Monday, June 20, 2011

Jacques Offenbach (June 20, 1819)

Chances are that you can hum at least one melody by Jacques Offenbach. Probably you can whistle the iconic tune that signifies naughty 19th century Paris: the Can-Can -- if you can whistle. Maybe you know the Barcarole from The Tales of Hoffman. Maybe you can sing a song from one of his many other operettas (he's credited with inventing the operetta form). In all, he wrote over 100 musical works for the stage.

Offenbach was born into a Jewish family in Cologne, Germany, but made his name in Paris as a performer (cello) and composer. When he married, he converted to Catholicism. Despite his German accent and Jewish heritage, he created the musical voice of his era in Paris. This is especially true for his work La Vie Parisiennne. In it, according to the description by the American Symphony Orchestra: "Offenbach holds up the mirror to his times... . 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."

Recently, Bartlett Sher, director of a recent production of Tales of Hoffman at the Met in New York commented on Offenbach's sense of being an outsider. An article on the Met web page explains how at the end of his life, Offenbach determined to write a serious opera -- "and chose the fantastical and often enigmatic stories of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann as his material. As a creator of light entertainment, Offenbach longed to find a place in the world of high art. As a German Jew living in Paris, he was an outsider in another way—just like the protagonist of ... Les Contes d’Hoffmann."

“Why, so late in his career, did Offenbach feel this need to be accepted?” asked Sher... "That led me to consider Offenbach’s sense of being Jewish and an outsider. Whatever group he was in, he always appears as an outsider who never feels like he belongs, never feels like he’s connected."

Sher compared Hoffman to Franz Kafka: "another German Jew, living in Prague. In both E.T.A. Hoffmann and Kafka’s work, sinister, shadowy powers haunt the lead characters. And in each of Hoffmann’s tales that make up the opera’s three acts, the protagonist tries to break into what seems to be a closed world." Sher explains: "It’s a matter of how an artist can feel accepted and rejected at the same time."

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