Born the seventh child of Isaac Erbst, a Jewish cantor, Jakob Weiner entered this world on June 20, 1819. His family lived in Cologne, Germany. He was a child prodigy, learning the violin and composing small pieces at age 6. He was secretly studying the cello as well, and when this was discovered, his father was immensely pleased. The family formed a trio, including Jakob, his older brother and sister Julius and Isabella. The three played at a variety of restaurants around Cologne. Jakob learned so quickly on the cello that he had soon learned everything there was to learn around Cologne and his family realized they would have to send him elsewhere. In 1833 when he was just fourteen years old, his father, brother Julius and he traveled four days to the Paris Conservatoire. Their father remained three months with them in Paris and then returned home. The two soon changed their names, being in France to Jacques and Jules.
Offenbach left the Conservatoire after only a year of studies. He joined the Opera- Comique in 1834. He played there for three years in the orchestra and he wrote that the whole time, he was “discontent and unhappy.” He also wrote a few pieces while working for the Opera Comique. As his career started to pick up, there was also a large increase in the demand for dance music. He wrote a lot of dance music around this time, especially for the cancan.
In 1837, he quit the Opera and spent time developing his career as a cello soloist. He was hired as the conductor of the Theater Francais in 1850. During this period, he also began to write operettas. In 1855, he rented his own theater called Bouffes Parisiens and performed his own works there. Even though Offenbach’s plays were successful in theaters, his own theater didn’t make any money. He went so far into debt, that he had to hide, moving between friend’s houses and writing as he went. The only hope he had, was in the operetta he was in the process of writing: Orpheé aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld). If this was a hit, he could return to his normal life style.
Orpheus in the Underworld was written as a satire on the gods of Olympus. In the months it took to put the work together, many, many things went wrong. Among others, the piccolo player was sick opening night, Eurydice (played by Mlle. Tautin) wouldn’t play her part unless she received a real tiger- skin, and the gas pipe in the street in front of the theater broke. The first performance of Orpheé aux Enfers, on October 21, 1858, wasn’t as successful as Offenbach had hoped. The audience was amused, but completely missed the overall point and it wasn’t the favorite of the critics. This went on for a few performances.
Over a month after opening night, a journalist named Jules Janin paid a visit to Bouffes. He hurled insults left and right about the theater and especially about Orpheus in the Underworld which he thought was a “holy and glorious antiquity.” Offenbach immediately responded to his column and got the last word. This was exactly what the operetta needed. By the eighteenth performance, crowds were streaming in to see it. This is what saved Offenbach. It was performed two hundred and twenty eight times after which Offenbach was forced to remove it because of the exhaustion of the performers. It was re-staged in 1860 and the whole house was sold out within hours after the announcement.
After his success with Orpheus in the Underworld, he proceeded to write more operettas, his more famous including La Belle Hélène (1864), La Vie Parisienne (1866), La Grande- duchesse de Gerolstein (1867), and La Oerichole (1868). Offenbach grew tired of being famous merely for his operettas and he wanted something more. It was at this time that he had the idea of producing The Tales of Hoffmann, which turned out to be his last work. The original play, Les Contes fantastiques d’Hoffmann, was produced in 1851 and Offenbach had spoken with the author before about turning it into an opera. This first theater version was written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. The opera was in it’s final stages. The date for opening night was picked- it would be the first week of the winter season. Offenbach was getting older and his name hadn’t been heard for a decade or so. The only comment he would make of his new work was, “I would give everything only to be present at the first night.” This was the only thing keeping him alive. He lived as if in a dream and was so frail that he would lie motionless at all times. In the middle of July, he kept the shades drawn in fear of the drafts. He was failing fast. He traveled to Paris one last time to check on the progress. The musical arrangements were complete and as he looked over them, he had a “suffocation attack.” After this attack he said to his family, “I believe tonight it will be over.” He didn’t wake up. The date was October 5, 1880. Opening night occurred February 10, 1881. When the opera opened in Vienna in December 1881, a fire broke out in the second performance and for years after this, there was much superstition about the play.
Over one hundred years later, Offenbach’s works are still performed, and he is known as the father of our common operetta form.