Tales of Hoffmann

Les Contes D'Hoffman ACT-1

Opera Institute, Cole Conservatory, California State University of Long Beach

Director’s Notes

The Tales Of Hoffmann find their inspiration from the short stories of the 19th century German composer, painter, caricaturist, and author E.T.A. Hoffmann, wherein Hoffmann himself is the protagonist.  

A participant in the German Romanticism movement in literature, Hoffmann had a taste for fantasy, mixing the macabre with realism and was the influence for a number of significant figures in literature and film such as Dickens, Poe, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and even Hitchcock.  He is perhaps most famous for the story Nussknacker und Mausekonig which inspired the famous ballet The Nutcracker Suite. I was delighted when asked to direct the opera as I have a close relationship with it myself, having performed the role of Nicklausse a number of times, including opposite Placido Domingo here in Los Angeles.  For me, the sensibility of Hoffmann has always suggested a grand mise en scene to suit the fantastic elements inherent in each story.  Working under smaller circumstances in this production jumpstarted a different approach and journey into the piece. Although separated by a couple of generations, Hoffmann’s obsession with the psyche and the inspiration of the artist seemed to be an interesting precursor to Freud and psychoanalysis.  Indeed, it has been suggested that the major archetypes discovered by Carl Jung in his self-analysis were to be found in Hoffmann’s stories and rather coincidentally, Freud cited Hoffmann’s story The Sandman (the influence of the ballet Coppelia) in a letter written to Martha Bernays “I have been reading off and on a few things by the “mad” Hoffmann, mad and fantastic stuff, here and there brilliant, though.”  

To suggest that the tales of Hoffmann could be a creative extrapolation sprung from the character’s own neurotic, paranoiac, and obsessive tendencies and that his relationship with three women Olympia (representing superficial or young love), Giulietta (carnal love), and Antonia (true love), should represent his own feelings for one woman (Trois femmes dans la meme femme! Trois ames dans une seule ame! Artiste, jeune fille, et courtisan!) did not seem far-fetched. The disconnect between love and inspiration and the artist’s ability to bend reality to suit inspiration seemed a perfect springboard for this production.  Here we see Nicklausse (Hoffmann’s Muse) as Hoffmann’s therapist. Their travels are not to exotic, geographical places (Nuremberg, Venice…) but to far-flung and surreal recesses in Hoffmann’s mind, which are, in many ways, better suited to the macabre texture of these stories. 

Les Contes D'Hoffman Act 23 Guilletta

When Hoffmann and Nicklausse literally step into Hoffmann’s head, the dreamscape of Hoffmann’s psyche provides a colorful context of visual non-sequiturs that gives license to mixed metaphor and crazy literary devices.  The context of this production of Hoffmann may appear to be contemporary but what is in the head is decidedly timeless.  In The Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach found a wonderful interface between operetta and opera; it is a musical dialogue between the distinctly French sensibility of gamin and whimsy mixed with the passionate textures of grand opera. The combination of these two elements provides a perfect characterization for Hoffmann’s stories – of comedy (sometimes black in nature) and angst.  

—-Stephanie Vlahos