Jacques Offenbach
(1819-1880) and Light Music in Paris

A past master in the art
of light music for the stage,
Offenbach was not the only
composer to have audiences
rolling in the aisles in
Second Empire Paris.
An overview of comic composers
with a savage wit…

In 1791, in the midst of revolutionary tumult, the so-called ‘Le Chapelier Law’ had given Paris theatres complete freedom of programming, allowing the comic genres to be performed much more widely in a cluster of small popular Paris theatres. Napoleon’s edicts of 1807 could not stop the spread of these works – songs, vaudevilles, playlets, short operas or parodies (possibly performed by puppets) – which came to be regarded as the hallmark of French wit and were enjoyed throughout Europe. Although Offenbach was of German origin, he skilfully assimilated this brand of humour, making it his own with a highly personal tone. Composers and librettists gravitated around him, some of whom he took as models. Of these, Hervé is slowly regaining his rightful position among this company, gradually acquiring the status of Charles Lecocq, while many others are still waiting for their true worth to be re-evaluated: Laurent de Rillé, Gaston Serpette, Robert Planquette, Edmond Audran, Louis Varney, Frédéric Toulmouche and Claude Terrasse, among others, who paved the way for works by André Messager and Reynaldo Hahn.

All over the globe,
when people want
a good laugh after
a few drinks,
they go and see
a French operetta. Camille Saint-Saëns, 1876

Offenbach in a few words

Offenbach, who was of German Jewish origins, was born in 1819. The son of a cantor in a Cologne synagogue, Offenbach initially wanted to pursue a career as a virtuoso cellist. The gifted young man was soon sent to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under Vaslin for a year before leaving.
He subsisted by playing in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique for two years, while regularly attending various salons. Several pieces written for his instrument of choice date from this difficult period (including a Concerto militaire) as well as several romances. His growing interest in the stage met with a less than favourable reaction at this point in his career, despite his repeated attempts. He consoled himself by composing several pieces of incidental music for the Comédie-Française, where he was musical director from 1850 to 1855. It was then that he decided to form his own theatre – Les Bouffes-Parisiens – situated not far from the Universal Exhibition: this was an immediate success. During his lifetime, Offenbach composed more than one hundred works of differing sizes which enjoyed varying degrees of success. Many of these were, and continue to be, numbered among the great classics of opéra-comique and opéra-bouffe, a genre which he made respectable. His more noteworthy operas include Orphée aux Enfers (1858), La Belle Hélène (1864), La Vie parisienne (1866), La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867), Les Brigands (1869), La Périchole (1874), La Fille du tambour-major (1879) and, most importantly, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, a fantastical work which was his posthumous masterpiece. He died covered with glory in 1880.

I was not allowed more than two characters,
I wanted to have a chorus in Agamemnon,
but they were against it.
I was forced to hide the chorus singers in the wings. Hervé, Notes

The birth of operetta

If, etymologically, the word ‘operetta’ refers to the idea of a little opera, this is because the genre was originally very modest in size. These works, which made their appearance in the 1840s, were more like sketches or comic duets than full-length operas. Crippled by censorship and Napoleonic decrees, this repertoire sought to defy restrictions by all possible means. Hervé and Offenbach successfully made the genre more ambitious—so much so that they were finally permitted to stage works with soloists, a chorus, dancers and an orchestra, extending over two acts at first, then three or four. The ten years between 1860-1870 saw the success of an almost surrealist type of comedy which made fun of both serious opera (Le Petit Faust by Hervé or Croquefer by Offenbach) and Antiquity or medieval legend (Orphée aux Enfers and La Belle Hélène by Offenbach, Les Chevaliers de la Table ronde and Chilpéric by Hervé). Their contemporaries did not escape unscathed either: they were targeted for their society lifestyle (La Vie parisienne) or their artistic tastes, particularly their inordinate love of Italian singing (Monsieur Choufleuri). The craze for exoticism started by Félicien David and continued by Camille Saint-Saëns was also mocked in pieces of Spanishry like La Périchole and Maître Péronilla, or by representations of more distant lands (Les Turcs by Hervé, La Créole by Offenbach). However, the war of 1870 soon dampened spirits. There were some who even went so far as to accuse operetta of being a vehicle for the decadent French wit that had led to the chaos of war. The more reserved talents of a composer like Lecocq brought operetta humour back within the confines of Bourgeois decency.

Several key dates

The Café-Concert Style Of Entertainment

Although the bawdy ballad inherited from the 18th century survived well into the 1860s, it gave rise to the development of a much more popular genre: the French chanson. Sardonic or sentimental tone, these songs tackled a wide range of subjects and were mainly performed in music halls called cafés-concerts, which sprang up in Montmartre or along the Grands Boulevards. In 1867, Camille Doucet, manager of theatre administration, authorised these venues to use costumes and disguises, perform plays and put on interludes of dance and acrobatics. These measures favoured the subsequent rise of large auditoriums in Paris like the Folies Bergère or the Olympia.
This was a golden age for this leisure activity, which spread throughout France. Paris became the embodiment of European entertainment.
The operetta-variety revue introduced the chanson genre into its big narrative shows. Protagonists were given vocal numbers enabling them to show off the full range of their dramatic skills. This cheeky humour was often justified by the working-class origins of the characters or their desire for liberation. Hervé had considerable success with La Cosaque, La Marquise des rues and, above all, with Mam’zelle Nitouche in 1883.

Moving towards musical comedy

As the café-concert type of entertainment declined and motion pictures were born, music hall, on the one hand, and musical comedy, on the other, led to a modernisation of older-style productions by introducing innovative new styles and incorporating dance, acrobatics, magic, special lighting effects and complicated pieces of machinery to revitalise shows that had sometimes become a little outmoded. The variety revues put on by leading music halls were rivalled by the foxtrot rhythms and ‘jazz’ harmonies of the new interwar operetta. The French composers, increasingly well-travelled, discovered, like Messager, the art of the London operetta. Many French works, translated into English, acquired new unpublished numbers which satisfied the tastes of English-speaking audiences. Such was the case with Messager’s Les P’tites Michu, which was taken to England, then Broadway, under the title of The Little Michus, with a great many modern choruses and songs. Reynaldo Hahn (Ô mon bel inconnu), and Henri Christiné (Dédé, Phi-phi) stretched their musical technique by favouring unusual forms and approaches to orchestration. They paved the way for a generation led by Maurice Yvain, who was able to call on remarkably good librettos by Guitry or Willemetz.

Operetta is the daughter of opéra-comique,
a daughter who has turned out badly. Camille Saint-Saëns, Écrits sur la musique, 1876

Maître Péronilla

Maître Péronilla, a mature work by Offenbach, was premiered on 13 March 1878 in particularly difficult circumstances for the composer. Although he was used to having works performed in several Paris theatres at the same time, he was having to put a brave face on things that year: Les Contes d’Hoffmann had been dropped by the directors of the Théâtre-Lyrique, while Madame Favart had been postponed by the Folies-Dramatiques. There was also some talk of a spectacular at La Gaîté, but this was still under discussion.
The composer was therefore pinning all his hopes for fame on Maître Péronilla, a large-scale Spanish-themed operetta, for which he himself had written the libretto. Using Hispanic elements had always been lucky for Offenbach, from La Périchole to Pépito and Les Brigands, as was noted by an enthusiastic journalist: ‘There is more of Spain in Offenbach’s brain than in the country of Spain itself.’ And, in actual fact, the work boasts countless rhythmical passages with shimmering orchestration, including La Malagueña which every member of the audience ends up humming on their way out of the theatre. However, as was his wont, Offenbach created a mix of different styles, wittily contrasting various types of music aesthetically poles apart. Such is the case of the grand finale in waltz form of Act II, described by the journalist Moreno as seeming to be ‘entirely made of the stuff of Viennese composers. It is the same insinuating music, full of vague poetry, yet strictly rhythmic at the same time.’

La Périchole

Although La Périchole is now regarded as one of Offenbach’s most famous opéra-bouffes, its premiere did not bode well. After the successes of 1867, 1868 got off to a disastrous start with the failure of the Château à Toto. However, Offenbach’s fears were allayed in the autumn of that year with the performance of La Périchole at the Théâtre des Variétés on 6 October 1868 with Hortense Schneider in the title role. Partial success… or partial failure. The audience did not take as much pleasure as expected in the gallery of poor, starving characters despised by a tyrant, albeit a comical one. People were even outraged at the drunken scene – showing a woman intoxicated! – which brought Act I to a close with the marriage between a tipsy bride and groom… The few successful numbers (The Couplets espagnols and the Lettre) were not enough to keep the work in the repertoire, given the particularly tense political climate. It was not until the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 that the opera was staged again in an extensively revised version. Although the first version was in two acts, the revival of 25 April 1874, again at the Théâtre des Variétés, was in three. This marked a new chapter for the opera, whose music was less abrasive than that of the previous decade, heralding a new ‘opéra-comique’ aesthetic.

Offenbach has resolutely
ventured down a new path
in operetta, which is more
cheerful than boisterous,
more refined than farcical. Lavoix, Revue and Gazette musicale de Paris.

Madame Favart

It was on 28 December 1878 that the Folies-Dramatiques staged the premiere of Offenbach’s three-act opéra-comique, Madame Favart, to a text by Chivot and Duru. These two librettists, who had already racked up successes with Lecocq and Hervé, again drew their inspiration for this opera from two real-life characters: the famous actress Justine Favart and her husband, Charles-Simon. During this same period, the dancer La Camargo (Lecocq) was also brought to the stage, just as later Hahn was to take an interest in Mademoiselle Guimard. The plot – purely imaginary – is governed more by the rhythms and popular dances conjuring up the background of these two performers than by a more predictable Neoclassicism. In the overture and one chorus of the first act, Offenbach intentionally quotes the song ‘Elle aime à rire, elle aime à boire’ by Fanchon, the hurdy-gurdy girl, a character successfully played at the time by Madame Favart. Likewise, in Act III, a mise en abyme features a section from the opéra-comique La Chercheuse d’esprit, another of the couple’s great triumphs. Using Madame Favart’s reputation for excelling in quick-change parts, the work revolves around repeated mistaken identities that force the main protagonist to adopt various disguises as she deals with various misadventures.

Hurrah for Favart,
The Queen of her art!
Before her grace and charms,
All must lay down their arms. Madame Favart, Act III

Offenbach Colorature

Before the successes which made his fortune, Jacques Offenbach regularly had pieces performed at small minor theatres lacking in funds and staff, where even the bare artistic minimum was considered a luxury. This was where he expanded his knowledge of the voice in order to coax the best out of the singers at his disposal. And, if his scores are anything to go by, he was at least fortunate enough to come across some ‘premières chanteuses’ whose virtuoso vocal pyrotechnics were sometimes all it took to ensure a work’s success. This lyric emploi (role) – called by turns ‘chanteuse d’agilité’, ‘chanteuse à roulade’ or ‘première chanteuse légère’ – is a recurring feature in most of the composer’s works, from the first minor pieces for two or three characters to the sweeping sagas of his maturity such as La Vie parisienne, Robinson Crusoé and Orphée aux Enfers. The coloratura soprano also graces the opéras-comiques with less farcical librettos (like Fantasio) and Offenbach’s only serious opera – Les Contes d’Hoffmann – in which the role of the doll (reduced to one aria, but what an aria!) is one of the most famous in the French repertoire.

2 Bouffes en 1 acte

Who would believe that one-act operas and operettas account for almost two thirds of the French opera repertoire from the Romantic period, since they are so rarely performed today? These shows, written for small theatres which very often lacked funds, had to obey the restrictions imposed on them by a decree of 1807: no more than two or three performers on stage, no chorus, no ballet. However, Hervé and Offenbach – past masters at circumventing constraints – could do a lot with a little, leaving anything that they could not show to the imagination. Two tenors on stage, accompanied simply by a piano, perform Fignolet – the crazy composer in person – and his servant Séraphin, followed by the beggars Patachon, ‘Haveugle de nessance’, and Giraffier, ‘Aveugue par axidans’ who are fighting for the best patch on a bridge. Using a performance space which is as minimalist as it is effective, Lola Kirchner presents a highly amusing yet always respectful interpretation of these works of surrealist comedy, relying also on the dramatic talents of two tenors who are clearly mad… about Offenbach and Hervé!

Les deux aveugles (1855)
bouffonnerie musicale en un acte, music by Jacques Offenbach to a libretto by Jules Moinaux.

Le compositeur toqué (1854)
bouffonnerie musicale en un acte, words and music by Hervé.