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Beverly Sills stars in Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann"

Photograph of soprano Beverly Sills
Fred Fehl
Soprano Beverly Sills

Jacques Offenbach - composer of the "Can-can" and king of light Opera - wrote one "serious" opera: a fanciful setting of the life and stories of the German writer, E.T.A. Hoffmann. This week, hear a classic 1964 recording of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, starring Beverly Sills, Stuart Burrows, and Norman Treigle.

June 4, 9:00 pm

Jacques Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffmann (Les contes d'Hoffmann)

E.T.A. Hoffmann: Stuart Burrows
Olympia/Giulietta/Antonia/Stella: Beverly Sills
Lindorf/Coppélius/Dapertutto/Miracle: Norman Treigle
Nicklausse/La Muse: Susanne Marsee
Andrés/Spalanzani/Pitichinaccio/Frantz: Nico Castel
Crespel: Robert Lloyd
Hermann/Schlémil: Raimund Hernicx
Nathanaël/Cochenille: Bernard Dickerson
Luther: John Noble
The Voice of Antonia's Mother: Patricia Kern

London Symphony Orchestra/John Alldis Choir
Julius Rudel, conductor

Read a synopsis of The Tales of Hoffmann.

Read a French-to-English translation of the libretto to The Tales of Hoffmann.
When I was in high school, my history teacher, Mr. Wilson, asked us to write a research paper on a historical “loser,” someone characterized as much by their shortcomings as by their successes. I’ll confess, I do not recall what the goal of the assignment was or what it was designed to teach us. However, the assignment has remained with me, and whenever I run across historical figures who might fit the bill of historical "loser," I tend to pay extra attention to them.

At the time of the assignment, I wrote about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Today if I were to write that essay, I would write about E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jacques Offenbach.


Ernest Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822) is not a person you might label as unsuccessful. A writer, composer, artist, musician, conductor, poet, critic, entrepreneur, and lawyer, he was more what we might today offhandedly call “a renaissance man,” a rare and enviable Romantic polymath of unparalleled creativity. 

He was also a man of unparalleled influence. Hoffmann’s poems, essays, and stories, with their focus on the fantastical and macabre, influenced many great writers after him, including Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Alfred Hitchcock. 

Hoffmann didn't just influence writers, but composers as well. His story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” became the main influence for Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker. His story “The Contest of Singers” became Wagner's opera Tannhäuser. The adventures of Hoffmann's recurring character Johannes Kreisler became the basis of Schumann’s piano cycle Kreisleriana, Op. 16His review of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67became a manifesto for Romanticism in music in the 19th century, and a benchmark for music criticism. As the writer Kyla Ward puts it, “Hoffmann is one of those artists whose works were so influential in their own day that they have been adapted into oblivion.”

Yet, E.TA. Hoffmann never set out to be a great and influential writer; his hopes and dreams were tied to being a composer. 

A child prodigy, able to transpose on sight by age 8, Hoffmann spent decades trying desperately to bring his music into opera houses and music halls. His catalog included operas, songs, sacred music, chamber music, and even a symphony. He even changed his name from Ernest Theodor Wilhelm to Ernest Theodor Amadeus in honor of his idol, Mozart. That's how committed was he to a career in music.

Unfortunately, Hoffmann didn’t receive much financial encouragement for his musical pursuits. The decades of composing were also decades of trying to make ends meet.

The closest he came to musical success was with the sad story of UndineUndine opened in 1816 and received a lot of praise, most notably from Carl Maria von Weber. However, after 14 performances, the opera house in which Undine was being performed burned to the ground along with the manuscripts. By the time Hoffmann had rewritten the music and the opera house had been rebuilt, Carl Maria von Weber had written his own opera, Der Freischütz, which took the opera world by storm. Still to this day, Weber's Der Freischütz is celebrated as a revolutionary work, the first Romantic opera. Hoffmann's Undine, which had many similar characteristics, was quickly forgotten.

In the end, Hoffmann gave up his dream of being a composer, the failure of Undine proving to be one failure to many. He returned to the career he had gone to school for: law. Here, at least, Hoffmann had finally caught a break. He was a remarkably talented jurist, and found financial stability as a clerk.

The irony of Hoffmann’s life is why I always think of Hoffmann in the context of Mr. Wilson's “losers” assignment: the passionate but failed composer, who is remembered today for his fanciful stories which influenced countless writers and composers, and yet in his lifetime was only able to make a living as a clerk. 


Like Hoffmann, Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) is not someone you might initially categorize as a failure. For over two decades he ruled as the hit composer in Europe, his cleverly constructed satirical operettas earning him lasting fame. He also wrote the music for the "Can-Can." How could that guy possibly be unsuccessful?

Offenbach's early successes and his later downfall are tied to the political history of France, particularly the French Revolutions. Yes, revolutions, plural.

Briefly: after Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated his throne in 1814, the Bourbon monarchy was returned to rule France, first with King Louis XVIII, and then with King Charles X. Charles ruled with an unpopular iron fist beginning in 1824, until the 1830 Revolution (or the July Revolution*) kicked him out and replaced him with Louis Philipp, Duke of Orleans. Louis Philipp ruled shakily† as king for 18 years, and got the boot as well in the next popular uprising, the 1848 Revolution (or the February Revolution). He was replaced by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (the first Napoleon's nephew). After a few years, Louis Napoleon took a page from his uncle's book and named himself emperor (Emperor Napoleon III) and continued to rule until 1870. This period is known as the Second Empire. Then Otto von Bismark and the Prussians arrived, and Emperor Napoleon III lost his throne, he and the Second Empire both political casualties of the Franco-Prussian War. 

Despite its violent end, the Second Empire was a comparatively stable period for France in the 19th century, and it was the period during which Offenbach hit his compositional stride. As George Movshon writes, "music poured out of [Offenbach] copiously and continuously during the quarter-century in which he fuelled the operetta theaters of Paris with an unceasing supply of engaging melodies and sprightly rhythms. His was the dominant style of the Second Empire, France's most nostalgic and glamorous era."

Offenbach wrote 90 operettas during the 22 years of the Second Empire., and along the way he influenced many other composers, including Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan) and Johann Strauss II ("The Waltz King"). 

The Franco-Prussian War changed everything. Though it was short - July 1870 to May 1871 - it cost France dearly. Not only was the nation's pride heavily bruised, its populace depressed and angry, having lost a great deal of soldiers; but most stinging of all, the long-disputed region of Alsace-Lorraine was now in the hands of Otto von Bismarck. The feeling of stability that categorized the Second Empire had evaporated.

With the end of the Second Empire came a disinterest in the frivolous, decadent operettas that Offenbach wrote. Overnight, the name Offenbach came to mean "out of touch."

Out of favor with the Parisian public, Offenbach lost it all - the crowds, the acclaim, the support. Soon afterwards, he was bankrupt, too. 

It is during this post-war period that Offenbach wrote The Tales of Hoffmann, an effort to reinvent himself as a composer of "serious" opera. Much more serious in tone, with comedy acting in relief to drama instead of as the work's engine, Hoffmann was Offenbach remaking himself into a composer for the modern taste. After so much loss, it was to be his masterpiece. 

But Offenbach lost here too. Before he could finish The Tales of Hoffmann and see the great successes it would achieve, he died, leaving his the opera largely unfinished. 


Like many of the great incomplete works (Mozart's Requiem, Puccini's Turandot) another composer was enlisted to complete The Tales of Hoffmann after Offenbach's death. His name was Ernest Guiraud.

Guiraud had done completion work before, having taken the original dialog in Bizet's Carmen and written it into the recitatives, which is still how that opera is most commonly performed today. He was the man for the job.

The materials Offenbach left behind were considerable: piles upon piles of music and dialogue, meant to be edited down by Offenbach when he got around to it. Guiraud used the multitudes of sketches to create a finished product, but one which took some liberties from Offenbach's apparent intentions. 

Because Offenbach was still famous for his operettas, Guiraud decided to employ dialogue instead of recitative in the first version of The Tales of Hoffmann, in line with the operetta style. Guiraud also inserted one of Offenbach's most famous melodies, the Barcarolle (see below) into Act II, and cut the entire third act.

None of these changes were what Offenbach had intended, but it ensured that the opera would sell - which it did, boasting over 100 performances within its first year. However, over the years there was criticism that Guiraud's version of The Tales of Hoffmann ​was untrue to Offenbach's intentions, and so in 1907 he went back and edited it again, replacing the dialogue with recitatives, adding Act III back in, and placing the Barcarolle at the start of it. The recording you'll hear this week uses this second verison, with the 1907 recitative instead of the 1881 dialogue. That said, as one reviewer put it, "The Tales of Hoffmann is one of those operas for which no definitive edition exists. What’s more, it looks as if none ever will."


The most famous works from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann are the aforementioned Barcarolle...

...and, Olympia's "Doll Aria" from Act I.


SAMUEL BARBER: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24
   Renée Fleming, soprano
   Royal Stockholm Philharmonic
   Sakari Oramo, conductor
Album: Renée Fleming - Distant Light

*Fun fact: the famous painting associated with the French Revolution, Eugène Delacroix's La Liberté guidant la peuple (Liberty Leading the People), was actually painted for the July Revolution.

† Shakily indeed. If you know Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérable (or the 1980 musical), those events take place during a popular uprising in 1832 against the new King Louis Philipp, just two years after the July Revolution. Read more about the history here.

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.