Spotlight On: The Tales of Hoffmann

At Seattle Opera May 3-17, 2014

Music by
Jacques Offenbach
Libretto by
Jules Barbier and Michel Carré

First Performed Paris, 1881 | In French with English Captions | Marion Oliver McCaw Hall

Long Story Short: Eccentric writer tells the stories of his three great failed romances while screwing up the fourth. But at least he has his art.

Who's Who?

Five characters appear in each tale:
is the great German writer who, in this opera, likes to sing in French.
Nicklausse is a teenage boy who follows Hoffmann everywhere. The mezzo-soprano who plays him also plays the Muse, the goddess of art and Hoffmann's guardian angel.
The Enemy, also known as Councilor Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, and Dappertutto, is a shape-shifting demon with frightening magical powers, always out to destroy Hoffmann.
The Woman also takes on various forms; she is Olympia, a pretty doll; Antonia, a sickly young woman of great talent and promise; Giulietta, a high-class courtesan; and Stella, a star performer with a voice of gold.
The Servant always has some defect: he is Andrès, an imbecile; Cochenille, a broken robot; Franz, who cannot hear; and Pitichinaccio, who is deformed.

The Other Characters Include:
and Hermann, students and friends of Hoffmann and Nicklausse.
Spalanzani, a mad scientist interested in creating artificial intelligence.
Councilor Crespel, Antonia's father, a violin-maker.
The Portrait of Antonia's Dead Mother, which can come to life and sing.
Peter Schlemil, Giulietta's most recent lover.

E. T. A. Hoffmann was born in 1776 and died in 1822. The action presumably occurs when he's a young man, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

What's Going On?
The great writer, Hoffmann, stumbles into a bar for a drink during an intermission of Don Giovanni, which is playing nearby in a production starring La Stella, the current mistress of his heart. His friends, a rowdy gang of students, encourage him to entertain them with the stories of his previous love affairs.

The three acts of the opera thus take place as flashbacks...

OLYMPIA. When Hoffmann was a young man, he toyed with the idea of giving up poetry and becoming a scientist. Accordingly, he apprenticed himself to Spalanzani, a famous inventor who had recently finished creating a very life-like robotic doll. Spalanzani introduced the doll to Hoffmann as his daughter, Olympia; and Hoffmann, seeing the doll through rose-tinted glasses sold to him by Spalanzani's business associate Coppélius, fell in love with her. At Olympia's debutante ball, Hoffmann amused all of Spalanzani's guests by failing to notice that he had fallen in love with a robot.

Meanwhile, Coppélius, who had manufactured Olympia's eyes, discovered that Spalanzani had cheated him. The inventor paid his supplier with a check from the banking house of Elias, and when Coppélius discovered that Elias had gone bankrupt, he crashed the party and ripped Olympia into pieces. Hoffmann was devastated to find that a) his beloved was dead, b) she was never alive, and c) everyone was laughing at him.

ANTONIA. Some years later, Hoffmann was found romancing Antonia, a girl from a musical family: her father, Crespel, was a violin-maker and her mother a great soprano who died of a strange disease that made singing lethal for her. Crespel kept Antonia healthy by locking her away in his middle-class house, away from admirers like the poet Hoffmann, who might encourage her to sing, and away from the wicked Dr. Miracle, the quack whose tinctures and potions only hastened his wife's untimely demise. But Hoffmann and Miracle found their way to Antonia nevertheless.

When Hoffmann finally understood Antonia's predicament, he offered to marry her and set up an orderly household, like that of her father. But Miracle told Antonia she would be a fool to deny the world her beautiful voice, to silence herself for the sake of bourgeois respectability. The portrait of Antonia's dead mother came to life and implored her daughter to sing.

The girl did, and it killed her. Her wretched father made a stab at Hoffmann, whom he blamed for his daughter's death; but Hoffmann's teenage amanuensis Nicklausse saved his life, and the devastated poet escaped.

GIULIETTA. Some time later, Hoffmann and Nicklausse turned up in Venice, gambling and whoring in that infamous cesspool of vice.

Hoffmann fell for a beautiful courtesan named Giulietta, who was in the business of selling her favors in exchange for men's souls. She had just handed over the shadow of Peter Schlemil to Dapertutto, who kept her well-supplied with the jewelry she so craved. Dapertutto encouraged her to go after Hoffmann next. She made Hoffmann think she was falling in love with him and begged him to give her his reflection as a memento of him. No sooner had he agreed than Hoffmann found he couldn't see himself if he looked in a mirror. Hoffmann killed Schlemil in a duel, to get him out of the way, only to watch Giulietta run off with another admirer, the deformed midget Pitichinaccio. Hoffmann managed to escape with Nicklausse, but Dapertutto kept his soul.

EPILOGUE. Hoffmann has been telling stories through the entire second act of Stella's performance, and when she comes by the tavern, she finds him a bitter, self-pitying, drunken mess. She leaves on the arm of Councilor Lindorf, who bears an uncanny resemblance, in voice and appearance, to Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto. But still faithful to Hoffmann is Nicklausse, who turns out to be the Muse of Poetry. Women may fail Hoffmann, but art will never desert him.

The Real E. T. A. Hoffmann

The tenor starring in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann impersonates an historical figure, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann. (Left, Hoffmann's own drawing of himself.) One of the most important German Romantics, Hoffmann was a lawyer, a painter, a composer and conductor, a music critic, and one of the world's great writers. He became a cult figure in Germany; in America, writers like Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe came under his influence; and the French were so obsessed with his work in the late nineteenth century that they coined a word for art bearing Hoffmann's influence: hoffmannisme. Offenbach's opera is a masterpiece of hoffmannisme, and today Hoffmann is most widely known through this opera and through two popular ballets on his stories, Delibes' Coppélia and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.

Offenbach's opera combines four of Hoffmann's bizarre, macabre, Romantic tales. In "Don Juan," a music enthusiast attends a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni and has a weird spiritual encounter with the soprano playing Donna Anna, in which love and death are fused with glorious music. In "The Sandman," a troubled young man falls horribly in love with a mechanical doll; in "Councilor Krespel," a sheltered girl whose spirit somehow dwells in one of her father's violins dies of music; and in "A New Year's Eve Adventure," a lost shadow, and a lost reflection, indicate a man who has lost his soul. And the opera features references to other Hoffmann stories, most prominently the tale of Kleinzach, which Hoffmann begins singing in the Prologue. There's also a passing reference to Anselmus, the protagonist of Hoffmann's masterpiece, The Golden Pot.

As an introduction to Hoffmann and his literature, the opera does a surprisingly good job. It preserves four features found in the stories mentioned above and in much of Hoffmann's other work:

Framing Devices. Hoffmann never wrote a straightforward short story or novel. Instead, he wrote tales, novellas, and fragments that always leave the reader wondering "Who wrote this?" or "Who's narrating this story?" Hoffmann mixes letters, diary entries, fictional newspaper articles, overheard snatches of dialogue, and vague accounts of dreams with stories told by lunatics and fools. In the opera, the giant frame of the prologue/epilogue and Hoffmann's presence at the center of each of his stories achieves a similar effect.

Fear of Technology. Hoffmann lived at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and, like all the Romantics, mistrusted science, machinery, and Enlightenment logic. His phobia of robots and mechanical music was almost a mania; nothing was more horrifying to Hoffmann than machinery counterfeiting life. Thus his famous prince transformed into a mechanical nutcracker; his Spalanzani, the mad scientist playing God; and his pathetic Councilor Krespel, endlessly tinkering with the great violins in a vain effort to discover what makes them sing so beautifully. Although Dr. Miracle doesn't appear in Hoffmann's original story, he's entirely Hoffmannesque: a quack doctor, the malevolent fraud of the age of science given nightmarishly demonic powers.

Music as Spirituality. During the Romantic period, science and technology were emerging as the twin forces driving Western culture, while traditional religion was taking a backseat. The Romantics coped with this by exploring all sorts of alternative spiritualities. For E. T. A. Hoffmann, the quickest link with the spirit-world, the best means of transcendent experience available on earth, was music. As a music critic, Hoffmann was Beethoven's prophet; he explained to the astonished world what his deaf contemporary was doing to music, transforming it into the language of the spirit. As a composer, Hoffmann loved music's ability to breathe magical life into weird Romantic stories and outrageous comedy. And music and musicians were a central obsession of Hoffmann the writer.

The Mad Hero. Hoffmann, and most of the writers he influenced, were fascinated by abnormal mental states. Most of the time Hoffmann's protagonists have a very tenuous grasp of reality. Hoffmann's version of the Romantic hero is usually either a young student of questionable sanity (like Nathanael, in "The Sandman," or Anselmus, in The Golden Pot) or an older, music-obsessed lunatic. Godfather Drosselmeier in The Nutcracker is the quintessential Hoffmannic hero: weird, funny, scary, avuncular, and in his own way loveable. Hoffmann's most famous such character—one who left a huge impression on the young Richard Wagner—is Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, who turns up again and again in the oddest corners of Hoffmann's work.

About the Composer

As the father of operetta, Offenbach is a figure of huge cultural significance. He invented an art form that was hugely popular in its own day and went on to define the division, in modern industrialized nations, between popular and high culture.

By the time Offenbach was a young musician in Paris, the art form of opera had become unwieldy. The French public adored grand operas, shows that typically lasted five hours, told with great pomposity a convoluted, historically inaccurate tragedy, involved huge numbers of people onstage and a veritable army of artists and bureaucrats backstage, and cost a small fortune to produce. So popular was grand opera, as performed at the famous Opéra (the building with the phantom running around in the basement), that even smaller theaters, such as the suburban Opéra-Comique, began taking opera perhaps a little too seriously.

Offenbach couldn't even get the Opéra-Comique interested in performing his music. So he leased his own theater and invented an alternative kind of musical drama: operetta. Offenbach's operettas, which include Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène, La Périchole, and La vie Parisienne, among many others, were anything but pretentious: they were inexpensive, lively, hilarious, and used instantly accessible music to tell a story so ridiculous that no one, least of all the composer, was in danger of taking it too seriously. And yet the satire in Offenbach's shows displayed a keen intelligence responding to the most pressing contemporary issues.

Offenbach called his kind of theater opéra-bouffe, because the word "operetta" didn't yet exist. But his accessible, satirical, light entertainments set up the template for the worlds of operettas later produced in England, including the famous Gilbert & Sullivan operettes (such as The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance); in Vienna, especially the works of Johann Strauss, Jr. (such as Die Fledermaus); and in America, in the days before the rise of the American musical. Twentieth-century technology, wed to Offenbach's artistic values, resulted in the industry known today as popular culture.

The story of Offenbach's life doubles as the story of nineteenth-century European culture. He was born to a musical, Jewish family in Cologne (recently annexed by Prussia) in 1819. When Jakob was a boy, the emancipation of European Jews finally allowed Jews to work in politics and the arts. A musical prodigy and cello virtuoso, the 15-year-old Jakob became Jacques when he moved to Paris to study music at the Paris Conservatoire. Those were the days of Louis-Philippe, the "Bourgeois King," who had come to power after the July Revolution of 1830. But the revolutions of 1848 launched the Second Empire, under Louis-Napoléon, and Offenbach's music came to embody Second Empire Paris. His operettas, produced at his Bouffes-Parisiens theater, simultaneously ridicule and celebrate Second Empire France, and were the highlight of the World Exhibitions held in Paris for years.

When the Second Empire ended, with France's ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, Offenbach's fortunes took a nose-dive. As a native German, he was the enemy, and as a Jew he had always faced discrimination. As a composer, he was high priest of the decadent frivolity that had presumably softened France and made it fall so quickly to German military might. After the war, his music rapidly became unpopular. In 1874 his theater went bankrupt, and so he spent his final years working on The Tales of Hoffmann. Offenbach died in 1880, and Hoffmann, his masterpiece, was first performed the next year at the Opéra-Comique.

The Music Of Offenbach

Offenbach's most famous tune, the can-can from Orpheus in the Underworld, is one of those pieces that almost everybody recognizes. It is music of absolutely frenetic glee, bubbling over with energy and joie de vivre. While music is not usually funny, in and of itself, this can-can is guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone's face. And no music summons up the idea of late nineteenth-century France more quickly or powerfully.

Much of the music in Offenbach's operettas is in this vein: joyous, tuneful, and hilariously silly, even if the satire stems from an underlying dissatisfaction with the world. A contemporary of Offenbach's, the German composer Richard Wagner, spun his dissatisfaction with the world in the opposite direction: Wagner made grand opera (or music drama, the term Wagner preferred) even more serious, more sacred, and more self-important than ever before. During the Second Empire, Wagner was quite unpopular in Paris, which danced to Offenbach's tune instead. But The Tales of Hoffmann was written after the fall of the Second Empire. Offenbach didn't imitate Wagner in Hoffmann, but he did create an opera which, like the great Wagner operas, fuses text and music, transcends Romanticism, and prefigures much modern art.

Take the casting, for example. Wagner is famous for developing his system of leitmotifs, in which musical images appear, reappear, combine, and develop out of one another, sometimes in a way that defies waking logic but that always makes perfect sense according to dream logic. Offenbach casts The Tales of Hoffmann in a way that underlines how Hoffmann's stories are all dream-variants of each other. Hoffmann is always in love with a beautiful performer; he is always foiled by a sinister fiend (and Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto are played by the same bass and share the same musical theme); there is always a grotesque servant (Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio are played by the same character tenor) whose malice or incompetence makes the tragedy inevitable; and Nicklausse is always there, growing in importance until he turns into the Muse at the end.

Although few sopranos have the necessary versatility to sing all of Hoffmann's girlfriends, it's obviously stronger, theatrically, if she, too, can change shape with each act. Oddly enough, the music Offenbach gave the three love interests illustrates a metaphor of Wagner's, who once wrote that French music was a coquette, German music a prude, and Italian music a prostitute. Hoffmann's ladies include Olympia the French robot, whose empty coloratura personifies the coquette; Antonia the German invalid, who dies of love and strenuous singing like many a German opera heroine; and Giulietta the Italian courtesan, sometimes sung by a mezzo-soprano because her voice needs the most body.

While The Tales of Hoffmann is a far more serious work than many of Offenbach's operettas, it is still brimming over with great tunes. Offenbach, jester to Second-Empire France that he was (contemporary cartoonist's rendering, right) couldn't write difficult music if he tried. But he was a master at writing catchy melodies that delight the ear while furthering the plot. In the very first scene, we hear in quick succession the magical chorus of the spirits of alcohol, the sinister couplets of Councilor Lindorf, the rowdy chorus of students, Hoffmann's rollicking ballad of Kleinzach with its bizarrely lyrical middle section, and the hilariously snide duet of insults for Hoffmann and Lindorf. And the tunes are packed just as tightly in each of the three stories. The most famous tune in The Tales of Hoffmann is the gently swaying barcarolle from the Giulietta scene. Like all the music in this opera, the barcarolle adds a sublime new dimension to the magical, nightmarish Romantic imagination that created these stories.

Tails of Hoffmann
Many great French operas exist in multiple versions. Film buffs who like to compare director's cuts, theatrical releases, and extended editions on DVD can have a field day with The Tales of Hoffmann, which has a more confusing textual history than almost any opera. It all began in 1851, when Offenbach saw Barbier and Carré's new play about E. T. A. Hoffmann, the great German writer. The composer liked the play immediately but didn't begin working on his operatic adaptation until 1876. The theater that was going to produce the opera, the Gaîté-Lyrique, went bankrupt in 1878, and there was a scramble to find a performing venue. Eventually Hoffmann was accepted by the Opéra-Comique, which had never successfully produced one of Offenbach's operas. The composer died before completing the Giulietta act, so Act 3 was cut entirely at the first performances in 1881.

Before long, a number of other composers were editing, rearranging, and rewriting Offenbach's score. To this day, there is no standard performing edition of The Tales of Hoffmann, as there is for most other operas. Any producer of Offenbach's swansong must first decide what combination of scenes, dialogues, arias, and ensembles his company will present. Dialogues from the original play end up in some versions; others feature recitatives by Ernest Guiraud, or the famous septet by Raoul Gunsbourg, who produced the opera in Monte Carlo in 1907. And there are various other bits and pieces. Dapertutto's great aria "Scintille, diamant" was stolen from an earlier Offenbach opera, The Rhine Nixies (first performed in Vienna, when Wagner's Tristan und Isolde proved unplayable). From The Rhine Nixies, which flopped, Offenbach himself stole the famous barcarolle for those nixies of the Venetian lagoon, Giulietta and Nicklausse.

For many years, Hoffmann was performed with the order of the acts scrambled: Olympia, then Giulietta, then Antonia. This reordering happened because the Giulietta act, which Offenbach never satisfactorily completed, doesn't build to a overwhelming musical climax. In the play, Giulietta accidentally drinks poison that Dapertutto intends for Nicklausse—a terrific ending, scary, suspenseful, and appropriate (in that Hoffmann's other girlfriends both die grisly deaths). But Offenbach never set this scene to music, whereas the scene he wrote to close the Antonia act—the trio for Antonia, Miracle, and the painting—contains one of the great climaxes in all of opera, a Liebestod worthy of Wagner himself. But the original order makes a better story: in Olympia Hoffmann loses his vision, in Antonia his voice, and finally, in Giulietta, his soul. With no soul, it's fitting that his music in that final act should fade away, the way a flickering lantern on a gondola is lost in the fog somewhere between water and air, reality and stolen reflection.

Recommended Recordings:

Decca / Conductor: Richard Bonynge
Hoffmann: Plácido Domingo
The Woman: Joan Sutherland
The Villains: Gabriel Bacquier

EMI / Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling
Hoffmann: Neil Shicoff
The Women: Luciana Serra, Rosalind Plowright, Jessye Norman
The Villains: José van Dam


  1. this is a great study guide. Thanks for the audio clips. Next time maybe you could add an ident tag about who is singing.

  2. One correction: the aria, Scintille diamant, was not taken from the operetta Die Rhinenixen, as was the famous Barcarolle. It was taken from Le Voyage de la Lune (The Voyage to the Moon), and if you play any recording of 'Lune,' you'll hear the Scintille diamant music.