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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.

 

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.         

The Abduction from the Seraglio Commentary

Ladders

Various Escapes, Variously Accomplished

by Jeff Counts

It is a simple plan. Two ladders, one each for Konstanze and Blonde, to be placed under their windows at the appointed hour. The Pasha’s overseer Osmin has already been drugged with spiked wine so once the women hurry down said ladders and into the arms of their rescuers, it’s off to the waiting ship and then on to freedom. But, no. This is opera, after all, so of course the plan ends up being more of the “best laid” sort. The life the two women seek to flee is rather operatic too, in that it presents itself in only the broadest of strokes, leaving the gritty details to the imagination of the observer. As observers, thankfully, we are perfectly capable of filling in those blanks because, much like Mozart and his late-18th century contemporaries in the ideological West, we have cultivated lifelong fascinations with the exotic cultures of the world. So it goes without saying that Turkish harems, in all their depraved glory, are something we have no trouble imagining.

The centuries-long reign of the Ottoman Empire was well into its slow, fatal period of decay in 1781 when Mozart chose it as the subject of his new opera. But even as shadows of their former selves, the Ottoman Sultans could still ignite the creative passions of artists throughout Europe. The Viennese, given their relatively close proximity to the Turks and the fact that Ottoman armies had twice banged on their very own gates, were especially susceptible to enchantment by the lore of the exotic East. In fact, The Abduction from the Seraglio was not Mozart’s first attempt to set a harem rescue story to music but he had ceased work on Zaide in 1780 to take up Idomeneo and never returned to his original Turkish-themed singspiel, at least not in name. The Abduction libretto was remarkably similar to that of Zaide (some call it the first draft of Abduction) and the familiarity it generated did not end there. In crafting the story of Abduction, Gottlieb Stephanie drew upon the previous work of Christoph Friedrich Bretzner but he could have chosen from any number of harem escape narratives from the previous two decades. Stephanie apparently used Bretzner’s Belmonte and Konstanze without telling him. Bretzner’s reaction was predictably stern but both men’s debt to the wealth of other sources spinning about during that time makes for a decidedly complicated web of provenances. Present in just about every version of the popular seraglio story were echoes of two extremely influential Ottoman historical figures.

Suleiman the Magnificent (or “the Lawmaker,” depending on your perspective) ruled the Empire from 1520-1566 and his life coincided with the true zenith of his people’s supremacy. Zeniths being what they are, however, the steady decline of Ottoman hegemony also began with Suleiman. In this, though, he had help. Suleiman was a poet and a conqueror who possessed the entirety of the Balkan peninsula (he nearly took Vienna as well in 1529) and no less than 300 hundred concubines. Most notable among his collection of enslaved women was one Roxelana, a red-haired beauty of Ukrainian heritage that came to Suleiman by way of capture in Russia (present-day Poland to be exact) and selection in Constantinople. Beyond the more obvious hardships (these are among the things we can surely imagine), the realities of life for someone like Roxelana in 16th century Turkish bondage involved the negotiation of specific hierarchies within the harem. Four chief concubines maintained order over the lower ranks and vied for the right (if indeed it could be called such) to bear the Sultan’s heir. Roxelana started at the bottom but rose quickly once she caught Suleiman’s eye. She was savvy enough to keep his eye and soon became his favorite and then his only consort. Roxelana appears to have been a quick study in her new culture and before long, her capacity for intrigue and manipulation led to the death of the two most likely challengers to her future son’s ascension. Marriage to Suleiman and freedom from the harem soon followed, making this once-modest daughter of an Orthodox priest the most powerful woman in the Empire. Rather than run, Roxelana had escaped her fate by simply rewriting it.

Mozart’s Pasha Selim was clearly drawn from the legacy of Suleiman (the analogous character in Zaide was in fact called “Soliman”) and the “victim” aspects of Roxelana’s persona seem to have been split equally into Konstanze and Blonde for dramatic purposes. The 16th century setting of Abduction also points to the royal couple’s story, even if the Mozart/Stephanie account takes a very different path to conclusion. This difference is emblematic of the afore-mentioned “fascination” with Turkish exoticism and the desire of many western artists to read a recognizable measure of nobility into the characters they created in homage. In The Abduction from the Seraglio, Selim is a hot-blooded but thoughtful monarch, one capable of mercy even against great pressure from his inner circle. In this way, he is not so far from Suleiman. The real Sultan certainly followed his heart with Roxelana, to the shame of his entire court, and in all ways he was the last remotely salutary leader of the Ottomans. After he died, the fish truly began to rot from the head with a succession of spectacularly terrible Sultan’s, each more inept and morally corrupt than the last. Roxelana’s truth was more problematic for Mozart and the others who attempted to modernize her. In the dramatic arts of 18th century Europe, the lighthearted “rescue” plot was still king and the story of an ambitious woman who didn’t require a liberator to “re-abduct” her just wouldn’t do.

Mozart was interested in escape himself in 1781. His jailor was his boss, the Archbishop of Salzburg Hieronymus Colloredo, a man Mozart “hated to the point of madness.” Employment as a musician by an Archbishop or any other provincial aristocratic ruler in Mozart’s day meant knowing one’s place. This meant waiting to be called before entering a room, taking one’s meals in the kitchen with the hired help and generally performing on command like a pet. It probably felt like indentured servitude to Mozart and though it is an uneven parallel to be sure, he must have harbored a bit of kindred frustration with the Turkish slaves he embodied in music. Mozart’s letters to his father from the period show how deeply he longed for the welcoming arms of Vienna, where he knew musicians of his caliber were treated with commensurate respect. The Archbishop had just included Mozart in his retinue on a trip to the capital city and, in that heady atmosphere, the composer could not help but misbehave. He did so often and even caused a scandal by walking straight up to the Russian Ambassador at a soirée and striking up a conversation, which was unheard of even in liberal Vienna. The impertinent behavior eventually earned Mozart a dismissal from Colloredo’s court and also a (quite literal) kick in the pants on the way out the door. It was worth it. He left Salzburg for good, settled in Vienna as planned and found his fame almost right away. His first major success there and the symbol of his own personal rescue plot was, fittingly, The Abduction from the Seraglio. Clearly, there are many ways to become free in this world, whether you choose to climb up or down.

THE MERRY WIDOW SYNOPSIS

by Franz Lehar

ACT I - Setting: Pontevedrian Embassy, Paris, turn of the 20th Century

A diplomatic reception taking place at the Pontevedrian Embassy has been promulgated by Ambassador Zeta in the hopes that his Parisian guests will raise money on behalf of the insolvent nation of Pontevedro. Unperturbed that his lovely young wife, Valencienne, is flirting with dashing Camille de Rosillon,

the elderly pompous Baron Zeta assumes her behavior is intended only to further the Pontevedrian cause. Camille, however, has intentions other than the welfare of Pontevedro and inscribes "I love you" on Valencienne's fan--the subsequent loss of this fan will provide much contretemps in the next few days. Wealthy and attractive widow Hanna Glawari enters.

(Beverly Sills and men’s chorus)

Zeta proceeds with his plan that she should marry Danilo Danilovich, the Embassy Secretary, a charming libertine renowned for his dissolute behavior. Such a marriage would ensure the widow's fortune would remain in Pontevedro. Meanwhile, Valencienne is inconsolable that she has lost her fan which bears that indiscreet message from Camille. Now Danilo arrives from Maxim's, his usual haunt,

(I’m off to Chez Maxim’s; Jeffrey Black)

Danilo and Hanna reminisce about their mutual past. Although they were once deeply in love, Hanna, the daughter of a poor farmer, was considered unfit for marriage by Danilo's aristocratic family. Clearly the two are still in love, but Danilo refuses to acknowledge his feelings although he does promise Zeta that he will prevent any foreign fortune seekers from marrying Hanna. When she selects him for a ladies’ choice dance, he complies and, although they are estranged for the moment, she has difficulty disguising her feelings for him.

ACT II - Setting: Madame Glawari's Mansion

Hanna is giving a party, and in honor of Pontevedro she sings the beloved folk song, Vilja.

(soprano Jane Thorngren)

When Danilo arrives late, Ambassador Zeta encourages him to keep all Frenchmen away from the widow. It is revealed that Camille is in love, and Zeta yearns to know with whom, hoping the Parisian will forgo any suit of Hanna. Zeta is desperate to keep her money in Pontevedro. Enter the troublesome "mystery" fan. Zeta seeks to learn the identity of its owner and tries to understand women.

(start at 4:50, “Women women”; Thomas Allen as Danilo)

Meanwhile, Hanna assumes Danilo has composed the damning inscription. Camille comes into possession of the fan and Valencienne insists upon writing on the back of it, "I am a virtuous wife." The ever amorous Camille persuades her to enter a gazebo so that they might be alone.

[pavilion duet, Camille & Valencienne:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTzz-DPtKys ]

Unfortunately Camille has been seen by Zeta, but Valencienne's presence is undetected when Hanna hastily takes her place. Intent on protecting Valencienne’s good name, Hanna announces her engagement to Camille--who is flabbergasted--and Danilo leaves in a snit for Maxim's.

ACT III - Setting: Maxim's

At Maxim's, Camille and Valencienne disappear, and the revelry begins with the arrival of Zeta and the Pontevedrians. Valencienne and the grisettes perform a can-can dance to the delight of the crowd.

Only Danilo is not charmed and insists to Hanna that she must not marry Camille. She reveals that she was only protecting another woman's reputation when she and Camille were found in the gazebo, and that she has no intention of marrying the Parisian. The missing fan has been found and Zeta recognizes it as his wife’s. Enraged, he proclaims that he is divorcing Valencienne and offers marriage to Hanna. The assembly is further shocked when Hanna confesses that according to her deceased husband's will, she would lose her fortune were she to remarry. As all other suitors immediately lose interest in the prospect of a destitute Hanna, Danilo feels free to propose for the widow can be assured that he has no ulterior motive and is not a fortune seeker. She accepts gladly.

(Merry Widow Waltz duet: start at 3:55 , go through 6:50.)

Hanna clarifies that upon remarriage, her fortune would revert to her new husband. Zeta is satisfied that her inheritance will remain in Pontevedro and forgives Valencienne when she shows him the back of her fan on which is written " I am a respectable wife." All is bliss between the couples, and everyone rejoices.

Judy Vande Heide
Judy Vander Heide is the president of the Ogden
Opera Guild, which supports Utah Opera. She
also serves on the boards of Utah Symphony |
Utah Opera and Opera Volunteers, International
and is a proud member of the Crescendo Society of
Utah Opera.

Chorus Master Caleb J. Harris

Biography:

Caleb Harris enjoys an active career as a pianist, conductor, chamber musician, and vocal and opera coach. He is equally at home at the keyboard and on the podium. Harris has appeared throughout the United States, Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Scotland, Slovenia, and Asia at many prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall, Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, and the National Concert Hall in Taipei, Taiwan.

As a vocal coach, musical director, chorus master, or conductor in Germany and the United States, Harris has been involved in the preparation and performance of many operas: recent productions include, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Stravinsky’s Renard, Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Mark Adamo’s Little Women, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, Massenet’s Cendrillon, Busoni’s Turandot, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Handel’s Serse, Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicci, Weber’s Der Freischütz, and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. He has served as instrumental and ensemble conductor and/or rehearsal pianist for the Frankfurt (Germany) Symphony, Dubrovnik Symphony (Bad Homburg, Germany), Colorado Symphony, Eastman Wind Ensemble, Eastman Chamber Music Society, Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, University of Northern Colorado University Symphony, University of Northern Colorado Opera Theatre, Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Stones River Chamber Players (Tennessee).

Currently in his first season as the Utah Opera Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor, Harris prepared the renowned Utah Opera Chorus for the critically acclaimed Doucet/Barbe production of Puccini’s Turandot. Musical luminaries he has worked with in the area of opera include Robert Spano, Stephan Asbury, Neil Varon, William Weinert, Robert Page, Joel Smirnoff, Phyllis Curtin, Dawn Upshaw, Martin Katz, Kenneth Griffiths, Alan Smith, and Robert McIver. A Graduate of the Eastman School of Music, he has received many honors, including a Presser Foundation Scholarship. He has studied piano extensively with Billie Jo Forney, Ronald Lewis, and Douglas Humpherys.

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