The most recent season of the beloved ballet, The Merry Widow, in 2018, marked the 440th performance since the world premiere of the production in November 1975 at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne. As the first full length ballet commissioned by The Australian Ballet, it has long been a favourite with audiences and has been adopted into the repertoire of ballet companies throughout the world.
The Australian Ballet’s commission was for an adaptation of the 1905 operetta, The Merry Widow, by Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár. Set in Vienna during la belle époque (1890-1914), it is the tale of a young woman from a poor background who inherits wealth through marriage, then in later years finds herself being courted as a desirable widow by the noblemen of the poverty-stricken Balkan principality of Pontevedro. Their ulterior motive is to save Pontevedro with her money, which they conspire to orchestrate by convincing her to marry a Pontevedrian suitor. In fairytale style, Hanna Glawari is reunited with the love of her life, Count Danilo Danilisovitch, Pontevedro is saved, and they all live happily ever after. The fact that Hanna agrees to allow Danilo to use her money for the good of Pontevedro may not be so acceptable to an independently wealthy woman in the 21st century, but perhaps we can suspend our judgement a little for the ballet, helped by the lack of dialogue and the excess of fabulous colourful costumes, characters and scenery.
In what more beautiful context could a ballet have been imagined? La belle époque has been described as:
A period in history characterized by the very rich’s inability to deal with the grim reality of modern life, and, as a consequence, their retreat into a frivolous, fairy-tale kind of existence of their own making. (1)
Think Moulin Rouge, Maxim’s – which was so famous in Lehár’s time that he set the third act of Widow inside the popular restaurant - can-can and opium dens, and characters like Loïe Fuller, The Fairy of Electricity, who mesmerized Paris with her costume and lighting creations.
Fuller sewed wands inside her silk garments to extend her reach into space. Thus, she was able to manipulate the fabric into larger-than-life sculptural forms. On stage, the white silk would have been stained with multi-coloured lights and magic lantern projections. (2)
It was Robert Helpmann who devised the scenario and staging for the ballet, having obtained permission to use the operetta scenario from the heirs of Franz Léhar, and the original librettists Viktor Léon and Leo Stein. The Australian Ballet now has perpetual rights to the production. At the time, Helpmann was the Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet, and in 1972 had been joined by composer, conductor and arranger, John (Jack) Lanchbery as Music Director, a position he held from 1972 until 1977. Jack had previously worked at Sadlers Wells, and subsequently during the transition of this company into The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. In the words of Lee Christofis, he was “arguably the world’s most prolific arranger of music for ballet.” (3) Jack collaborated with Alan Abbott in the arrangement of the score, Desmond Heeley designed the costumes and scenery, and the choreography was devised by Ronald Hynd.
It is testament to Lanchbery’s genius that the music of the operetta has translated so coherently into ballet, without losing all the sparkle of the original score. The everlasting love melody Vilja defines the ballet as it did so memorably the operetta. It will be remembered that operetta relies on witty dialogue as well as beautiful vocal forays, so it is an incredible feat to arrange music and choreography to create a ballet that conveys the same story and sentiments in dance as a tale sung in words. In 2011, at the age of 79, the original choreographer Ronald Hynd was in Chicago overseeing the Joffrey Ballet performing their premiere of the 1975 Widow, and recalled motivation for the choreography and Lanchbery’s skill at musical adaptation:
I don't find comedy hard - I find tragedy much harder. I suppose someone might look at 'Widow' by comparison and say, 'Oh, that's just rubbish.' But, though light, some of that Franz music is so deep, so beautiful. There's a heart, and in many places I've tried to bring that to the fore, so that it's not light, light, light all the time.
John took a tiny little waltz, just a few bars, really, and turned it into a grand nine-minute dance. He used Lehár’s themes, but repeated them and developed them. (4)
Following a season of The Merry Widow in 2018, Chantal Nguyen describes well the effectiveness of Lanchbery’s skill:
Operatic music does not always survive the transfer to narrative ballet. The reason, in part, can be due to the challenges of dispensing with operatic recitative or dialogue, and orchestrating arias into a length and form capable of sustaining balletic interest. Lanchbery’s reworking is irresistibly balletic, giving strong choreographic support and conveying emotional drama, whilst remaining faithful to Lehár’s beautiful melodies. (5)
The orchestra conducted by Jack Lanchbery for the premiere in 1975 of The Merry Widow was our own Orchestra Victoria, still known then as the Elizabethan Melbourne Orchestra, having been established just six years earlier in 1969. The ballet was an immediate success and became a global hit the year after, when it was toured to New York and Washington as part of the Australian Government’s United States Bicentennial celebration. It has since become one of the most loved ballets ever created for The Australian Ballet, which is ironic considering there was a small chance it may not have made it to the stage!
In 1975, the Industries Assistance Commission was asked by Gough Whitlam to examine government arts funding, and the Artistic Director, Robert Helpmann, was questioned firmly in order to justify his decision to stage Widow. The grilling was executed in terms of cost, but also went to the point of what cultural relevance the ballet held for Australian audiences. Obviously the development and premiere of the ballet went ahead, but in a twist all too relevant in current times and in the context of the Palace letters, the Whitlam government was dismissed two days before Widow opened at the Palais Theatre – it is tantalizing to imagine what was on the minds of the audience at that premiere!
Steven Heathcote, Lisa Pavane and David McAllister in 'The Merry Widow' (1993).Photography Jim McFarlane
Returning to the most recent Australian Ballet incarnation of Widow in 2018, Artistic Director David McAllister tells us of more delightful stories that have been generated by this timeless work, which David notes creates a great deal of excitement when it’s in the schedule, as the dancers adore the wonderful dances and great characters. David has his own recollections of being mesmerised by the beauty of the ballet in the 70s, and like all dancers, has a great reverence for the importance of the work in historical terms. The original Widow cast was replete with Australian Ballet royalty. Marilyn Rowe OBE, AM danced the original role of Hanna Glawari, partnered by John Meehan as Danilo; Lucette Aldous danced in the role of Ambassador Baron Zeta’s wife Valencienne and Kelvin Coe was her lover Count Camille de Rosillon. Colin Peasley and Ray Powell garnered their significant forces and delighted in their roles of Baron Zeta and the Baron’s private secretary Njegus.
Like all exceptional performances during an artist’s career, there can be a deep personal attachment to the work. David McAllister and Steven Heathcote have danced many a ‘double act’ in their years as friends and colleagues in dance – Romeo and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, des Grieux and Lescault in Manon, Onegin and Lensky in Onegin and Danilo and Camille in the 1993 recording of The Merry Widow. When a revival of Widow was mooted for 2018, David asked Steven if he would be interested in dancing Baron Zeta – Steven said yes, but only on the condition that David would dance his sidekick, Njegus!
As David describes:
David McAllister as Njegus in 'The Merry Widow' (2018).Photography Jeff Busby
It was too enticing to turn down as Steve and I have spent our whole careers on stage together. It was such a joy to be doing the two oldies as Baron Zeta and Njegus with Steve, and we had way too much fun!! I was rather nervous though in following the footsteps of the maestro Ray Powell who created the role, as he was the master of capturing the moment to perfection, and the magic between him and Colin Peasley was always front of mind.
And as in all delightful double acts, Steven Heathcote gives us a most beautiful counter melody to David’s recollections:
From the minute Lehár’s overture of Merry Widow begins, it puts you into a particularly unique and delightful frame of mind. It encapsulates all the drama, humour, romance and dare I say it, silliness that is to follow.
It is a wonderfully privileged perspective to have been able to perform as Danilo in this great work, then so many years later come back as a character artist in the role of the Baron. It gave me a unique opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the connections between all the characters and how each of them relate.
At its heart, I feel this is a story with a wonderful message. Our main protagonists ultimately have to dispense the veil of pretence and deceit in order to come to a place of forgiveness and love.
The Merry Widow can also lay claim to another interesting snippet of The Australian Ballet’s history. Charles Barker, currently Principal Conductor of American Ballet Theatre, held the position of Music Director with The Australian Ballet from 1997 until 2001. Following a performance of Widow in Perth in 2000, he came onstage and proposed to Miranda Coney, who was dancing the role of Hanna. As in the best romantic moments, she said yes, so perhaps life really does imitate art! You can watch this glorious ballet streaming now on The Australian Ballet 2020 Digital Season, so indulge and allow yourselves to be taken away to Paris during the height of la belle époque…
Many thanks to David McAllister and Steven Heathcote for sharing their memories.
(3) Lee Christofis, australianballet.com.au/behind-ballet/john-lanchbery-and-ballet-music-a-perfect-combination
(4) Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune, 12 February 2011
(5) Chantal Nguyen, bachtrack, 30 April 2018
Keep reading Orchestra Victoria blog articles...