Jacques Offenbach and the music in The Game of Love and Chance
I’m sure many of you can sing, hum or even dance along to the well-known French chorus line number, the Can-Can. The exuberance of the performers as well as the tantalizing and salacious body movements have rendered the dance in infamy and a must-see in any Parisian dance hall. However, what you may not know about the Can-Can is the composer of the music that frequently accompanies the high-energy dance.
A prominent composer, cellist, and impresario, Jacques Offenbach was born on June 20, 1819. From a young age, Offenbach showed impressive musical and virtuosic talent during his instruction of the violin. By the time Offenbach was eight, he was already composing his own pieces, mostly upbeat songs and dances for a trio composing of himself and his brother and sister. At 14, Offenbach was admitted to the prestigious Paris Conservatoire but soon became weary of academic study, dropping out only a year after his enrollment.
To make a living, Offenbach secured the position as a cellist at the Opera-Comique in 1835. However, like his brief tenure at the Paris Conservatoire, he grew dissatisfied and found refuge in pulling pranks during performances like deliberately sabotaging the music stands so they would collapse in the middle of the performance. As the resident cellist at the Opera-Comique, Offenbach encountered several conductors who mentored him and helped him developed his talent as a composer. Soon, Offenbach began playing at various Parisian salons throughout the 1840s and 1850s.
By 1853, Offenbach was regularly composing operettas which were well received by audience members and fellow composers alike. However, it was 1855 when Offenbach’s career would take off. During this year, Offenbach was commissioned for the company Bouffes-Parisiens to write satirical, comical operas. His first play for Bouffes-Parisiens was a satirical, comic opera entitled Ba-Ta-clan which delighted critics and theatregoers.
In 1858, Offenbach wrote his most famous and his first full-length operetta, Orphee aux enfers. Like most of Offenbach’s pieces, Orphee aux enfers is a satirical piece parodying Greek mythology and the opera, Orfeo. The Infernal Galop, the music that is set to the Can-Can, is heard in the operetta’s second act. Throughout the 1860s, Offenbach continued to write more operettas that deal with risqué content and mature humour. Although a German citizen, Offenbach was heavily involved in French politics and was associated with the Second French Empire. Consequently, Napoleon III awarded Offenbach with honorary French citizenship. After embarking on an ambitious American tour, Offenbach finished his last piece, The Tales of Hoffman. However, Offenbach died on October 5, 1880 at the age of 61 shortly before the operetta’s premiere.
Director Andy Massingham cited Offenbach and his acclaimed Gallop as the first source of inspiration for his rendition of Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance. After listening to Offenbach during rehearsals for a play he starred in, Massingham was struck by the music’s ability to leave listeners smiling as well as invigorate “an impish, creative spirit.” Massingham said that, “this music has this entry level of joy and vibrancy that you don’t have to get used to, it just sort of comes to you.” Not only did the music enliven the writing process for Massingham and fellow adapter Jan Irwin, but the music also serves as a pleasant backdrop to the play, providing a counter-balance to all the frenzy and commotion between the characters.
“I always had [the music] playing and it inspired a bunch of scenes, especially the back and forth banter between Dorante and Silvia, Lisette and Arlequino, and then ultimately Mario, who sort of evolved into his own character as well,” Massingham said. The Can-Can and the music of Jacques Offenbach comes into new swing in The Game of Love and Chance by eroding the barriers between theatre and dance, offering audience members with an authentic Parisian theatre experience.