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Background of The Merry Widow by Michael Clive
The "Grand Duchy of Pontevedro" — doesn't that fictional name sound an awful lot like "Montenegro?" Could any self-respecting French diplomat be called Raoul de St Brioche? And didn't the real Montenegro incorporate a principality called Zeta, which just happens to be the fictional name of the Pontevedrin ambassador? Welcome to the world of The Merry Widow and of Viennese operetta, where any resemblance to actual events or persons living or dead is purely coincidental (wink), and where the affairs of state are love affairs. Leave your cares at the door. Nothing that happens here is to be taken very seriously, except for the lush outpouring of rapturous melodies, opulent vocal display, and amusing silliness.
As sweetly caloric and deliciously traditional as Herr Sacher's torte, Viennese operetta depicts a world of bygone elegance, romantic complications and practical jokes. Franz Lehar, composer of The Merry Widow, is one of two composers commonly cited as "king of Viennese operetta" — the other being Johann Strauss, Jr. Together their masterworks — Strauss's Die Fledermaus (1874) and Lehar's The Merry Widow (1905) — bracket the golden age of a genre that had more international significance and musical heft than we now acknowledge. Recent doyennes of the opera stage, including Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills, sang the praises of operetta and gloried in roles such as The Merry Widow's eponymous Hanna Glawari. The tuneful abundance and carefree spirit of Viennese operetta informed the giddy, hyperactive French operettas of Jacques Offenbach and the deft social satires of Gilbert and Sullivan. It even migrated to America with Victor Herbert, Irish-born and German-raised, who composed such American favorites as Babes in Toyland and Sweethearts. Herbert's hit Mlle. Modiste premiered on Broadway the same year as The Merry Widow in Vienna. The genre's sure-fire combination of romance, nostalgia and humor proved transferable to New World culture in operettas such as Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart's Rose-Marie, set in an idealized Canadian frontier with a cast including miners and fugitives rather than aristocrats. On Hollywood's silver screen (1936), Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy played the operetta's romantic leads, a French Canadian girl and the Mountie who wins her. Its "Indian Love Call" became their signature song.
The man behind The Merry Widow, Franz Lehar, was a native of Hungary and son of a bandleader in the Austro-Hungarian armed forces. While his younger brother Anton entered cadet school in Vienna to follow his father's military career path, Franz gravitated toward the musical side of his father's vocation, studying violin at the Prague conservatory. There he was advised by the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak to focus on composition. But Franz, reasoning that he could always study composition later (and responding to practical and parental pressures), continued through graduation as a violin major and then joined his father's band in Vienna as assistant bandmaster in 1888. Quick, sustained success as a bandleader — in 1890 he became the youngest bandmaster in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and was appointed first Kapellmeister with the naval forces in Pola in 1894 — gave him the freedom and confidence to compose. Though his first opera was less than a raging success, his career turned toward the theater. In 1902 he became conductor at Vienna's historic Theater an der Wien, and his operetta Wiener Frauen was premiered there later that year. Today his fame rests on his many popular operettas, but he also composed popular ceremonial marches, symphonic poems and sonatas.
The immediate and enduring success of Lehar's operettas is due in part to his nostalgic backward gaze. He composed in an era when Vienna, classical music, and the world were in transition. For people like the tradition-loving Austrian haut bourgeoisie, these were terrifying times: Industrialization had fundamentally changed the pace and texture of city life. Wagner's music-dramas and esthetic philosophy, once controversial, had long since revolutionized the opera stage and pointed the way toward new musical styles. Freud's ideas were beginning to attract notice. The year after the premiere of The Merry Widow, composer Richard Strauss unleashed his shocking adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Salome upon the world of opera. The blithe gaiety of widow Hanna Glawari's world, like that inhabited by operetta characters stretching back to Die Fledermaus, could not be further from all that. She and her stage-mates, elegant grown-ups all, behave like high school students scheming and double-crossing each other before prom night.
But the dramatic conceit upon which The Merry Widow rests is not without substance. Hanna Glawari, our heroine, returns to Pontevedro and to the suitor who rejected her when she was young and poor, but now she is a glamorous, still-youthful widow of enormous wealth…so rich, in fact, that she could single-handedly solve her homeland's fiscal crisis — if only she would marry one of its citizens. In the hands of the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, this premise became a fascinating study in the nature of conscience and complicity, as the returning rich widow demanded the execution of her young seducer. Dürrenmatt's stage treatment became the chilling 1964 feature film The Visit, starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn. Before that came the Marx Brothers' anarchic 1933 satire Duck Soup, in which the rich widow is Mrs. Teasdale, played by the majestically naive Margaret Dumont. Will Mrs. Teasdale's millions save the tiny republic of Freedonia? Perhaps — if the war triggered by her rival suitors doesn't destroy it first.
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Love her at your own risk.
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Man of la mancha
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the Dream Isn't Impossible to him
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Romance balanced on the edge of a knife.
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Libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann
Based on the book The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows by Brian Castner
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Let’s All Go To Maxim’s by Jeff Counts
Place of Interest
Maxim’s is a restaurant in the 8th arrondissement but it is not only that. It is also a symbol of Parisian fin-de-siècle splendor and, according to its own website, a true temple of the Art Nouveau aesthetic.
What began as a modest bistro in 1893 soon bloomed into a legendary landmark as Maxim’s second owner, Eugène Cornuché, created a highly successful business plan that included always having “a beauty sitting by the window, in view from the sidewalk.” Cornuché understood that women – lots of them – were key to his success. Once the dancers were hired and the courtesans began to gather there, the moneyed men of the city followed.
Today, Maxim’s is more than just “fashionable,” it’s a “brand.” A brand owned and nurtured since 1981 by Pierre Cardin, to be exact, and the Maxim’s name now graces dinner boats and locations in other European capitols. Though Maxim’s, as a concept, has certainly grown beyond its address, the Belle Époque charm of the original location remains. Many international celebrities are drawn to occupy the tables once haunted by Marcel Proust and Jean Cocteau and it is no secret that divas have always loved the place. That line can be traced from Maria Callas to Brigitte Bardot to Barbara Streisand to, of course, Lady Gaga.
Piece of Music
No wonder the Danilo character of Lehar’s story sings so fondly of Maxim’s. The siren call of Cornuché’s ladies is too much to deny and, frankly, he hardly even tries. After bemoaning the demands of his job at the embassy and the constant pull of attention towards his homeland, Danilo tells us “I’m off to Chez Maxim, there I am always at home.” He sings about how the women there help him “forget the dear Fatherland” and that he knows them all by their nicknames. According to Danilo, the “Grisette’s” of Maxim’s “drink champagne” and “frequently carouse” and he can’t wait to get back to “hugging and kissing with all these sweeties.” It’s a perfectly operatic scene, given that the man doing the singing is both the past and future love interest of the story’s heroine. It seems the pretend nation of Pontevedro is quite small indeed and dear Hanna has had few options beyond her rich and recently dead husband. Danilo before, Danilo again. True love.
Melodically speaking, the descending notes of the “I’m off to Chez Maxim” portion of the aria are as striking as they are simple. The passage adopts an innocently folkish aspect and has an immediately endearing quality that essentially guarantees the popularity of the aria. In fact, there is no denying that when the title “Merry Widow” is invoked in today’s theatrical world, it is done so with great delight thanks to the oft-excerpted Waltz and Danilo’s “Da geh’ ich zu Maxim” moment. Danilo’s rapturous tribute to Maxim’s and the bygone decadence of late 19th-centure Paris speaks to us at the DNA level, if not for the carousing then at least for the dreamy, time-halting atmosphere on offer there.
That Lehar chose Maxim’s as a principal location for his opera was due, in part, to his particular experience in the city as a poor musician. According to Nicholas Slonimsky and others, Lehar included the vocal tribute as humble thanks to the ownership of Maxim’s for showing him kindness during those hardscrabble days. Regardless of the impetus, the aria and the opera as a whole have done much for the restaurant’s currently standing as a historical beacon, though maybe not as much as Pierre Cardin’s money.
Point of Dispute
The first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony depicts the march of the German Army on Leningrad in the winter of 1940. The resulting siege would last some 900 days and Shostakovich, like so many artists under Soviet suspicion, found a measure of pure, non-political patriotism in himself and his suffering countrymen during those dark years. The melody that represents the Germans comes quietly after a distant snare drum herald and builds slowly and inexorably, Bolero-like, over the course of many repetitions. It was an incredibly daring and controversial way to portray an invasion and interesting in this context for the notes that comprise the tune.
The middle part of the “German Army” melodic sequence is a direct quote of the “I’m off to Chez Maxim” section of the Danilo’s aria. One needs only to listen once to this theme to hear it clearly and smile at the audacity of the gesture. Think about it! Shostakovich chose to represent the German invaders with a fragment from an Austrian operetta that celebrated, even pined for, the virtues of life in Paris. If Hitler had indeed been a fan of the tune, as many believed, then Shostakovich really deserves extra credit for this bit of dismissive pluck. One Shostakovich biographer, the unfortunately doubtable Solomon Volkov, stated that the quote was intended as a private reference to the name of the composer’s young son, Maxim, but it seems unlikely that Shostakovich would have connected his son, in name or in any other way, with German aggression.
But the quotations and allusions do not end there. Bela Bartók was living in New York City when Shostakovich 7 had its U.S. premiere and was broadcast over the radio. Bartók was poor, sickly and not particularly popular outside his small circle of devoted international colleagues and, perhaps not surprisingly, he found the immediate popularity of the new symphony preposterous. He thought the monotonous “Maxim” march music of the first movement was especially banal and his son Peter later recalled him counting the repetitions out loud with increasing frustration. Whether or not Bartók was still bitter about Shostakovich’s success when he wrote his masterful Concerto for Orchestra one year later is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that he inserted a parody version of the Shostakovich “Maxim” theme into the fourth movement. Like Volkov, Peter Bartók was quick to classify it as a joke but, in truth, it sounds too darkly colored to be nonchalant. No, to even the most generous ear, it sounds like Bartók senior was making a statement with his use of the “Maxim” fragment, one that was as pejorative as it was hilarious.
So, if not simply a restaurant, what is Maxim’s really, in the end? Is it a melody, a protest, a possibly overstated protest of a protest? Let’s meet Danilo there and see for ourselves. Don’t try to just walk in though. Reservations are required.