Jacques Offenbach (1819–80)
Le voyage dans la lune (26 October 1875)
“Most of the musical accompaniment in Le voyage dans la lune is characteristically Offenbachian. However, the composer’s musical depiction of the capsule’s space voyage differs fantastically from his typical aural fare. In the transition between the first and second acts, Offenbach deploys a compositional technique both uncanny and spectacularly exotic.
“In the 21st century we are accustomed to wordless choruses in cinema scores, and especially in films emphasizing spectacle, a recent example occurring at the climax of the latest Star Trek film. For Offenbach, though, its use was innovative. First, in the chronology of the operetta the wordless chorus occupies a time between two acts, and it adumbrates the succeeding lunar scene. Second, within the narrative, the music takes place during the capsule’s journey to the moon. We do not see the capsule’s journey; rather the scenes merely cut from Earth to Moon. In this way the wordless chorus compensates for the lack of a visual image of the journey. Furthermore, the bodies connected to these voices remain unseen. Spectators might question whether this music is being sung by unseen moon-dwellers, the celestial bodies, or if the chorus simply functions as an aural special effect. Altogether, we recognize that the wordless chorus operates on multiple layers of liminality. The music itself is light, flighty, and dance-like, like some sort of other-worldly waltz. The non-confrontational tonality of the piece cushions the uncanniness of disembodied voices.
“Additionally, the use of syllables such as ‘Ah’ and ‘Oo’ in place of language delocalizes the voices. The voices have no bodies, and without language there is no discernible attachment to humanity and to reason. Because of this combination of visual and linguistic lacks, I suggest that within the operetta these voices become fetishizable as an alien Other. This aural allusion to the Other heightens the spectacle of this moment in a way that an image could not. All in all, Offenbach aurally sugar-coats something that should be terrifying, while simultaneously compensating for the unseen spectacle of the capsule’s journey and foreshadowing the fantastic lunar setting.” 1
“Offenbach’s wordless chorus offers an early aural example, a link between celestial and exotic. Without bodies or language, the chorus can simultaneously signify the celestial or the alien exotic. Via the latter semiotic interpretation, we recognize Offenbach anticipated the operatic association of exoticism with a wordless chorus over 25 years before its famous use in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly." 2
|Le voyage dans la lune
Brooke McCorkle; University of Pennsylvania Music graduate students
1 Brooke McCorkle, “Spectacle Fantastique: Audio-Visual Technologies and Early Adaptations of Verne’s De la terre a la lune.” (Paper read at Cult Adaptations: A one-day symposium, De Montfort University, Leicester, 25 November 2009), 3–4.
2 Ibid., 6.