Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Can Creative Reinterpretation Keep Operetta Alive? Kálmán's Die Herzogin Von Chicago at the Vienna Volksoper in 2004

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Can Creative Reinterpretation Keep Operetta Alive? Kálmán's Die Herzogin Von Chicago at the Vienna Volksoper in 2004

Article excerpt

Following on the smashing international success of Ernst Krenek's opera Jonny spielt auf in 1927, composer Imre (Emmerich) Kálmán, with librettists Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, created the operetta Die Herzogin von Chicago (The Duchess of Chicago), which premiered in Vienna on 5 April 1928. Like Jonny spielt auf, this work addressed the encounter of European music with American jazz. The tone shifted as this topic moved into the lighter operetta genre, but nevertheless, the work epitomized important conflicts of the 1920s through fiery exchanges between American sausage heiress Miss Mary Lloyd and European blue-blood Prince Sándor Boris of Sylvaria - who even referred to Jonny spielt auf in one passage. While the sounds of jazz were alluring, their fascinating rhythm did not mask the tensions brought about by American cultural imperialism, threats to European traditions, and shifting economic power in a culture grappling with modernization.

Die Herzogin von Chicago found immediate success: it had a run of 242 performances in Vienna, and there were also numerous productions in Central Europe and Scandinavia (Berlin, Stockholm, Prague, Budapest, Tre [in Finland], Milan, and Warsaw) in 1928 and 1929. An American version - directed by Busby Berkeley, of all people - did not make it to Broadway.1 After this flurry of success, the work was one of those the Nazis labeled in 1938 as entartete Musik (degenerate music), and it went into oblivion for several decades. A 1998 Decca recording, conducted by Richard Bonynge as part of a series devoted to works banned by the Nazis, helped to raise the work's profile, and the operetta attracted renewed attention, receiving many staged performances from the 1990s to 2004 (in Milan, New York, Chicago, Trieste, Dresden, Augsburg, and Philadelphia). The work's return in 2004 to its home city of Vienna in a production at the Volksoper, as part of an Entartete Musik series organized by dramaturge Birgit Meyer, is the focus of this essay. My work is based primarily on the DVD of that production and on interviews I conducted in 2009 with several people connected with it (performers, directors, and adapters) and with Austrian intellectuals who commented on the Austrian political landscape (see Table 1).

In this essay, I explore the evolving political and social meanings of this work in our time, within a world of shifting conditions. Reemerging after decades of oblivion, the Herzogin can serve as a window into important topics such as the relationship between Central Europe and North America and how these regions have viewed "outsiders" such as blacks, Jews, and refugees in the past and the present. It also offers an instructive example of how old works can be creatively restaged so that they remain alive and relevant, rather than being understood as museum pieces firmly anchored in the past. Descriptive analyses of selected scenes demonstrate both the strengths of the original version and also how creative changes in the 2004 version accentuated its ideas.

1.Die Herzogin in 1928 - context and plot

Kálmán was tremendously successful as an operetta composer, noted especially for his skill composing Hungarian dances and Gypsy music, which had often been featured in operettas ever since Johann Strauss included a csárdás in Die Fledermaus in 1874. The Hungarian elements contributed greatly to his success in earlier works such as Die Csárdásfürstin (The Csárdás Princess, 1915) and Gräfin Mariza (Countess Maritza, 1924). By the late 1920s, though, the future of the operetta genre was in question. It was being overtaken by, sometimes blended with, the revue; and American music and dance styles were also invading Europe.

Die Herzogin von Chicago took this bull by the horns by representing the very conflict that threatened operetta. The title character, Miss Mary Lloyd, arrives in Europe, bringing her tremendous wealth and her taste for Charleston, slow-fox, and blues. Her goal is to win a contest held by her club, whose prize goes to the person who purchases what is most rare and difficult to buy. …

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