Marc Shulgold’s Fun Facts on ORPHEUS IN THE UNDERWORLD

Today we bring you more “fun facts” from Marc Shulgold, former music critic of the Rocky Mountain News, focusing on Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach.

  • Born Jakob Eberst in 1819 in Cologne, Germany, Jacques Offenbach was the son of a Jewish cantor and amateur musician. His father changed the family name to Offenbach in honor of his German hometown. At 14, Jakob attended the Paris Conservatory for only a year, but decided to make Paris his home, often playfully referring to himself there as “Monsieur O de Cologne.”
  • Orpheus in the Underworld (a polite translation of Orphée aux enfers – more accurately, “Orpheus in Hell”) was a raucous satire – thumbing its nose at Greek mythology, at Gluck and his treatments of the Orpheus myth, as well as at various figures and scandals in contemporary French society. No surprise that the operetta drew a rash of indignant critical slurs soon after its premiere in 1858. One writer labeled the work “une parodie grotesque et grossière” (a coarse and grotesque parody) that gives off “une odeur malsaine” (an unhealthy odor). Naturally, such reviews helped spur ticket sales, soon packing Offenbach’s 50-seat theater, the Bouffes-Parisiens, for 228 straight performances.
  • Among those visiting Offenbach’s tiny theater was Rossini, who called Offenbach “the Mozart of the Champs-Elysees.” An opposing view was expressed by another visitor, Richard Wagner, who described the music he heard as “a dung heap on which all the swine of Europe wallowed.”  
  • The famous Can-Can heard in Act II of Orpheus is actually titled “Infernal Gallop” (galop infernal). In addition to its frequent use as accompaniment to that racy French dance, the music was adapted by Saint-Saens in his Carnival of the Animals – now slowed to a crawl in the lower strings to depict the tortoise. 
  • In the spirit of the work’s playful satirical bent, a 1980s English-language production mounted in London by English National Opera poked fun at then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher through the character Public Opinion, the self-proclaimed guardian of morality.  
  • Sign on the door of a music shop: “Gone to lunch. Bach at One – Offenbach sooner.”

Above Right: Joyce Campana (Public Opinion) and Edward Mout (Orpheus) in Central City Opera’s ORPHEUS IN THE UNDERWORLD (2010). Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

 Be sure to check out our previous blog entry of Marc Shulgold’s Fun Facts on Madama Butterfly.

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