Offenbach, Jacques



Originator of opera bouffe; a naturalized Frenchman, although he came of German-Jewish stock, and was born at Cologne, where his father was cantor of the Synagogue. He went to Paris and attended Vaslin's violoncello class at the Conservatory in 1833. In 1842 he permanently settled at the French capital and obtained a position as violoncellist in the orchestra of the Opera Comique. He appeared in concerts, visiting England in 1844; wrote a few compositions, and published settings on parodies on La Fontaine's fables, which brought his name before the public. In 1848 or 1849 he was given charge of the orchestra at the Theatre Frangais, and there he made his first real success with the setting of Alfred de Musset's Chanson de Fortunio, in one act. Previously he had produced Les Alcoves at a concert in Paris in 1847, and in 1849 his Marietta came out in Cologne. Ambitious to keep in the public eye, he wrote Pepito, a one-act operetta, produced at the Opera Comique, but it could hardly be called a great success. It was not until 1855, when he boldly assumed the direction of a theatre of his own, that he gained the popularity which he so eagerly desired. The Bouffes Parisiens, as he styled it, was opened in the ChampsElysee, but when winter came he removed to the Theatre de Comte. Not long afterward he took his troupe to Germany and England, where he was well received. During the eleven years of his management of the Bouffes Parisiens, most of his best and most popular works were produced. Beginning with a series of light and charming one-act pieces in imitation of Auber Les Deux Aveugles; Le Violoneux; Bataclan; Croquefer; Dragonette; and Le manage aux lanterns, he came to his own in 1858 in Orphee aux Enfers, where he gives full vent to his peculiar diabolical humor, stripping the Olympian deities of every vestige of dignity and making them utterly ridiculous for the pleasure of his audience. Then followed Genevieve de Brabant; Les Bavards; La belle Helene; Barbebleue; La Vie Parisienne; and La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein. In 1866 he gave up directing the Bouffes Parisiens and his plays until 1873 came out at various theatres. He then managed the Theatre de la Gaite from 1873 to 1876. His later works, the most important of which are La Perichole, La Princesse de Trebizonde, La Jolie Parfumeuse, and Madam Fayart, show a higher aim, and the caricature is not so broad; but when he attempted the higher form of comic opera, in Barkouf and Robinson Crusoe, he failed signally. His last work, Contes d' Hoffman, was not given until 1881, a year after his death. Offenbach's works became popular in America in 1876, when Bateman introduced La Grande Duchesse in New York with Tostee as leading lady, but the composer's visit here the following year was not very successful. Musicians and people of refinement have condemned Offenbach for his utter disregard of all established rules and for his shameless caricature of all that they held sacred. Yet his burlesques, immoral as they are, were the outgrowth of the age in which he lived and furnished great enjoyment to the masses. "The fundamental humor of them all," says a writer in Seidel's World of Modern Music, " consisted in the association of mythologic and majestic concepts with the tomfoolery of the most unscrupulous artists." He was a native genius of remarkable originality, as is shown not only by the fact that during his career he turned out one hundred and two pieces for the stage but that Lecocq, Litolff and Planquette, Suppe and Straus have fallen short of him in following his lead, and have finally turned back to the comic and lyric fields. Unfortunately for his immortality, his works lack the external form indispensable to long life. Since his death they have been forgotten.