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Alain Barker
IU Jacobs School of Music

Linda Cajigas
IU Jacobs School of Music

Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The IU opera "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" spins a tale of love lost and inspiration found

March 19, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Fantastical tales of love lost and inspiration found will delight Indiana University Opera Theater audiences April 4, 5, 11 and 12 at the Musical Arts Center. Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann depicts a writer's romantic adventures as he searches for his true love and ultimately finds fulfillment in his artistic calling.

The choice of Les Contes d'Hoffmann to complete the 2007-2008 opera and ballet season honors the history of IU Opera Theater, which featured Hoffmann in its very first season 60 years ago.

"Les Contes d'Hoffmann" will complete the Jacobs School of Music's 2007-2008 opera and ballet season.

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First performed in Paris in 1881, the opera is based on three stories by the 19th-century German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffmann. Although the stories are fictional, the author appears as the protagonist. Offenbach begins the opera in a tavern, where Hoffmann is persuaded to recount his tragic tales. The audience is then transported to the magical settings of his romantic encounters.

Each of the stories features a woman who captures Hoffmann's heart. His first love is Olympia, a lifeless doll that he is tricked into seeing as a real woman. Next is Antonia, an aspiring singer whose frail health precludes her dreams. The third is Giulietta, a prostitute who steals his reflection. In each story, a cruel villain conspires to destroy Hoffmann's romantic aspirations.

Ultimately, the opera returns to the tavern where Hoffmann rejects his real-life lover and embraces instead his artistic passion.

"It is a fantastical story," said guest director Chris Alexander. "It's about what imagination can make people believe is true. Hoffmann really submits to fantasy and imagination in all three stories that he tells."

The production is fast-paced and funny, full of tricks and surprises including physical comedy and illusion. Alexander used the term "mingle-mangle" to describe how the opera swings from comedy to tragedy and back to comedy again. Moments of "doom and gloom," he said, are quickly followed by uproarious hilarity.

Though largely comic in its presentation, the opera is usually performed with a tragic ending, depicting Hoffmann as a hapless fool who cannot achieve happiness, Alexander said. He chose instead to offer a different perspective, one that celebrates the journey of the artist toward complete dedication to his muse.

"This opera is very often presented with a pessimistic ending," Alexander said. "I don't like that so much because we artists don't have many operas that deal with the artist as the center of it and offer an optimistic and utopian ending of art being able to make a difference."

Olympia, a lifeless doll, captures Hoffmann's heart.

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Instead of a "pathetic" Hoffmann, Alexander sees a triumphant poet finding his life's purpose.

"The main issue of this opera is the battle of the artist between his private life and his art. I see not a crushed, ruined, destroyed Hoffmann, but one who says 'I have to devote myself to my art,'" he said.

Aiding Alexander's alternative portrayal is a newly discovered piece of music that will be featured in the final act. Because Offenbach died before completing the opera, the process of reconstructing his masterpiece is still ongoing. This performance will contribute to the emerging understanding of Offenbach's original concept.

The set design by Jacobs Professor C. David Higgins features an enormous opening set that is to most productions what IMAX is to movie theaters. Combining two side wagons to form one huge tavern, the set draws audiences into its panoramic environment at the heart of Hoffmann's German hometown. The town happens to also be Alexander's birthplace, and he vouches for the set's authenticity.

The actual rathskeller on which the set is based is "a basement tavern in the middle of town that goes back 300 or 400 years and is very famous for its wine cellar," he said.

For the different love stories, the set transforms into magical landscapes depicting first the complex machinery of the factory that produces the doll, then the grand dwelling of Antonia's family, and, finally, the canals and gondolas of 19th-century Venice.

The rotating student casts will feature Josh Lindsay and Chris Lysack as Hoffmann, Caryn Kerstetter and Meghann Vaughn as the Muse, Sarah Fox and Yungee Rhie as Olympia, Nicole Birkland and Leah McRath as Giulietta, and Carolina Castells and Jing Zhang as Antonia.

On opening night as well as April 12, all four villains will be sung by Aleksey Bogdanov, true to Offenbach's original intention to portray one evil character in several manifestations. The other performances will give audiences the opportunity to enjoy three different young voices, those of Adonis Abuyen, Oliver Henderson and Adam Ciofarri.

The opera will be sung in French with English supertitles. Performances are at 8 p.m. April 4, 5, 11 and 12.

Ticket information

Tickets are on sale now at the Musical Arts Center Box Office (for information, call 812-855-7433), open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; at all Ticketmaster outlets; by phone through Ticketmaster at 812-333-9955; and online at

To speak to any of the persons involved in the production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann, contact Linda Cajigas, IU Jacobs School of Music, at 812-855-9846 or, or Alain Barker, IU Jacobs School of Music, at 812-856-5719 or