|One of the first major stars in the history of musical theatre, Hortense Schneider was born in Bordeaux around 1833 [sources differ]. She made her Paris debut in Le Violoneux (1855), a one act operetta by Jacques Offenbach. Over the next ten years, she built her resumé while leading a scandalous private life as one of the Second Empire’s most notorious courtesans. For many years she was the mistress of Prince Napoléon, the Emperor’s cousin, but her was not her only titled lover and she was popularly known as le passage des Princes.
In 1864 she originated the title role of La Belle Hélène, Offenbach’s comic look at the legendary Helen of Troy and the first in a quartet of Offenbach hits in which she starred. Barbe-bleu (1866) was followed by the title role in La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein (1867). In 1868 she starred in La Perichole, which had a Peruvian street-singer choosing between a penniless artist and the Spanish Viceroy. She repeated most of these roles during brief runs in London.
Schneider possessed a powerful voice, and her knack for delivering comic dialogue laced with sexual innuendo made her the toast of Paris. However, her temperamental and quarrelsome attitude, her tantrums and her walk-outs, all made her a nightmare to work with. When critics remarked that she was getting old, she promptly retired from the stage, but remained a prominent figure in Parisian society for the next five decades.
Hortense Schneider died in Paris on 5 May 1920.
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