Poem of the Week |

What’s in Bataclan's Name? From Fun by a Synagogue Cantor's Son, to Terror

The venue of the massacre ISIS perpetrated Friday night in Paris is named after an operetta by Jacques Offenbach.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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A postcard of the Bataclan building, ca. 1900.
A postcard of the Bataclan building, ca. 1900.Credit: wikipedia
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

From “Ba-Ta-Clan”
Ludovic Halévy

I was attractive and refined
And charming and young
I used to shine
Brilliantly in Paris.
Like a queen I reigned,
My beautiful eyes
Bringing me
Dozens of swains!
Who will restore me my country’s sky?
Who will restore me as madly gay
And the loves
Of my beautiful days?

Adieu, songs of my youth
That my voice used to croon
Intoxicated, long ago!
Adieu, my childhood dreams!
No more hope!
Poor France, it seems
I must never see you again.
Who will restore me my country’s sky?
Who will restore me as madly gay
And the loves
Of my beautiful days?
Translated from French by Vivian Eden

You may be wondering about the name of the theater in Paris where the massacre took place on Friday, November 13th, during a concert by the American rock group Eagles of Death Metal. It turns out that tout le bataclan means “the whole caboodle” – much like “all that jazz” – and “Ba-Ta-Clan” is the title of an operetta by composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).

Offenbach was the son of a synagogue cantor, who came from Germany to study at the Paris Conservatoire when he was 14. The libretto was written by Ludovic Halévy, son of a Parisian Jew who converted to Christianity in order to marry.

“Ba-Ta-Clan,” first performed in Paris in 1855, is a wacky show in one act – a chinoiserie musicale with stretches of gibberish and of fake Italian mocking grand opera. The plot involves three apparently Chinese characters with silly names who reveal to one another that they are really French and have been compelled to pretend they are Mandarins, and a fourth character, supposedly the emperor, who also turns out to be French, a bumpkin with ambitions to rule – in mockery of Napoleon III.

Ludovic Halévy photographed by Paul Nadar and Jacques Offenbach photographed by Félix Nadar.Credit: Wikipedia, Wiki media

This song is performed by a character called Fé-An-Nich-Ton, really Mademoiselle Virginie Durand, a light soprano who had come to China with the “noble mission” of promoting haute French theatrical culture there and was captured by the soldiers of the (fake) emperor.

“Ba-Ta-Clan” was Offenbach’s first major hit. It was also performed in German in Vienna 1860 as “Tschin Tschin” and, “billed as an “extravaganza” as “Ching Chow Hi” in English in London in 1865 and on Broadway in 1870.

The Bataclan music hall that opened on the boulevard Voltaire in Paris in 1864 was designed with the chinoiserie theme as a café, theater and dance hall, and was named after the popular operetta. Over the years, surviving a fire and with various renovations, it has served as a vaudeville theater, a cinema and in its latest incarnation as a venue for rock concerts. For nearly 40 years, until this September, it was owned by a family that now lives in Israel.

In the context of the operetta, the song is not very weighty in its nostalgia for a lost Paris, but in the context of the past days it is poignant. In the aftermath of the Paris events, we reverently long for poor France to reclaim its days of gaiety. As in the old Spanish proverb, “Living well is the best revenge.”

Traffic lights are on red as police block the streets leading past the Bataclan concert hall on November 14 , 2015, in Paris.Credit: AFP

*Bonus: Agnès Amati performs J’étais aimable, élégante

J’étais aimable, élégante,
Et jadis
Je brillais, jeune et charmante,
A Paris !
Je régnais en souveraine,
Mes beaux yeux
Me donnant une douzaine
D’amoureux !
Qui me rendra le ciel de ma patrie !
Qui me rendra ma gaté, ma folie,
Et les amours
De mes beaux jours ?

Adieu, chants de ma jeunesse,
Que ma voix
Murmurait avec ivresse
Autrefois !
Adieu, mes rves d’enfance !
Plus d’espoir !
Je ne dois plus, pauvre France,
Te revoir !
Qui me rendra le ciel de ma patrie ?
Qui me rendra ma gaté, ma folie,
Et les amours
De mes beaux jours ?



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