Do you know The Tales of Hoffmann?
It’s an opera. By Jacques Offenbach. The same Offenbach that wrote Orpheus in the Underworld. No? It has that Can-Can music, you know the one. Ok, good.
Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought I would tell you the story of an opera I saw on the weekend, brilliantly performed by Opera Laurier – Laurier is the university my son attends. He is not in the opera, but he is in the orchestra, and you can’t have an opera without a hard-working orchestra, so we were there to whoop whoop whoop for the musicians, because, as you know, they never get to dance.
But back to Hoffmann.
The synopsis of Tales of Hoffmann is that Hoffmann is a writer, a poet. He is in love with Stella, an opera singer (how meta). Hoffmann also drinks too much (see above, writer/poet), and is struggling to find his muse. Funnily enough, his muse appears to the audience at the very beginning, and tells us she is trying to convince Hoffmann to return to her, to reject all other love, and devote himself solely to her. Noble!
Stella had written a note to Hoffmann, telling him to meet her after the performance, but the letter is intercepted by Lindorf (dunh dunh duunnnnhhh) so you know something is afoot. An intercepted letter is always the start of evil. Once Hoffmann arrives at the bar, he entertains his friends with a story, but then Lindorf asks Hoffmann to tell everyone about his three life’s loves. Aaaand here we go.
The first woman Hoffmann falls in love with is ACTUALLY NOT A WOMAN AT ALL, but a wind-up doll. Hoffmann dons magical glasses – rose-coloured glasses, actually, prompting my husband and I to have a conversation as to whether this is the first instance of “seeing life through rose-coloured glasses” or nah. We don’t have an answer, so if you know, let me know!
The rose-coloured glasses allow Hoffmann to see Olympia (doll-girl, in an ACTUAL box, but pay that no mind, H) as a REAL WOMAN and someone he promptly falls in love with. It is worth noting that she performs a fantastic aria, but mostly Hoffmann seems to like it best when she says “Oui! Oui!” Eventually things go down, and Olympia is destroyed. Hoffmann is heartbroken.
Lesson: Men like their toy women to say “Oui! Oui!” and little else, and when they break, and they can’t play with them anymore, it makes them sad.
Then there is Antonia, another singer! Her father has hidden her – HIDDEN HER – from Hoffmann, because she has some illness that will kill her if she sings – tragic, obviously. But of course her father doesn’t TELL HER that she is sick and that singing will kill her. Oh ho ho, why would you inform the girl?!? Jesus. Anyway, Hoffmann finds her, hears the news about the death singing and convinces her to give up her singing dreams but HE DOESN’T TELL HER WHY EITHER! Then an evil doctor tricks her into singing and she dies. Like seriously, maybe if she KNEW THE CONSEQUENCES, she would be all, I’m good, actually I will play that violin like you suggested after all, dad, great idea!
Lesson: Men don’t like to burden tiny lady brains with important details about their own health, even if it might kill them.
Finally there is Giulietta, a courtesan. Offenbach’s word, not mine. Hoffmann loves her (because of course he does) and he thinks she loves him too, but, oh those tricky women! She merely seduces him to steal his reflection (seriously, what?) because another dude promised her a diamond if she did. Then there is some Hamlet-grade mix-up of poisons or something, and she dies.
Lesson: Ladies only pretend to love you, but then they friendzone you and take up with douches who give them diamonds, and why can’t these bitches ever like Nice Guys(tm) amirite fellas?
Finally, the tales have been told, and Hoffmann reveals that all three of those women – the innocent girl, the artist, and the courtesan – are all parts of the same woman – Stella. Who he now rejects because, like Alfalfa sang in The Little Rascals, he’s through with love.
Don’t you see though? Hoffmann SUFFERED at the hands of these women, by falling in love with them, and then not getting them! Never mind that they all DIED, it’s all about himmmmmm.
This opera was first performed in February 1881, and what amazes me most is how well it’s held up with society’s interpretation of what women are and what they should be!
Seriously, though. I could not stop thinking about this story and how current these themes really are. There are Men’s Rights Activists giving voice to some of the most horrific people in the world, men who have a sadz for their rights, because some ladies dare to demand some rights of their own. There is a government (although I use the term loosely) to our south who wants to remove pretty much all reproductive rights and access to healthcare from women, because they feel they know all women’s bodies better than women know themselves. There are still man-children who think women are dolls to play dress up and satisfy their every need/whim, rather than living, thinking, breathing, HUMAN BEINGS.
I’m not blaming Offenbach. Ok, maybe I am. But I’m definitely not blaming Opera Laurier who absolutely KILLED this performance. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to laugh at 130-year old themes that should be silly and far- fetched in a kind of “oh those crazy Victorians, look at the crazy stuff they used to think, not telling women what they need to know about their health and falling in love with DOLLS!” when in actual fact these things are still happening everywhere, every single day.
Happy International Women’s Day, indeed.
But! It’s not all terrible. I mean, so much of it is, but The Tales of Hoffmann is an excellent opera, in spite of its MRA themes. And if you’re one to enjoy opera, allow me to end with, while not the best piece from the score, certainly the most memorable. And by memorable, I mean ear worm. I give you Kleinzach! Enjoy. I mean, you deserve something for reading over 1000 words on my opera hot take. Love you all.