Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008

 

Holiday

im Dreivierteltakt

Kurt Erichsen and John Widmer

Addictions Start Young

Here’s 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 for years.

But 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.

Cartoon:  Quiz on Hapsburg History, "Franz Josef's great-grandfather was a) Leopold II  b) Franz II and Franz I, c) Maria Theresa d) All of the Above

I 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.

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:

Operetta.

Much 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.

One 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.

She 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!

I’ll 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 and Die Csárdásfürstin?

Years later when I finally met John, how did I know we were destined to spend our lives together? I cruised his record collection: musicals!

Another 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.

Die Herzogin von Chicago

Here are two synopses of Emmerich Kálmán’s Duchess of Chicago:

  • An 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.Cartoon:  Picture of Indian wearing sunglasses while playing a saxaphone, saying, "Heap big jive, daddy-o!"

  • An 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 traditionally Wienermusik 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 Csárdás.

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.

Herzogin’s 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.

And 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, Brüderlein

If 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?”

We 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 Fledermaus.

Neujar 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.”

Fledermaus 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!

Tickets 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” twice!

Elisabeth

In 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.

One 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 …

But 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.

The 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.

The 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!”

The 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 Misérables orEvita. 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 Me, Argentina.”

If 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 around her.

If 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 novel Rebecca (which Hitchcock adapted into a film).

A 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.

The audience responded enthusiastically. They didn’t just applaud — they cheered. 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 show.

Die Dreigroschenoper

As 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!

I 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.

We 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 and Die 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.

Cartoon:  Cat in trench coat standing with E.M.I. bag and purring...We 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?

We 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

We 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 needs lunch?

The 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.

One 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.

We 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.

  • The “I was the King of Boeotia” song from Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfer — first verse in German, second in the original French.

  • Mutterl, 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 Geld.”

  • O, 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 Worm.”

You Saw a Lot of Theater, but What’d You Do During the Day?

I 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 we needed.

Without turning this into a travelogue, these were our day trips:

The Hofburg; Kärntnerstrasse; the Ringstrasse by tram; Michaelerplatz; the Secession; Mariahilferstrasse; the Rathaus; the Palmenhaus; the Kunsthistorisches Museum; St. 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).

All this, including the theater, in seven days. It still leaves a lot for future trips.

Sprechen sie Englisch, bitte?

I 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?

I did 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

and 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!

I 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:

  • Coming 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 Flasche?” I knew she was asking whether I wanted a can or a bottle, but which was which? So I pointed.

  • We 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 Bahnhof.

  • In 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.

  • John 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”

  • When 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 Volksoper?

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 and Elisabeth. 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.

If 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.

Cartoon: Man wildly flapping both arms in front of a taxi driver while saying, 'Flugzeug! Flugzeug! Flugzeug!' Then adding, 'Y'know, like a bird?!'

 

 

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