an alternate history scenario for you. Suppose that in 1989, Prince
Charles, in a suicide pact, shot Camille to death. Then, after a long
night of drinking, blew his own brains out. It would’ve been
the scandal of the century, enough to keep the tabloids fat and happy
move the event 100 years earlier, and from England to a hunting lodge
near Vienna called Mayerling. The main difference was that Rudolf
would have actually ruled an empire. Mayerling has spawned many
books, movies, and a musical that isn’t likely to open on
Broadway anytime soon.
fell in love with musicals at age five, when I discovered my parents’
soundtrack recording of Oklahoma! I had a voice only a mother could love, but even mine grew weary of
my rendition of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” In
childhood, I didn’t get much beyond the
King and I.
didn’t really develop musical tastes till late adolescence:
appalled by heavy metal rock, I turned again to the musical theater:
first Lerner and Lowe, and then exploring other shows: Cabaret,
Fiddler, Forum, Do I Hear a Waltz?
By my mid teens I was inquisitive, and ready to explore the library
and record shops to feed my addiction for obscure works. It was
inevitable I would eventually get hooked on the hard stuff:
as I happened across my parents’ copy of Oklahoma!,
I found their old copy of the Godfrey-Green HMS
Pinafore. I was about
sixteen, and captivated by the music and ingenious lyrics of Gilbert
& Sullivan. On into college I pursued all that the Savoy Theater
had to offer. By the time I was chasing down a reconstructed
recording of Thespis,
(the Pluto of the G&S solar system) it was only a small jump to
Offenbach. And from Offenbach to Strauss. And from Strauss to Suppé,
to Millöcker, to Zeller, and others.
other milestone came very unexpectedly, and had a fannish origin.
When I went to graduate school at Michigan State, two thousand miles
from home, I took up with the MSU SF Society. I regard several of its
members as good friends to this day. This was at the time of Dallas
Egbert and Dungeons & Dragons in the steam tunnels, but that’s
a story I didn’t participate in. The MSUSFS group were all fun
to be with. For spring break, seeing that everybody else was leaving
campus and I had nowhere to go, a female MSUSFS member asked if I’d
like to spend the break with her family.
was a friend, like everybody else in MSUSFS. Naively I said sure. I
hadn’t quite gotten around to announcing to MSUSFS that I was
gay, and the painfully obvious never crossed my mind: she
was taking me home to meet her parents!
spare you the embarrassing scene over the break when she declared her
love for me. I liked her fine, but I liked her father more. Um, not
like that. He had been born in Europe, and brought from the old
country a love of operettas. Somehow the conversation turned to
music, and he delightedly gave me an intro to Lehár, Kálmán,
and the “silver age” Viennese composers of the early 20th
century. Sure, I had a copy of the
Merry Widow, but what
about Der Zarewitsch
later when I finally met John, how did I know we were destined to
spend our lives together? I cruised his record collection: musicals!
twenty years pass, during which I had said that for me, the Mecca
vacation was Vienna for my birthday (New Year’s would be close
enough), and see a first-rate performance of an operetta that’s
never done in the U.S. In 2004 I finally said, “If not now,
when?” And so we did.
are two synopses of Emmerich Kálmán’s Duchess
American Heiress falls in love with a Balkan prince, but their love
is doomed because she dances the Charleston and he dances the
Csárdás. They live happily ever after when they
compromise with the foxtrot.
American heiress boasts she can buy a prince — crown, castle,
and all — because money rules all, and she has it. She meets
and falls in love with a prince, but he learns of her boast. He
contemptuously sells her his castle — because new wealth is
sordid — and donates the proceeds to his people. Meanwhile the
heiress converts the prince’s favorite nightclub from a
orchestra that plays
waltzes and Magyar tunes, to a jazz club. The Charleston takes the
country by storm. But eventually true love wins out, and the prince
realizes that the Charleston is just America’s version of the
Volksoper production, the first Vienna revival since 1928, had the
cast and orchestra you would expect. It made some changes to the
libretto to capitalize on one of the best songs, a romantic ballad
taken straight from the pages of Zane Gray (“Rose der
Prairie”), and turn it into a big production number. A
supporting American character spends the entire show with a film
canister and an air-camera, pretending to be making a movie. The play
opens and closes with silent movie clips on a center-stage screen.
The “Rose der Prairie” number starts with an animated
cartoon of the cowboy and Indian girl. It also creates a diversion
for the two stars to change into their cowboy and Indian costumes for
the production number and discover they truly love each other. The
song is distinctly a Hungarian melody, played with Native American
instruments: the tom-tom and saxophone. They are a strictly Hollywood
Cowboy and Indian couple.
premise is that in the 20s Americans were completing their conquest
of World War I, this time using money, movies, and no culture. The
title Herzogin von
Chicago itself is a
joke: how can the daughter of the Chicago Hot Dog King pretend to
nobility? There are some things money simply cannot buy. When the
prince implores a musician to give up jazz and “remember your
blood, gypsy!” he implies a racist attitude to jazz.
yet, this is no diatribe. It’s an operetta, after all —
light hearted fun! Kálmán recognized that music was
changing due to American influence, and operetta also must change. He
sought to marry the old and the new in the score of Herzogin:
the Charleston and other jazz numbers figure prominently, but so do
traditional Viennese and Hungarian music.
Brüderlein, Brüderlein, Brüderlein
you walk down the street of a rundown neighborhood in a large
American city, some seedy character may accost you with drugs or hot
watches for sale. If you walk through the Hofburg, an equally seedy
character in 18th century costume will jump out at you and say, “Hey, mister,
want to go to a concert?”
did see a New Year’s concert featuring all the obligatory
Strauss music. It was very nice, but it was not the one that Walter
Cronkeit hosts. That one is in the Musikverein. To buy tickets, you
have to be selected in a lottery, and they top out at €400 with
scalpers charging €1,000. So we settled for a New Year’s
Eve afternoon concert in the Hofburg Redoutensaal. I won’t
describe it, because you’ve seen it on TV. One of the numbers
they did was “Brüderlein, Schwesterlein,” a waltz
from Act II of Johan Strauss’ Die
in Vienna features events in a number of locations around the old
city. The idea is you’re supposed to make a circuit of them.
Our first stop was Von Karjanplatz, which turned out to be outside
the south side of the Staatsoper
(Vienna State Opera House). While a very overpriced performance ofFledermaus
went on inside, we watched a film of the same production outside, on
a big projection screen for free. It was cold, but it was Vienna! And
since it was Fledermaus we got helping #2 of “Brüderlein, Schwesterlein.”
ended just in time for us to take the U-Bahn (subway) and get over
to the Rathaus.
The square in front of this neo-gothic building was packed shoulder
to shoulder and lined with food vendors. There was an outdoor stage
with live music — Strauss music — including, yes,
performance #3 of “Brüderlein, Schwesterlein.” We
bought champagne just in time to toast Neujahr, for which the
traditional song is “an der schönen blauen Donau.”
After midnight most of the band packed up, leaving a few to continue
as a jazz ensemble. Shades of Herzogin!
for the Staatsoper’s Fledermaus were much more reasonable on New Year’s Day than the evening
before. Around 1983 I caught a PBS broadcast of Fledermaus that I’ve always considered one of the gems of my video
collection. The performance we saw in 2005 was identical to that
video, down to every movement, every sight gag. The production
director was Otto Schenk, who played the drunken jailer in the old
broadcast, but not the performance we saw (he retired in 2006). And
the fourth rendition of “Brüderlein, Schwesterlein.”
I hadn’t been aware this particular song was so famous. During
the same 24-hour period we only heard the “Blue Danube”
2004 an old friend resurfaced, who once lived in Toledo, but moved to
Texas years ago. He and his partner were about to move from Texas to
Vienna, and he had several billion suggestions of things we should do
and see in Vienna.
was a contemporary musical by Sylvester Lévay and Michael
Kunze. “You do know the story of Elisabeth and Franz Josef, don’t you?”
Um … well …
we sure learned. I’ve heard of cramming for an exam, but not
for a vacation. We did a lot of reading and research. How can you
travel a quarter of the way around the globe to see a play in a
language you don’t understand? We bought the cast recording ofElisabeth,
which came without a translation. John found a Russian website that
had an almost intelligible English translation. We also got an
electronic version of the German libretto, which we ran through
translation software. Both translations were ham-handed, and there
were script differences between the two. But going back and forth
between the translations, and reading about Franz Josef, Elisabeth,
and Rudolf, we managed. When we got to Vienna, we were ready, and had
no trouble following the story.
main characters: Kaiser Franz Josef, his wife Elisabeth, Luigi
Lucheni (the anarchist who assassinates her), Crown Prince Rudolf,
and Death (that’s Herr
Tod to you!). The
play opens with a hanged man dangling from a rope. The same man
enters downstage and an offstage voice booms at him: “Why,
Lucheni? Why did you kill her?” The premise of the play is that
Elisabeth had a life-long romance with Death. This is shown
metaphorically, with Death portrayed as a sexy blond rock-star who
imparts his gift with a seductive kiss.
set includes a steep, narrow ramp that ends stage left about 10 feet
up the wall. We were baffled by it for months. Finally it dawned on
John: “that’s the ramp onto the boat on Lake Geneva where
she was stabbed! Death spends the entire play trying to lure her up
the ramp to meet her fate!”
music is contemporary, with a mixture of theater music and
instruments with rock. I would say it’s in the same genre
musically as Les
Despite its rock sound, the score draws on many conventional types of
songs, and even uses leitmotivs for the characters. Elisabeth’s is “Ich gehör nur
mir” — “I belong only to myself.” It’s
a huge gulf between her and Evita’s “Don’t Cry for
we had not studied the lives of Franz Josef and Elisabeth, we’d
have been lost. Most of the plot was a straight re-telling of their
lives, but sometimes done as metaphorical song/dance numbers. For
instance, the political discourse of the newspapers and coffee houses
is portrayed as a bumper car free-for-all. Mayerling is done as a
waltz between Tod and Rudolf — yes, he kisses him. If we hadn’t
already known what Mayerling was, we would’ve missed the point.
The libretto alludes to several tragedies of the late Habsburgs,
including Archduke Maxmillian, Emperor of Mexico, and Archduke Franz
Ferdinand and his wife. Tod had plenty to do with Elisabeth and all
this show sounds very dark, you’ve got the picture. The
lightest moment is when Franz Josef visits a brothel. John and I did
come to like this show very much, and enjoyed the performance
greatly. Kunze and Lévay have also done shows about Mozart,
Marie Antoinette, and an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s
(which Hitchcock adapted into a film).
word is due about the theater. Elisabeth was performed at the Theater an der Wien. The theater was built by
Emanuel Schikaneder (librettist, producer, and star of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte),
and it housed the premieres of many of my favorite operettas, to say
nothing of several major Beethoven works. Inside, it looks like a
well-maintained early 19th
century opera house. But it is also a state of the art musical
theater with a modern sound system, a stage that can be raised or
lowered in sections, and complete contemporary pyrotechnics. It was
an impressive production.
audience responded enthusiastically. They didn’t just applaud —
Every song. Same thing on the live CD recording and on the DVD. I’m
not sure if this is unique to Vienna, or just traditional for this
we were finalizing our trip itinerary, John hit on one more thing in
his web searches. “Do we want to see Three
Penny Opera on our
last night in Vienna?” he asked. Of course!
thought studying for this show would be easy. We had several
recordings, and we knew the songs. I also knew not to brush up with
Marc Blitzstein’s Broadway version — the libretto was
softened to enhance the show’s public appeal. The version we
studied was in German, starring and supervised by Lotte Lenya.
found even that version not much preparation for the darker, more
cynical version we saw at the Theater in der Josefstadt. In the
version we studied, the Peachums are Cockney underclass criminals. In
the Josefstadt version
they are aspiring to middle class respectability but still operating
a guild of thieves dressed as beggars. Even without understanding
German, the middle class satire came through with the acting.
Both Die Dreigroschenoper
Herzogin von Chicago opened in 1928 with music much influenced by American jazz.
Otherwise, the two shows are generations apart, with Kálmán
trying to reconcile the old operetta form with new music, while
Brecht and Weill were content to turn society on its head.
did a little shopping, but I just want to mention one shop —
the EMI store in Kärntnerstaße. I went straight to their
operetta section, where I spent way too much money, but came back
with a big bag of CDs and DVDs unavailable in the States. Afterward
John snapped a picture of me outside the Rathaus, holding my EMI
shopping bag, very much the cat that got the cream. But how did we
miss another record store, Da Caruso, which was just across the
street from the Staatsoper?
bought all theater tickets well in advance, but we can’t say we
understand how it all works. If the only barrier were language, we
could cope with that. The Theater an der Wien had additional
restrictions we didn’t quite follow. It appeared that tickets
could only be bought within a narrow time frame in the month before
the performance. Google translate was not adequate to clarify exactly
how this worked. In the end, we bought most tickets through a service
with an English website and a 20% surcharge. Expensive, but we had
good seats for every show, and they were all waiting for us at the
front desk of the hotel. The only tickets we bought on the web were
for Dreigroschenoper — more later.
On the Tube
stayed at the K+K Hotel Maria Theresia in the Spittelberg district.
It was rather expensive, but a very convenient location, and
breakfasts to die for. Literally. Eat like that every morning, and
you’ll be dead in no time. It’s not just that they had
meat and fish and cheese and eggs and breads and pastries and fruits
and cereals — the breakfast buffet included choice selections
of each, all so good that you had to try a bit of everything. Who
room was spare but adequate; the bathroom seemed nearly as large as
the sleeping room. We did not spend much time watching TV, but we
caught a couple things of interest.
was the very end of a French operetta which I recognized as La
Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein
by Offenbach. From the costumes/set, a mixture of period and
contemporary, and its satirical edge, I guessed (correctly) this was
a new Pelly-Minkowski production. We had their excellent 2000 DVD ofLa Belle Hélène
and the style was unmistakable. Since then this Gérolstein
has also come out on DVD.
caught a musical show on TV that I would describe as a cabaret on a
square stage surrounded by the audience, like a boxing ring.
Performers waited in the corners, taking their turns to sing solos or
ensembles. Most of the music I did not recognize, except that it was
popular songs pre-dating the age of rock. But three numbers I could
identify. Two of them by “Silver age” operetta composers
that I knew but most Americans have never heard of.
“I was the King of Boeotia” song from Offenbach’s Orphée aux
Enfer — first
verse in German, second in the original French.
du mußt mir was Schön's jezt kaufen” by Leo Fall
from his operetta Der
fidele Bauer. It
features a boy who exhorts his mother to buy him this, buy him that
— she replies “Heinerle, Heinerle, hab’ kein
Theophil” by Paul Lincke from Frau
Luna. This is
Lincke’s best-known operetta, but rarely if ever performed in
the US. If you know any song of Lincke’s, it’s “Glow
You Saw a Lot
of Theater, but What’d You Do During the Day?
can’t begin to speak highly enough about John’s research
and organizational skills. He spent months before the trip digging
through books, travel guides, and the web to develop a prioritized
list of places we wanted to visit, and track down all the logistics
turning this into a travelogue, these were our day trips:
Hofburg; Kärntnerstrasse; the Ringstrasse by tram;
Michaelerplatz; the Secession; Mariahilferstrasse; the Rathaus; the
Palmenhaus; the Kunsthistorisches
Stephansdom; Postsparkasse; Sacher Hotel; Stadtpark
walk; Wien Museum;
Wagner Pavillons; Wagner Apartments; Wien River; and the Hofburg
Royal Apartments (i.e., museum of Elisabeth and Franz Josef).
this, including the theater, in seven days. It still leaves a lot for
suffer from a bit of Ugly-American Guilt when it comes to language.
When foreign tourists come here, naturally they have to speak
English. We don’t understand other languages. But when we
travel abroad, we naturally expect them to speak English, because the
world is America’s playground, right?
cram as much German as I could, but it was woefully inadequate. I can
read bits of the language, and catch stray spoken words or phrases. I
had enough German (thanks to an electronic translator) to read signs
display materials in the museums. But I have no grammar, and my
vocabulary recall is too slow to be of much use. Worse, even if I ask
a coherent question in German, I won’t understand the reply!
was often told, “don’t worry — they all speak
English.” True, mostly. We made do. I still hold that if you
don’t speak the language, you limit yourself to tourist areas
and tourist experiences. Even so, there were a few circumstances
where I wish I’d had more German:
out of the train station as we arrived, I wanted a coke. Not just
because I was thirsty, but I wanted small change for tipping the cab
to the hotel. Asking for a coke at a vendor stall, the lady asked, “Dose oder
knew she was asking whether I wanted a can or a bottle, but which
was which? So I pointed.
took a train between the airport and the city. The train arrives in
a station that connects with streetcars, and the U-Bahn; but with
our luggage, we took a cab between the station and the hotel. When
the return cab came, we found ourselves unable to explain we wanted
him take us to the train station and we’d get to the airport
on our own from there (in hindsight, “Zug nach Flugzeug”
was one phrase I wanted). The hotel concierge came to our rescue. He
explained he thought the cabbie was Turkish and didn’t have
much German, let alone English. We think he was also playing dumb so
we’d give up and have him drive us all the way to the airport.
Our real problem, was not knowing the German name of the train
station. The answer: Mittel
one restaurant, the owner/waitress didn’t/wouldn’t speak
English. Trying a pocket dictionary, I realized there are several
senses of the words “bill” and “check.”
Which word meant “I want to pay the bill?” I tried “die
Rechnung, bitte” — correctly.
bought the Dreigroschenoper tickets over the web on a German website. The box office lady had
good English, till John asked for tickets for Widmer and began
spelling his name in English. She didn’t know the alphabet in
English. John persevered, but I should’ve been able to chime
in with, “Widmer — vay, ee, day, em, ay, ehr”
you leave an E.U. country, you can get a tax refund on major
purchases. This involves paperwork at the shop, where staff is
always helpful. But to cash out, you have to find the place at the
airport, and my experience so far is that the tax refund people make
it as difficult as possible for you, and never
speak English. On this trip, I tried communicating with the guy
across the counter. My German may have been all wrong, but he
clearly had an attitude, and made no effort to help. But yes, I got
my money. On the next trip I just shoved the paperwork at the clerk
without saying a word.
How You Gonna
Keep ‘em Down on the Farm Once They’ve Seen the
trip was a week of exhausting fun. The only relief I felt on return
was not having language angst to worry about, and I could rest up now
that I was going back to work. The downside — after seeing
operettas performed by world-class cast and orchestra, the best
efforts of the Midwest pale. John noted that we’ve been going
to see Ohio Light Opera performances all these years, and having seen
the Volksoper, he at last realized why I liked operettas so much. We
came out of the trip with some nice souvenirs, too. Besides the stack
of DVDs and CDs I bought at the EMI store, we soon had DVDs of two of
the shows we saw — Herzogin
We figure the latter was filmed within a month of the performance we
saw. And we have our Neujahr
champagne glasses —
bought at the Rathaus — to toast them.
you haven’t already looked it up — Dreivierteltakt means
“three-quarter time,” as in Robert Stoltz’s song,
“Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt.” In German, there’s
a crack-jaw compound word for everything.