More than cancan: Jacques Offenbach's 200th anniversary

Admired yet underestimated: that was German-French operetta composer Jacques Offenbach's fate. As his home town, Cologne, prepares to celebrate his bicentennial throughout 2019, here's a look at his work.

Dancers holding up high the seams of their frilly dresses, kicking their legs to reveal petticoats and lacy underwear: the cancan dance is the highlight of many musical shows in Paris. People recognize the tune, which was composed by Jacques Offenbach for his 1858 operetta "Orpheus in the Underworld." People are usually also familiar with the composer's "Barcarolle" from the opera Tales of Hoffmann.

Jacques Offenbach, who was born in the German city of Cologne in 1819 and died in Paris in 1880, is regarded as the founder of the modern operetta. A masterful entertainer, he was characterized by "typical Rhineland humor and French esprit," as German cabaret artist Konrad Beikircher said at the kick-off event of the Offenbach bicentennial that will be celebrated throughout 2019.

Beyond clichés

"Yes, we cancan" is the motto of the celebration staged next year by the Jacques Offenbach Society, created just three years ago in Offenbach's hometown of Cologne. He is not honored enough, even in home town, says Claudia Hessel, coordinator of the Offenbach celebration events, adding that the association aims to create awareness for Offenbach and show that he did more than write cancan music. 

Deutschland Jaques Offenbach Jahr 2019

A collage of posters

It's time to throw overboard clichés and legends about Offenbach, agrees Ralf-Olivier Schwarz, an expert adviser in the association.

There is so much nonsense circulating about Offenbach, more than about any other famous composer, says Schwarz, adding that Offenbach never let frivolous leg-tossing ladies on stage in his operettas. "People say his operettas are light, playful even, but if you take a closer look, you'll see that everything is minutely thought-out."

To launch the anniversary year, Schwarz put together a small exhibition that is scheduled to move on to Berlin and Paris and that presents the most important stages of the composer's life.

From Cologne via Paris to the world

Offenbach's father was a music teacher and Jewish cantor. The young Jakob, as Offenbach was called as a child, played the cello and performed in pubs in Cologne. In 1833, his father sent the virtuoso to Paris to further his career under the stage name of Jacques Offenbach.

Tout Paris flocked to see and hear Offenbach, and Friday evenings at his home were legendary, with famous artists and musicians beating a path to his doorstep.

In 1850, Offenbach became musical director of the Comedie Francaise, but under Emperor Napoleon III, the state music theaters were off bounds to him. So he started his own theater, the "Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens," where he lampooned the ruling classes with a great deal of humor. "I want the audience to laugh," he wrote, "not about harmless trifles but about the fact that important dangerous matters can be overcome."

Admired, forgotten, re-discovered

The opera Orpheus in the Underworld was Offenbach's breakthrough in 1858. "In it, the god Jupiter is a fly and is ridiculed," says Ralf-Olivier Schwarz, adding that was probably directed at Emperor Napoleon, "whose family has a coat of arms with a bee."

Related Subjects

Offenbach's works were celebrated across Europe and beyond, as far as Brazil, China and Japan. He was successful as a musician, yet Jacques Offenbach was an outsider: in the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian War, the French thought he was a spy for Otto von Bismarck, while the Germans dismissed him as a "frivolous Frenchman" and a traitor. Anti-Semitism was on the rise then in both countries.

While he was no longer as successful in France after the war, he was celebrated at the Philadelphia World's Fair in 1876.

Unknown gems

The Offenbach anniversary program includes a wide array of operettas, chamber concerts speeches and panel discussions, as well as gems like a musical comedy rediscovered in the US that his father Isaac wrote for the Jewish Purim holiday. A search in Cologne's historic archives even unearthed a vigilante song Offenbach composed during the 1848 March Revolution. Cologne's Gürzenich Orchester kicks off the musical part of the Offenbach bicenntenial celebrations with a New Year's concert on January 6, 2019.