Let’s dance the French Can-Can!

Unfortunately, Pigalle has lost much of its original charm. © Charles Thibo
Unfortunately, Pigalle has lost much of its original charm. © Charles Thibo

Pigalle. During the Roaring Twenties, this quarter of Paris was setting the heartbeat of the city. Champagne, music, go-go girls, dancing… Dada dadadadadadaah dadadadadadaah dadadadadaah – you’re certainly familiar with that tune: the French Can-Can.

The Can-Can’s origin however has nothing to do with the demi-monde of Paris and the shows in the “Moulin Rouge” or the “Crazy Horse”. The tune has been composed by Jacques Offenbach, a German cellist and composer from Cologne who settled down in 1833 in Paris where he lived until his death in 1880. He became famous for composing music for operettes – literally little operas: operas with light subjects,  witty texts and music less earnest than you would expect in a standard opera of the time. As such, Offenbach is considered by many as the inventor of the modern dance theater.

The Can-Can in its original form is the closing song “Galop infernal” of the operette “Orphée aux Enfers” (Orpheus in the Underworld) composed in 1853. The song concludes a happy end of a dispute between Jupiter, head of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, and Pluto, Lord of the underworld, over a girl who fell for Pluto. If Offenbach has composed  unknowingly a hit with the Can-Can, he has also created a masterpiece with that specific operette.

At the time of its creation, it was intended as a clever parody of French society of the late 19th century and the hypocrisy in moral questions that was one of its hallmarks. Offenbach’s piece is an extremely versatile one as it offers any producer several options to include content of his own, that is, critical remarks on society, politics etc.

Just to give you two examples: The first act features a song, in which the Greek gods are making fun of the womanizing Jupiter as part of a general rebellion against perceived  traditions and what the French call “ennui” (dullness) on Mount Olympus. Offenbach criticism was directed against the decadence of the upper class under the French Second Empire. And at the beginning of the second act, Hans Styx, Pluto’s butler, is complaining about his fate – he formerly was the Prince of Arcadia and has lost everything since his death – a hint to the vanity of the upper class. Offenbach explicitly mentions in the score that additional verses with new text can be added ad libitum to this song. A German producer for example has added in a production with the choir of the opera of Cologne a lament about the state of the soccer business and corruption at the highest level of the soccer federation!

Though operettes are less prominent than operas I believe they have their raison d’être in the world of classical music and deserve more attention. Especially if they are such fun as Offenbach’s “Orphée aux Enfers”.

Now, if you want to recreate that experience, here’s a link to Youtube to the “Galop infernal”: https://youtu.be/s142GJru4p8

The recording that I prefer is the 2011 production of the opera of Cologne by Adolf Dallapozza.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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