Offenbach's most popular operetta, Orphee aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) is a comic take on the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice. First performed on 21 October 1858 by the Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens at the Salle Choiseul, Paris, it was later revised for the Exhibition season of 1878.
Turning the tragedy of the story on its head, Orpheus and Eurydice are unhappily married and overjoyed when Eurydice is abducted by Pluto, the God of the Underworld. With plenty of opportunities to subvert the efforts of Public Opinion, a rather straight-laced character who demands Orpheus attempt to find his wife, Offenbach and his librettists, Cremieux and Halevy, create some wonderfully comic situations.
Musical comedy is achieved through parodying earlier treatments of the subject, quoting Gluck's Che faro from Orfeo for example, or by using totally inappropriate forms: a can-can danced by gods?! The famous overture was, in fact, composed by Carl Binder for an 1860 Vienna production; it includes the notorious can-can, and a violin solo with which Orpheus annoys his wife in the first act.
Jacques Offenbach (20 June 1819, in Cologne – 5 October 1880, in Paris) was a German-born French composer and cellist of the Romantic era and one of the originators of the operetta form. Of German-Jewish descent, he was one of the most influential composers of popular music in Europe in the 19th century, and many of his works remain in the repertory.
Offenbach's numerous operettas, such as Orpheus in the Underworld, and La belle Hélène, were extremely popular in both France and the English-speaking world in the 1850s and 1860s. They combined political and cultural satire with witty grand opera parodies. His popularity in France waned in the 1870s after the fall of the Second Empire, and he fled France, but during the last years of his life, his popularity rebounded, and several of his operettas are still performed. While his name remains most closely associated with the French operetta and the Second Empire, it is Offenbach's one fully operatic masterpiece, Les contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), composed at the end of his career, that has become the most familiar of Offenbach's works in major opera houses.
Offenbach's father, born Isaac Eberst in Offenbach am Main around 1780, changed his name to Offenbach when he settled down in Deutz in 1802. He was a man of many talents who worked as a bookbinder, translator, publisher, music teacher and composer and became a cantor some 30 years later. In 1816 the family moved to Cologne, where his son Jacob (later changed to Jacques) was born in 1819.
In 1833 his father took Jacob to Paris and managed to get him admitted as a cello student to the Paris Conservatoire. Financial difficulties forced Jacques, as he was known by then, to break off his studies at the end of 1834. After a few odd jobs he eventually found a position as a cellist in the orchestra of the Opéra Comique. He soon made a name for himself as a cello virtuoso, appearing with famous pianists like the young Anton Rubinstein, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and, very often, with Flotow with whom he performed jointly composed pieces. In 1844, he converted to Catholicism and married Herminie d'Alcain. He moved to Germany with his wife and daughter in 1848 (the couple eventually had four daughters) to escape revolutionary violence in France, but returned after a brief stay.
In 1850, he became conductor of the Théâtre Français, but the musical theatre establishment in Paris did not immediately accept his sometimes pointed songs and music. Therefore, in 1855, he rented for the Expo season a little theatre on the Champs-Élysées and named it the Bouffes Parisiens. In the following winter he moved the Bouffes to a larger and, above all, heatable theatre on rue Monsigny/Passage Choiseul. There he began a successful career devoted largely to composing operettas. In the early years, Offenbach's permit limited his productions to one-act works with only a few speaking or singing characters. Les deux aveugles, Ba-ta-clan (both premiering in 1855), and La bonne d'enfant were three of his popular works from this period. Only in 1858, after these restrictions had been lifted, it became possible for him to produce his first full-length work, Orpheus in the Underworld.
Offenbach wrote almost 100 operettas, some of which were wildly popular in his time, and his most popular works are still performed regularly today. The best of these works combined hilarious political and cultural satire with witty grand opera parodies. His best-known operettas in the English-speaking world are Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), La belle Hélène (1864), La vie parisienne (1866), The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (1867), and La Périchole (1868). Les Brigands (1869) was very popular in the English-speaking world initially but was later forgotten.
Offenbach worked with the librettists Meilhac and Halévy more often than any other librettist or team and produced some of his most successful works with them. He said of his relationship with the team: Je suis sans doute le Père, chacun des deux autres est à la fois mon Fils et Plein d'Esprit (literally "No doubt I am the Father; each of the two others is at once my Son and Full of Verve"— esprit meaning both Spirit and wit and Plein d'Esprit rhyming with Saint Esprit).