The Joy of Offenbach

Warren Kinston 15. February 2012 17:08

Jaques Offenbach

When the mood of society is bleak, as it is now, Hollywood produces films mirroring that mood.  Hence the seemingly endless flow of black films: zombie and vampire films, horror films, films ending on a note of bleakness, and TV series characterized by fear, distrust, suffering, betrayal and the abuse of power.

There must be something wrong with me because when things are bleak, I prefer to be cheered up. I like to watch films in which good triumphs over evil.  What benefit do I get from a diet of films proving the futility of rationality and common human decency? 

So I've turned in recent months to Jacques Offenbach and been indulging in his operas: taking  one Act in a sitting—at the end of the day usually, as a little celebration for myself.  He wrote over 100 operas so I just focus on the best of them.  In these, the music can be catchy, funny, rapturous, enthralling and titillating.  In his refinement of musical details, he has been compared to Mozart and Rossini.  I wonder how many know that the US official "Marine's Hymn" is an Offenbach tune?  Listen to it here

Offenbach ended his life famous and immensely popular.  However, his life story is a lesson, once again, that even for immensely talented individuals, success does not come easy.  For example, we love Offenbach for his gentle wit, his poking fun at aristocracy and monarchs, his telling it like it is about politics, war and love.  But the musical establishment of the day, as Debussy pointed out, viewed opera as "the great art at which one was not allowed to smile".  So they wouldn't commission his works.  Undaunted, Offenbach simply leased his own tiny theatre, later moving to larger and better ones.  Government regulations were as usual a harassment: his first license would not allow more than three singers on stage at any one time.  The operas that we now know and love, commencing with Orpheus in the Underworld, arrived only after licensing restrictions were lessened.  There could be a lesson here.

Like many creative individuals, Offenbach was not a great manager.  In the early days especially, he was financially stressed: in part because he was both generous and extravagant. Fortunately, in his 40s success started to flow.  He developed a great team with Halevy and Meilhac: a bit like Sullivan with Gilbert.  He took his operas all over Europe.  However, politics kept intruding. He was born in Cologne (Köln) and, despite his French citizenship and Legion d'Honneur, violent anti-German sentiments following the Franco-Prussian war (1870) worked against him.  For a while, he was vilified by critics and deserted by audiences. Happily, around that time he found a sympathetic audience in England. He also undertook a US tour a few years later.

At the end of his life he worked on his most serious opera. Sadly, he never finished it or heard it performed.  Nevertheless, the vocal score was completed and it has been orchestrated with great care.  "The Tales of Hoffman" is a class apart: wonderful music, wonderful songs, and wonderful sentiment. 

It advises those of you who are poets at heart that your creations cannot be matched by what reality has to offer.  You must stop expecting reality to be gratifying: just focus on creating.  It is what you exist for.

That is something to think about.



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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