was certainly striking, yet emotionally unrelated to what is supposed to be Hoffmann’s plight.