Paris, 1864. A crowded boulevard on a late spring evening. Ludovic Halévy and
Henri Meilhac, Jacques Offenbach’s librettists, are strolling towards the
composer’s house, exchanging pleasantries and witticisms with acquaintances
encountered en route. The imperial carriage rolls past, pursued by the usual
procession of vehicles occupied by a motley array of notables, fashionable
figures, courtesans and other hangers-on. Among them is Hortense Schneider,
Offenbach’s capricious leading lady for the last decade. Her carriage pulls up.
She ‘calls the two men over and, in a vulgar outburst, rails against Offenbach’.
The carriage moves off. Meilhac’s response to this petulant outburst is telling. He
turns to Halévy and declares that Hortense was born to play the part of Helen of
Troy in an operetta.1