‘No one is comfortable with an excess of hearts and flowers, but there is no valid reason for hiding honest emotion. This has always been a major element in the theatre, and it’s my conviction that anyone who can’t, on occasion, be sentimental … is sadly maladjusted.’
- Richard Rodgers, composer, 1965
‘Mahler’s anxiety in 1906 or 1907 that he should not be caught browsing in a score of Lehár’s ‘The Merry Widow’ in Vienna’s main music shop (he got Alma to find the passage they had forgotten while he distracted the assistant) points to an institutionalized embarrassment about taking seriously music that was written for entertainment.’
- Peter Franklin, The Life of Mahler, 1997
Operetta - literally ‘little opera’ - is a theatrical style characterised by a whimsical mélange of spoken dialogue, dance, and light music, often featuring humorous plots and farcical characters. The genre as it is known today grew out of mid-nineteenth-century French opéras bouffes, as composers such as Hervé and Jacques Offenbach heeded the public’s desire for short, light works, in contrast to the lengthy humanist tragedies performed at the somewhat misnamed Opéra-Comique. The style quickly gained popularity across Europe, with Johann Strauss II adding his own dance hall elements to create a unique sound in Vienna, and W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan enjoying huge successes on the stages of Victorian England.
By 1905, Austro-Hungarian Franz Lehár had established himself at the forefront of the operetta vanguard with Die lustige Witwe. Based on an 1861 play by Parisian Henri Meilhac, The Merry Widow was an international success almost from the moment of its premiere. It has since been translated into multiple languages, recorded dozens of times, captured as a film by no fewer than five directors, and adapted into a ballet. Despite suffering somewhat from operettas’ shared reputation amongst ‘serious’ musicians as being musically and dramatically lightweight, the tale of the newly-wealthy peasant girl reunited with her lost love against the stylish backdrop of Parisian gaiety is a bubbly, entertaining blend of romance and intrigue, and remains to this day a favourite of companies and audiences alike.
Benjamin Rasheed (centre) with Alexander Lewis and David Whitney in Opera Australia's 'The Merry Widow'.Photography Jeff Busby
There are numerous reasons for this popularity, beginning with Lehár’s jewel of a musical score, which sparkles at every turn with energy and charm. Tenor Benjamin Rasheed was nominated for a 2018 Green Room Award for his performance in Opera Australia’s The Merry Widow as embassy clerk Njegus, and explains thus: “Simply put, Lehár knew his audience, and could write a memorable tune. You know something will be enduring if people are able to go home humming numerous melodies from the show.” A feature of Act II is the famous Vilja Lied, which has over the decades attracted to the title role numerous pre-eminent operatic sopranos, including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Kirsten Flagstad, Yvonne Kenny, Elizabeth Harwood and Dame Felicity Lott. Countless others, artists as vocally diverse as Renee Fleming, Maria Callas, and Sumi Jo, have performed or recorded the song in isolation. Former Orchestra Victoria concertmaster Mara Miller recalls a Sydney season in 1978, early in her career, that starred another famous name: “Hanna Glawari was performed, with vocal excellence and evident great enjoyment and a twinkle in her eye, by the great Dame Joan Sutherland. She was on this occasion probably relieved to be playing a character who stays alive at the end, after singing so many Normas, Maria Stuardas, or Lucias!” The titular waltz is another audience favourite, and one that OV Associate Principal cellist Diane Froomes knows well: though the score is not technically difficult for instrumentalists, “one has to stay in shape through the season for the solo moments, when the cello plays a wistful version of the big waltz tune as an underscore to romantic dialogue. I always enjoyed trying to make people cry. Here, the discipline of daily practice kicks in: they won’t cry if it’s not in tune ... or maybe they WILL!”
Stacy Alleaume as Valencienne with John Longmuir, David Whitney and Richard Anderson in Opera Australia's 'The Merry Widow'.
The lightness of touch required for operetta is even more essential when not singing, says Rasheed: “I’d say the number one performance challenge in operetta is dialogue. Opera, generally speaking, is through-composed with no dialogue, while operetta has a lot of dialogue linking each song or scene. Opera singers are rarely trained in the art of delivering spoken lines, and therefore the text can be in danger of coming across as rather dull, slow and laboured.” In a plot as madcap as The Merry Widow’s, this becomes even more of a consideration. “Fast dialogue and comic timing require an art and skill of their own”, agrees Opera Australia principal soprano Stacey Alleaume, who starred as young embassy wife Valencienne in Melbourne and Sydney. “During the back-to-back seasons, encompassing forty-five performances, I always used to stay backstage and wait in the wings for my next entrance. The pace of this operetta always seemed to move so fast: I even had nightmares about missing my next call to stage!” For modern-day audiences, accustomed to the descendent genre of musical theatre, the preference in Australia for performing The Merry Widow in English translations no doubt contributes to the audience’s engagement with a libretto that might otherwise be diluted.
The inclusion of dialogue also creates unique challenges for the orchestral musicians who, over the course of a long season of nightly performances, come to memorise the text just as thoroughly as those onstage. “Dialogue: fascinating the first time you hear it, mildly amusing the next time, slightly irritating thereafter,” summarises Froomes. “A great night was when someone stuffed up their lines and had to ad lib, which was brilliant. A bonus was to be so positioned that one could see their facial expressions. How funny would they be tonight?” Adjustment is also required from musicians accustomed to playing right through an operatic act with no break. “The marathon effort of remaining alert enough not to miss the cue for your next entry kicks in. Orchestral players generally pencil details into our performance parts so that when we get to the end of a number we know whether to turn the page at lighting speed, or if we can mentally 'clock off ' for a minute before getting poised for the next song. The hieroglyphics on older parts can be quite amusing!” OV’s Artistic Director Nicolette Fraillon describes a disparate challenge experienced during her years of performing in Austria, with specialist operetta companies: “In the true tradition of Strauss and Lehár, the printed text is just a framework upon which the actors improvise, every night. It’s a bit like going to different Dame Edna performances of the same show: according to who is sitting in the front row, and what world events have occurred that day, the performers are as adept at improvising dialogue and playing off the audience and each other as they are at singing the show. The audiences return, night after night, just to hear that. It can be hair-raising as a conductor or orchestral musician as you wait, praying you’ll at least get a cue line you recognise before they launch into the next song!”
Adding to the fun and brightness of The Merry Widow are the famous dance numbers; waltzes, can-cans, and chorus lines are often performed by the singers themselves, with infectious results. “Night after night,” says Alleaume, “I would watch my brilliant colleagues from side-stage, and gradually I even started to learn bits of the mens’ choreography. I was often caught dancing along in the wings!” Hazards also come with the territory, as Rasheed learned one night in Act III when his Njegus, the restrained, reserved, dry, political adviser (“One of my inspirations was Nigel Hawthorn’s character in Yes Minister!”), downs an entire bottle of champagne at Maxim’s and kick up his heels with the club’s dancing girls in his show-stopping song ‘Quite Parisian’; “I did a lot of bending, stretching and general movement in the number. This particular night, halfway through, I suddenly felt a draft down below, and it all became rather cold. It was at that point I caught the eye of an ensemble member behind me, giggling and gesturing: unbeknown to me, I’d completely torn the back of my pants, splitting them almost in half! I corrected a lot of my moves that night while trying not to turn my back on the audience for fear of clearing the auditorium … the cast certainly got an eyeful!”
Quite apart from the triple-threat requirements of the lead roles, and the skill, stamina and patience of the accompanying musicians, operetta often suffers from a more serious challenge, that of social relevance. The Merry Widow is no exception; its feather-weight plot and nostalgic romanticism can veer dangerously close to maudlin sentimentality, and even dated offensiveness. “As the seasons passed, it became a slightly vulgar night’s work,” recalls Miller. “With Lehár being Austro-Hungarian, and the original playwright French, it’s interesting to wonder whether the tendency for the residents of the fictional state of Pontevedro to be characterised as bumpkins and oafs was because the Balkan region in general was looked down upon by other nations at that time. This is in contrast to the depiction of Paris as the centre of sophistication.” As in an unfortunate percentage of theatrical stories, many elements of the plot also read as blatantly sexist and difficult to reconcile in 2020: the setting of a louche gentlemen’s club, complete with skirt-lifting female dancers; the lamentations of the embassy men that the battle to understand their wives is akin to fighting a war or catching a fish; Count Danilo’s stubborn refusal to admit he loves Hanna, intimidated by her newfound wealth; the punchline of the entire plot being the revelation that he will take ownership of her riches after all, as he possesses her in marriage. “Exposure of societal inequities and hypocrisy was never an expectation of this genre of entertainment”, adds Miller, “but it remains problematic that not a lot has changed, globally, since Lehár’s time.”
In light of these considerations, it would be easy to dismiss The Merry Widow and its wider genre as being irrevocably out of touch with modern sensibilities. Indeed, many people, both musicians and consumers, do just that. But the fact remains that these works continue to be hugely entertaining for audiences and performers alike, over a century after they were composed. Perhaps acknowledgement that the values these stories reflect can be dated and problematic does not, after all, necessitate a total rejection of the music and methods used to portray them. The diverse reactions audible from a single audience over the course of a performance of The Merry Widow seem to support the assertion that certain elements of historical pieces can be questioned even as others are enjoyed.
And what happy reactions: “The biggest challenge I found working on this comic operetta was holding my composure, and staying in character on stage when the audience burst loudly into laughter!” says Alleaume. Recalls Miller, “The enjoyment of our work by the whole performer body was infectious in the hall, and audiences responded rapturously every night.” Froomes, too, agrees: “Best of all would be the occasions when there’d be a real ‘live wire ‘in the stalls – a person with an infectious laugh. Just one person like that could ignite not only the rest of the crowd but also put gallons in the tank for us performers.” The Merry Widow clearly remains as popular today as at its premiere, for its levity, elegance, romance, and memorable melodies, leading the case for operetta’s continued presence on stages around the world.
With sincere gratitude to Ben, Stacey, Di, Mara, and Nicolette for their musings.
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