Who's It About, Really?
A Close Look at Art and Autobiography
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the visual conception of this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Les Contes d’Hoffmann experts.
A prominent characteristic of this opera and, in particular, the Met’s production, is the relationship between Hoffmann—the writer in the prologue and epilogue—and the various versions of himself we encounter in each of his three tales. The facts of this relationship have been discussed in the Musical Highlight: Who’s Really Who?. But with Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Offenbach and his librettists provided an early example of a theme that would be central to literature in the 20th and 21st centuries: the relationship of fiction to autobiography.
The real E.T.A. Hoffmann didn’t include himself as a character in thestories adapted for the opera. That idea was introduced by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré in the stage play on which Offenbach based his opera. In it, Hoffmann pretty much admits he’s writing about himself when he says that all three women in his tales are versions of Stella. Which raises the question: were Offenbach, Barbier, and Carré correct? Was the real E.T.A. Hoffmann secretly—or unconsciously—writing about himself? Are every author’s stories really about him or herself?
Students may be interested to learn that this is a major topic of controversy in literary circles. They may enjoy learning about writers who have been charged with “just” telling their own life stories. Some, like James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have been as straightforward as Offenbach’s Hoffmann about the connection. Others, like novelist Philip Roth, have fought it tooth and nail. Roth’s Zuckerman trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson) is all about the artist’s insistence that he is not his characters. On the other hand, some recently published books described by their authors as autobiographical, like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, have been revealed as largely fictional. If Les Contes d’Hoffmann had premiered in this century, might the heirs of the real E.T.A. Hoffmann have objected to the opera’s autobiographical implications?
What do your students think?
Is it possible to make things up entirely, or is all fiction based on genuine experience?
Why wouldn’t a writer simply tell true stories, rather than create such elaborate tales?
How much do you have to change a life experience before it’s considered fiction?
Was it fair to the real E.T.A. Hoffmann for Offenbach and his librettists to put their Hoffmann into his stories?
As a class exercise, students may enjoy analyzing the three central episodes of Les Contes d’Hoffmann from the perspective of Hoffmann’s actual experience.
What are the central characteristics of each woman, and what might they say about Hoffmann’s view of Stella? For example, think about their behavior, their emotions, their temperament, and their relationships with others.
What are the central characteristics of each embodiment of Lindorf, or “the villain,” and what do they tell about Hoffmann’s view of his nemesis?
How does each of these six characters (the three women and the three fictional antagonists) treat the Hoffmann in their story? Is Hoffmann being honest about himself? Is he hiding anything?
Do the tales that the opera’s Hoffmann tells seem to reflect his own experiences? Are they really “autobiographical”
For follow-up, students can imagine that they are Hoffmann. They have just received a letter from a publishing house, turning down the stories, objecting to the fact that Hoffmann uses himself as the main character. In the role of Hoffmann, they can write back to the publishing house, asking the editors to reconsider while explaining their (Hoffmann’s) creative choices and the true relationship between Hoffmann’s life and his stories.