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Remembering and Reviving Kálmán


Meagan Sill and Clark Sturdevant

From our far-flung correspondent.

Austrian composer Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953) reigned as one of the leading creators of Viennese operetta in the “Silver Age” of the genre. Kálmán and his friend Lehàr’s were jointly responsible for many of the most popular operettas from 1905 (premiere of the Merry Widow) to the beginning of World War II, by which time Kálmán and his family had moved to the United States (having declined an offer from Adolph Hitler to be declared an “honorary Aryan” on account of the steady popularity of his works).

Kàlmàn’s biggest successes took place between 1915 and about 1930 (although he continued working until his death); the major shows were built on his deeply-felt Hungarian roots especially in Die Csárdásfürstin (“The Gypsy Princess”) of 1915 and Gräfin Mariza (“Countess Maritza”) of 1924. I first encountered these two works at Vienna’s Volksoper in the early months of 1976, when I was directing a foreign-study program there with 20 Dartmouth College students studying music history and German. I was so taken by the tunes, the richly scored orchestra, and the paprika-flavored sensibility of the scores that I rushed to obtain scores and recordings. When listening to them, it is hard not to feel a stirring of Hungarian blood (whether one has any or not). I’ve heard other Kàlmàn works in the intervening 40 years, though by no means all of them.

This week I am attending the third annual symposium on “Taking Light Opera Seriously” in the pleasant college town of Wooster, OH, where the College of Wooster has hosted “America’s premier lyric theater festival” for 38 years now. It began purely as a Gilbert and Sullivan festival under the direction of the late James Stuart, a faculty member of the college who had enjoyed an active career on the musical stage himself. Eventually he began adding classic European operettas such as those of Offenbach and Strauss (in translation). More recently, under the artistic direction of Steven Daigle, who is head of the Eastman (School of Music) Opera Theater  program, the festival has also included American operetta and musical theater works that have become classics. Still more recently, significant shows of the early 20th-century American musical theater—by the likes of the young Jerome Kern and George Gershwin—have been added to the recipe.

But in all this time, one of the most consistent features has been their investigation of Kálmán’s work. No company in the world has produced as many Kàlmàn scores as the Ohio Light Opera. With this season’s The Little Dutch Girl (I’ll just use the English titles from now on), the total number comes to 12, including of course the two big favorites mentioned above as well as Kàlmàn’s first show, Autumn Maneuvers, as well as A Soldier’s Promise, The Duchess of Chicago, among others.  OLO has also documented seven of these on CD and the last four (Autumn Maneuvers, A Soldier’s Promise, The Duchess of Chicago, and The Little King) on DVDs that give viewers a chance to appreciate the remarkable production quality of the performances.

This year’s symposium opened on Tuesday, when the new production of The Little Dutch Girl was to be performed in the matinee. It was preceded by a presentation of video clips and recordings of Martha Eggert and Jan Kiepura, two of the leading stars of the operetta in the early part of the last century, presented by their son, pianist Marjan Kiepura, and his wife Jane Knox, who has organized the archival records of their careers, especially Eggert’s—one of the favorite singers of both Kàlmàn and Lehàr. She performed and taught and continued singing in recitals until well into her 90s (she was born in 1912 and died in 2013!). She is reputed to have sung The Merry Widow 2000 times in 5 languages—German, French, English, Italian, and Polish! The opportunity to hear the singing of two of the greatest stars of the repertory who had previously only been names to most of us, set us up beautifully to hear a live performance of the scarcely known show by the OLO’s very gifted performers. (I’ll have more to say about the company per se in later reports this week.)

When the season is in full swing (after all seven shows in the repertory have been introduced over the first few weeks), Sunday and Monday are dark days, with a matinee on Tuesday and both matinee and evening performances from Wednesday to Saturday, rotating through all seven shows.

Tuesday’s matinee of Kálmán’s The Little Dutch Girl effectively represented its American premiere. Debuted in Vienna in 1920 to great success, it became the first musical show from any of the German-speaking regions to be mounted in England after the war, where it was also successful. Plans for an American production foundered in 1925. After try-out performances in New Haven and Boston (where Kálmán’s music received highest praise from the critics), it closed after only two performances on Broadway, because little aside from the music was liked.

The Little Dutch Girl contains most of the traditional elements of operetta—a setting in the highest levels of society (in this case involving small-beer royalty from fictitious German principalities), substantial chorus and many minor characters, elaborate waltzes, richly sensuous orchestration, and two principal couples around whom the plot revolves. One of these has a problematic love relation that is the heart of the plot; the other couple, essentially comic, has little or no trouble getting together.

Yet, with all these familiar elements, come novelties as well. For one thing neither of the principal lovers wants to marry the other because the wedding was arranged for political reasons soon after they were born. By 1920 this sort of arrangement (and the principalities that made theme) were very much a thing of the past. The plot of the operetta finds a way to allow both the potential partners to join in a marriage of love.

But a small structural point is perhaps the most striking modern element of the show. Throughout the tradition of operetta history, the act structure of the works followed the traditional unities. Every act took place on a single set, with a single focus of the action. But near the end of Act I of The Little Dutch Girl there is an utterly surprising moment in which the main stage—a reception room in the palace of Princess Jutta—empties and darkens. A spotlight is cast on a downstage area in which we see the intended groom, Prince Paul, in Holland, enjoying his freedom with a couple of pretty Dutch girls, declaring his refusal to be shackled in marriage to a woman he does not even know. Then the lights come up in the main setting again for the brief conclusion of the act.  Of course, in later musical comedy it became common to have many scenes rapidly occurring in different locations in each act. This was a first crack in the wall of the staid unities.

The opening act calls for elaborate choral numbers of the sort that were gradually disappearing from musical shows, but Kálmán was eager to write them here, and did so beautifully. The pomp of the royal court included music (and dances) for both male and female choruses, as well as the massed ensemble. But the major action centers on four characters:  In addition to Prince Paul, who makes his first cameo appearance at the end of the act, they are Princess Jutta (who learns that her intended husband simply fails to show up for the wedding, in which he has no interest), Baroness Elly, her first maid of honor and friend, and Dr. Udo von Sterzel, the ambassador sent by the prince to inform Jutta that the wedding is not to take place. A smaller vital role goes to the Lord Chamberlin, Von Stopp, in the service of Jutta’s father, who tries desperately to bring about the planned marriage.

Meagan Sill, Benjamin Krumreig, Jessamyn Anderson, and Samus Haddad

Meagan Sill (Jutta) and Jessamyn Anderson (Elly) bring beautiful soprano voices to Kálmán’s demanding lines, as well as the comic chops to work out their plot against the prince—to make him fall in love with Jutta (incognito as a simple Dutch girl) and then dump him. Samus Haddad is both vocally strong and dramatically funny as the hapless ambassador; his manner (aided by black-framed glasses) resembles a fast-talking Groucho Marx). And Clark Sturdevant’s strong tenor voice projected the playboy and the (eventually) loving bridegroom very well.

The first act takes its time to set up the situation in such a way as to motivate Jutta’s decision to humiliate her intended, but the second act (in Holland) and the final act (back in the reception room) move with a pace much closer to that of musical comedy, though still with Kàlmàn’s warm sentiment alternating with clever musical wit.

Direction by Steven Daigle and choreography by Spencer Reese shaped much of the humor that these characters expressed in their parts. Settings were designed by Tymberley Whitesel, costumes by Stefanie Genda, and lighting by Daniel Huston.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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