It is a pity that Jacques Offenbach never lived to see his two masterpieces. "Tales of Hoffman" was not quite finished when he died (of gout, the doctors said), just over a century ago, and "Gaite Parisiene" was not put together, out of snippets from a variety of his works, until 13 years after his death. Ballet and real opera (rather than skits, one-act shows and longer operettas) were two areas where success eluded him throughout his lifetime -- for reasons that were only partly his own fault.
Financial security also eluded him. He earned more money than any other composer of his time, but he had a talent for spending that outran even his prodigious ability to produce hit shows. His vices sound like the flip side of virtues. He was generous to a fault, with the result that he had to develop elaborate defenses against creditors. His sense of humor was his making and his undoing; he was considered too funny (and, above all, too irreverent) ever to be accepted as a composer by the Opera-Comique, which would have been his natural environment.
He was a good family man in the French bourgeois style of his time, obviously enchanted with his wife and children, whom he would no allow to attend some of his naughtier productions. He was so discreet about any other enchantments that biographers have found it impossible to document the vague comments of his intimates about his "regular and routine peccadilloes." One glaring exception is the case of a soprano, Zulma Bouffar, with whom he had a liaison that lasted, in one biographer's estimate, "probably a dozen years or more." A letter has been preserved that indicates romantic intrigues as comic and complex as those in his operettas.
"It is absolutely vital that you do me a tremendous favor," Offenbach wrote to his librettist Nuitter from Prague, where he had presumably gone with Bouffar. "Go to M. de Pene and ask him on my behalf to put in his paper the very same day the following words (or something similar): 'Several artistes of the Bouffes who are not involved in Orphee, M. Berthelier, Mmes Z. Bouffar and Maries began a series of performances this week at Nantes.' They read Pene's paper at home, and these few words will be most timely. I must beg you and friend de Pene to be totally discreet." The original letter has vanished, but it is printed in the first Offenbach biography (1887) by his friend Andre Martinet, without whom later autobiographers would often be speechless.
Offenbach's public life is much simpler to chronicle, since most of it was spent in a spotlight. He was the unofficial court jester of the Second Empire, exquisitely attuned to the conflicting tastes of audiences and censors, virtually the founder of operetta as an art form, which he raised from its music-hall roots to the threshold of grand opera. Devotees of the form should be grateful to him not only for "Ophee aux Enfers," "La Belle Helene," "La Perichole" and other works of his own, but also for "Die Fledermaus" and "The Mikado," and probably "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Man of La Mancha." The Broadway shows might have come into existence without his precedent, but he was the one who told Johann Strauss Jr. that he would write operettas, and the works of Gilbert and Sullivan were directly modeled on Offenbach's pioneering efforts.
Like another epigone, Victor Herbert, Jacques Offenbach began his musical career as a cellist. Born in Cologne, he went to Paris in his early teens to study at the Conservatoire. He left the Conservatoire before long but remained a Parisian throughout his life, though he always spoke French with a think accent. At first, he earned money playing in the city's salons, where he became known as the Liszt of the cello, began composing little pieces of music and amused audiences by doing animal imitations on his instrument. His theatrical career began in the pit, first as a cellist and later as a conductor. When he was unable to get serious recognition as a composer from the established theaters, he opened one of his own -- seriously restricted by its license, so that he could not use more than four singers in any given production. For years, before he could break through these restrictions to compose full-scale operettas with normal casts, he produced dozens of little one-act pieces with skeleton casts. Some of these are occasionally revived. Usually, the words need updating because the original material tended to be rather topical, but the music makes such efforts worthwhile.
Offenbach was more readily recognized by other composers than by the arts bureaucracy of Paris theaters. One reason he had trouble with the Opera-Comique was his parodies of the music of such esteemed composers as Meyerbeer. But Meyerbeer didn't mind. He went to Offenbach's theater to catch all his shows -- not on opening night when he would have been conspicious, but on the second night. Rossini called him "the Mozart of the Champ-Elysees," and even Wagner paid him a grudging tribute, though not until after his death: "Look at Offenbach. He writes like the divine Mozart." Wagner hated Offenbach not only because he was a Jew, because he was a German who had become a French citizen and because he had dared to parody Wagner's music, but perhaps most of all because he was a success during the years when Wagner was a failure. The reasons are clear enough in the work of the two composers. It is possible simply to like Offenbach's music for its light, lively , irreverent spirit, but some of Wagner's works (particularly the "Ring" cycle) allow no such moderate reaction. If one is not stricken with reverential awe, one is likely to be simply bored.
It seems impossible to be bored by James Harding's biography of Offenbach, which reads more like a novel about the composer than a scholarly study. Harding has dug out colorful material from all relevant sources and a few that are only marginally relevant. When young Jacques takes the stagecoach from Cologne to Paris, for example, the reader is given a full-page essay on coach travel in that period: "Not infrequently the coach dropped a wheel or an axle. Nobody was much surprised when it overturned." At the end of the trip, there is a marvelous, long description of the colorful streets of Paris in the early 1830s. There are detailed pages on Offenbach eating breakfast, Offenbach directing a rehearsal, a soiree at the Offenbach's. Even the most minor characters are usually introduced with a short, colorful description and often an anecdote or two that may have little to do with Offenbach. It is a splendidly readable book and very much in the spirit of the subject.
Faris is an eminent Offenbach conductor, the composer of quite a few movie and television soundtracks ("Georgy Girl," "Upstairs, Downstairs"), and a musical biographer of exemplary seriousness. He is thorough, scrupulous and well-footnoted. He includes appendices on controversial points (did Offenbach really die of gout, for example), and his list of the composer's works (including many that are unpublished or long-forgotten) is the best we are likely to have until Antonio de Almeida's thematic catalogue is published. His pages are studded with musical quotations and analyses; he includes all essential information; and he quotes much more extensively and explicitly from primary sources.
The contrast between a popular and a scholarly biography could hardly be more complete than it is in these two studies. Either can be warmly recommended, according to the individual reader's needs.