Operetta Smithsonian: The Golden Age of Operetta From Offenbach to Gilbert & Sullivan and Beyond

I went to a Smithsonian "seminar" on the operetta  last week. The program ran from 9:30 in the morning until 5pm [with a lunch break]. It was in the format of a series of lectures by one speaker, illustrated with audio and video clips and with live performances by pianists and by an opera singer.

It was held in the auditorium of the Hirshorn Museum on the Mall. The audience, about 125? 150? in number, was old, even older than I am. Interestingly not the preponderance of single elderly women or female couples I would have expected. Maybe husbands who like operetta live longer than other husbands because there was a strong minority of elderly, very elderly, married couples.

The speaker, Michael Parker ["a vocal coach who has worked with such legendary singers as Dame Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballe, James Morris, Placido Domingo, and conductor Richard Bonyge"],  was from Australia. apparently a center for operetta. His soprano wife,  Maria Pollicina,  performed a few numbers for illustration and his brother did some piano pieces. Parker himself mostly talked but also presented a few examples on the piano. [In one of them Parker hit a wrong note and I was thinking to myself that I was overly picky to have noticed it. When he finished and went to back to the lecture he made an aside that he had "added in a note to what Lehár had written"  acknowledging an error but moving on, which I though he did well and smoothly.]

He placed the beginnings of the operetta with John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in London in the middle of the 1700s, then through Offenbach, to Gilbert and Sullivan and Vienna and to Broadway with Kern, Romberg, Friml and Lerner and Lowe. [He ignored the Viennese Volkstheater which surprised me.]

One of his theses was that when what we think of as operetta began with Offenbach [a German Catholic who became famous as a French composer] was half satire and comedy and half emotion and romance, Gilbert and Sullivan continued this mixture in the English speaking theater. Millöcker and von Suppé in Vienna, however, began shifting the proportion more to romance and emotion. He also made a comment about Lehár's "The Merry Widow' [which is playing now at the Amato Opera in Manhattan and which I'd like to see] being a major turning point in operetta. The speaker claimed that Lehár, especially with The Merry Widow, was the composer who moved operetta the most strongly away from comedy and mostly into romance. I disagree with that when I think of the comedy in operettas written after the war like Land of Smiles and Der Zarewitsch.

He made the comment you hear all the time that operetta couldn't survive because the social world it was built upon, a class system connected with monarchy, was mostly wiped out by WW 1.

But even during the War, Kálmann was writing Die Czardaszfürstin where the "serious" couple was a prince and a nightclub performer and the "comic" couple" were both aristocrats, a major switch on what had been the case in 19th Century Viennese operettas.

And in works after the War like Der Vetter aus Dingsda or Countess/Gräfin Maritza or Im Weißen Rößl you have ruined nobles and brash middle class entrepreneurs interacting with each other in contemporary times after the kingdoms and empires had ended. It was pretty much only our American operettas of Romberg  and Herbert and Friml that kept operetta plots in an aristocratic past. Interestingly, he noted Lehárs "Eva"which was written before WW1 and was set in a factory with working class characters.

He also proposed that Viennese operetta from Millöcker  through Strauß and Lehár had a strong undertone of melancholy which the French and English operettas didn't. I agree with him but not with his explanation: that Emperor Franz Josef's melancholy and withdrawn personality was somehow the basis of the melancholy feeling for the Empire and its culture.

For one thing, Franz Josef was no more socially withdrawn than any of the rulers of Europe at the time, until the suicide of his son and the murder of his wife --- and that was over halfway through his reign. And it strikes me more likely that any melancholy Franz Josef had outside of his personal tragedies came from the culture around him and not that he made the culture melancholy.

One of the trite things you hear from stand up comedians and Mel Brooks is that The Merry Widow was "Hitler's favorite", as if this said something about the operetta or about Lehár. The speaker pointed out that the Merry Widow overwhelmed not just Vienna but England and America in the early part of the century when it was so popular that it was used to sell everything from Merry Widow hats to Merry Widow cigarettes. His comment on Hitler was that it was interesting that someone so brutal could still appreciate something so beautifully. A much more sensible and nuanced comment, I think, than the Mel Brooks type of flip superficial comment.

Parker said that the centers of operetta were Paris, London and Vienna until World War 1 and then Vienna, Budapest and New York after the war. He also made a comment you've heard many times, that operetta didn't die after 1930, as you sometimes read. Instead operetta not only kept on living but developed and expanded the same way it had between 1850 and 1900. But for marketing purposes the word "operetta" sounded old fashioned and so the operettas had their named changed to "musical plays" [as opposed to musical comedies] and continued with Weill's Der Dreigroschenoper in Germany and Showboat, Oklahoma, Kismet, My Fair Lady in America.

He believed that operetta was alive and well, but under a different name, until the late 1960s when it did end as a living art form. Because of its requirement for trained voices and the lack of formal voice training for actors and singers in our "miked" society, he believes that you're now only going to see operetta in special festivals and in opera houses [which used to look down on operetta].

Some anecdotes: Victor Herbert, although born in Ireland, was trained in Germany and married there. His opera singer wife was offered a contract at the Met in New York but he wouldn't let her take it unless he was hired too. He got first cello in the orchestra.

The song Ta-Ra-Ta Boom-Ti-Ay got off to a slow start but was made famous by an English music hall performer [whose name I didn't write down]. She had to sing it at every performance to satisfy the audiences. She was always very energetic and her early death, in her 40s, was attributed to performing the song so often and so all out.

To demonstrate the flexibility of operetta music, Parker showed a clip from the Dinah Shore Show, from the very early 1960s.

Ella Fitzgerald [jazz singer], Dinah Shore [straight standard singer] and Joan Sutherland [opera singer] were performing an arrangement of a Victor Herbert operetta piece for the three of them in their own three styles, ending in a simultaneous performance of all three, still remaining in their own musical styles. All three performed straight, doing it well with no cutting up or camping up.

One thing that stuck me in watching it was how pop culture has changed; I doubt you're going to see very many television shows today showing jazz, standard and operas singers on the same prime time show much less in the same number.

What also struck me was the visual setup and a bit at the very end [which I'm not sure was rehearsed or was ad lib]:

Shore was petite; Fitzgerald was plumpish but still on the small side; Sutherland was physically very large. Shore was standing on a riser behind the other two, Fitzgerald was sitting on a chair or riser on a higher level than Sutherland to balance out their sizes. Sutherland sang at full operatic volume and as the piece ended, Shore and Fitzgerald moved together motioning to what turned out to be the boom men to lower their microphones and raise Sutherland's up. It was done well, in good taste and in good humor.

Some recommendations Parker made, were Malcom Sargent's version of the Beggars Opera made in the 1950s, the version of The Merry Widow / Die Lustige Witwe with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, also from the 1950s ; a really odd but interesting version of selections from The Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya accompanied in a jazzed up version with Turk Murphy  and some movies from the 1930s you can rent: The King Steps Out by Novello??, Blossom Time with Richard Tauber,  and One Night of Love with Grace Moore .

And if you want to see live operetta in the next few weeks, there's a touring company The Operetta Extravaganza!  from Budapest which is in Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, in New York on Friday, May 13, 2005, the State Theatre in New Brunswick N.J. on Sunday, May 15, 2005 [and in Chicago, Toronto and several other places.

I would have preferred more emphasis on Vienna [he really treated nobody deeply except Strauß and Lehár] and less on London [a lot of time was devoted to Ivor Novello and Noel Coward] but it was an interesting and worthwhile presentation .                                                                                                                             Home


 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. The Early Years
Emotional poles, social implications, musical styles, and historical
antecedents in Medieval theatricals, Italian opera buffa, German singspiel, and French opera comique. Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728);Weill’s and Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928); Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Helene, and La Perichole.

11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Onward to Vienna
Franz von Suppe, father of Viennese operetta. The operettas of Johann Strauss II, including Die Fledermaus. The school of
Johann Strauss II.Maria Pollicina concludes the morning with a performance of the “Nun’s Chorus” from Casanova.

12:15 to 1:15 p.m. Lunch
Participants provide their own lunch.

1:15 to 2:30 p.m. The Savoy and Romantic Traditions
Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, HMS Pinafore, and The Gondoliers. The romantic musical plays of Noel Coward
(Operette, Bittersweet, Conversation Piece). Franz Lehar and
his masterpiece The Merry Widow. Victor Herbert’s Naughty
Marietta, Mlle. Modiste, and Orange Blossoms.

2:45 to 3:30 p.m. The Twilight of Operetta
Rudolf Friml (Rose Marie and Vagabond King), Sigmund
Romberg (The Student Prince), and operetta’s transition to
musicals with such works as Jerome Kern’s Showboat.

3:30 to 4:45 p.m. An Afterglow
Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s featuring singers who sang in the operetta style, such as Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. The decline of operetta with the rise of American musical theater, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot. Maria Pollicina brings the day to a lively end as she leads a singalong of “Ciribiribin,” sung by Grace Moore in the film One Night of Love.

Instructor Michael Parker is a vocal coach who has worked with such legendary singers as Dame Joan Sutherland and  Montserrat Caballe, James Morris, Placido Domingo, and conductor Richard Bonyge