Commentary Background of The Merry Widow

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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