Jacques Offenbach

Composer Jacques Offenbach

Aka “the Mozart of the Champs-Elysees,” Offenbach was a composer of brilliant operettas and one repertory opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. His operettas are infused with social commentary.

Vital Statistics
June 20, 1819, Cologne, Germany
October 5, 1880, Paris
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
The Boulevard des Italiens, with its flaneurs (men about town), cafés, and crowds of strolling gentlemen and ladies – Offenbach’s milieu – was central to Parisian life. Louis Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor in 1852, inaugurating the Second Empire. Five million people visited the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855. War with Prussia, in 1871, brought the Second Empire down.
Biographical Outline
  • Born: Son of a bookbinder/synagogue cantor. At 14, his father takes Jules and his brother to Paris, where he studies cello and composition at the Paris Conservatory. He also sings in a synagogue choir.
  • First gig, 1834: Cellist in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique. By 1838, he gains entry to Paris’ salons, where he performs with composer/pianist Friedrich von Flotow. He spends the 1840s as a virtuoso, touring London and Cologne. He converts from Judaism to Christianity in 1844, in order to marry.
  • Rise of operetta, 1855: During the Paris Universal Exhibition, Offenbach rents a small music hall, which he names the Bouffes-Parisiens. Since the government controls all theaters in the city, Offenbach is limited to producing one-act works with three characters or fewer, no chorus. Even with those restrictions, he is successful, and transfers to a new theater in the winter.
  • The Big Time, 1858: Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the underworld), a three-act masterwork made possible by a relaxation of the theater laws, is a sensation, and runs for 277 performances. It becomes the work that defined Second Empire bourgeois society. Offenbach retires from managing the Bouffes-Parisiens in 1862, but continues to crank out hits for it.
  • Crash of 1871-76: After France’s defeat in 1871, tastes change and Offenbach is almost forgotten, a ghost of the Second Empire. Bad business decisions force him into bankruptcy, but he recovers with an exhausting tour of the U.S.
  • ”Legit” opera, 1877: Offenbach has tried for years to get his foot in the door at the major opera houses, with little success. His final attempt is Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The tales of Hoffmann), which he works on in between other commitments. Left unfinished at his death, it is completed the following year by Ernest Guiraud, who also supervises the first performance at the Opèra-Comique. Hoffmann is the big success its author had always hoped for — alas, posthumously so.
Fun Facts
  • Good guy: Offenbach was genial, funny, and generally good company, like many of the characters he wrote about. He was also often depressed.
  • Kept good company: He performed on the cello alongside the likes of pianists Anton Rubinstein and Franz Liszt, and conductor Felix Mendelssohn.
  • Father of Viennese operetta: Following the success of Orphée in Vienna, Offenbach set up an outpost there, exporting many of his hit operettas. He apparently encouraged Johann Strauss II to write one, yet it was Offenbach who laid the foundation of Viennese operetta.
  • International intrigue: Offenbach was accused of being a German spy during the Franco-Prussian War.
Recommended Biography
Recommended Websites
  • Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The tales of Hoffmann) DVD:
    • Placido Domingo, Luciana Serra, Agnes Baltsa, Ileana Cotrubas, Robert Lloyd, Geraint Evans, Sigmund Nimsgern, Claire Powell; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/ Georges Pretre. (Kultur, 2003). Tradtional version, good cast, acceptable production, bad subtitling.
  • Tales of Hoffmann, CD
    • Placido Domingo/Joan Sutherland/Gabriel Bacquier; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Richard Bonynge (London, 1990).
    • Roberto Alagna/Natalie Dessay/José van Dam; Lyon National Opera Orchestra/Kent Nagano. (Erato, 1996). This version is significantly longer (3 full discs) and has the original ending to the “Giulietta” act, as well as a lot of rediscovered music. It makes much more dramatic sense, but some parts are musically weaker than in the traditional version.
  • The Can-Can: The can-can (“tittle-tattle” or “scandal” in French) is a super-fast galloping dance in 2/4 time that developed around 1830 and, with its high-kicking steps was considered quite scandalous. Offenbach wrote what is undoubtedly the most famous can-can of all, the “Galop infernale” from Orpheus in the Underworld. (Yes, it’s that one.)
  • Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the underworld)
    • Natalie Dessay/Laurent Naouri/Jean-Paul Fouchérecourt/Yann Beuron/Ewa Podles; Chamber Orchestra of Grenoble/Marc Minkowski (1998).  This is the 1858 version, with a small theater orchestra, but with some of the most popular pieces of the expanded 1874 version added in (except for the Promenade Overture). It’s the best of both worlds, taken directly from a live production.
    • Mady Mesplé/Michel Trempont/Charles Burles/Michel Sénéchal/Jane Rhodes; Orchestre de Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson (EMI 2001). Evergreen recording of the expanded 1874 version.
  • La belle Hélène (1864) (DVD and CD)
    • Felicity Lott/Yann Beuron/Michel Sénéchal/Laurent Naouri; Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble/Marc Minkowski; Theatre du Chatelet, Paris/Laurent Pelly, director. (Kultur Video, 2004; Virgin Classics, 2001).
  • La grande-duchesse eu Gérolstein (The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, 1867) (DVD and CD)
    • Felicity Lott/Sandrine Piau/Yann Beuron/Francois LeRoux; Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble/Marc Minkowski; Theatre du Chatelet, Paris/Laurent Pelly, director. (Virgin Classics, 2005, 2006).
  • Gâité parisienne (arr. Manuel Rosenthal)
    • Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra/Rosenthal (Naxos 1999). Rosenthal arranged this ballet score from Offenbach’s music. It’s a great intro to Offenbach’s music, here recorded with another Rosenthal ballet suite, Offenbachiana.
    • Pittsburgh Symphony/Andre Previn (Philips, 1994).
  • The World of Offenbach. (London, 2008). Compilation album of operetta excerpts and overtures.
  • Offenbach Overtures. Vienna Symphony/Bruno Weil (Sony, 1993).