Explore Countess Maritza
Welcome to a curated selection of content about Pacific Opera Victoria’s 2019 production of Emmerich Kálmán’s charming operetta Countess Maritza. Here are articles from our Keynotes Newsletter, programme notes from the Artistic Director and Stage Director, and selections from media reviews.
A Kálmán Idyll
In late April, 1945, just as World War II was drawing to a close in the European theatre of conflict, I was posted with a naval unit to the ruined city of Bremerhaven, in North Germany.
The Chief Executive Officer of our base was an enlightened patrician New England reserve officer who preferred Opera to operations. His mother, he proudly informed whomsoever would listen, had served on the Board of the Boston Opera in the mid 30’s. He lamented (even to a mere enlisted man) that his deepest regret was to be posted in Germany where he had not yet been able to attend a single musical event – if, indeed, any were being held in those final days of the European war.
One day, shortly after the official declaration of the end of hostilities, I was summoned to the executive office. “With the signing of the armistice, there has been a lifting of restrictions on fraternization with the former enemy,” explained our commanding officer. “We recently received a request from the municipal authorities for instrumentalists to play with the Bremen Opera orchestra. In particular, they asked if by any chance we had a bassoonist.”
I did not know that he was aware of the avocations of every one of his ship’s company, but obviously he had done his research and had discovered that I had brought my bassoon with me to the Bremerhaven posting.
“They are in the process of re-creating their Opera company and I have initialled your assignment to play with the orchestra,” he said. “Of course, you will continue your other duties here on the base, but a jeep will be available each day to take you to rehearsals.” The commander continued, revealing his full plan, “On performance nights, I will drive you there myself.”
As I saluted and turned to leave, he added, “The Bremen Opera house has been badly damaged in the raids. I urge you to take a warm coat with you.”
Even then he would not let me depart so quickly. “Have you read all of the Grimms’ fairy tales?” he asked. “Not recently, Sir,” I replied. “Well,” he responded, “now at last you’ll become one of the Town musicians of Bremen.” With that he returned my salute and I rushed to my barracks to see if I could find a good reed.
I had never before played Opera, and it seemed to me that the entire repertoire of this particular company consisted of the operettas of Emmerich Kálmán, Hungarian fellow student of Bartók and Kodály, banned, as Jewish, during the war years. They were all endlessly tuneful, wonderfully nostalgic, and emotionally satisfying to an audience deprived of any relaxed entertainment during so many years of harsh warfare.
I discovered later the reason why we played this endless banquet of Kálmán delicacies. In the shattered and badly damaged music library of the Bremen Opera House, the only intact orchestral scores and parts were of these Kálmán operettas. Scores of Mozart, Wagner, Weber, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti had been destroyed in the fire that gutted most of the building, but the Kálmán material had been discarded in some distant corner of the building, where, forbidden in performance, at least it survived in hidden storage.
The orchestra generally rehearsed in bits and pieces for about forty-five minutes before the curtain was due to rise, and after that it became a feast of sight-reading! Night after night we played Kálmán, Kálmán and more Kálmán in the unheated shell of what was once a magnificent 1800-seat opera house. We performed Countess Maritza sixteen times, The Gay Hussars on ten occasions, and The Gypsy Princess at least seven times.
I was not allowed to shed my uniform, and the astonished stares of the audience each night should have made me decidedly uncomfortable. What could be made of the spectacle of a young musician playing in Allied military uniform with an all-German orchestra, less than a month after the war’s ending? Heaven knows what they would have thought if they had suspected, on top of all else, that I might be Jewish. But I was young then and felt nothing more than the delight of sampling Kálmán for the first time.
The costumes had been rescued from some musty safe storage, where they had been mothballed since long before the war. The overpowering smell of camphor wafted downwards into the pit, so that I shall always associate those delicious bassoon passages that accompany the tenor in so many Kálmán arias with the aroma of a dry cleaning establishment.
Indeed, tenor parts were often doubled by the bassoon, and since there was a desperate shortage of good tenors, each performance became a feast of glorious solo passages for me. Kálmán-in-Bremen in 1945 became a kind of bassoon accompanied Singspiel.
The experiment with fraternization did not last long and the policy changed after five months of Kálmán immersion. As suddenly as it had started, I was returned to my full time naval duties.
I learned later that the Executive Officer of the base had been transferred to Terceira in the Azores. His jeep no longer made its clandestine trips to the Opera House, and presumably the tenors of the Bremen Opera company had to make do with the second clarinetist covering the melody line on – what else? – a tenor saxophone.
As impresario, he brought music to smaller communities throughout the West, receiving the Order of Canada and the Order of BC for his lifetime contributions to music and touring. He was a member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and CBC Chamber Orchestra and was founding Artistic Director of the White Rock Concerts series. He lives in Surrey with his partner, violinist Erika Bennedik.
The Importance of Being Silly
It’s easy to dismiss Countess Maritza as a piece of fluff (while keeping in mind that it is perfectly legitimate for an operetta to do nothing more than delight the senses and add a bit of laughter to the world).
Maritza is a lovely, silly, warmhearted romantic comedy, but it has an unexpected poignancy, both in the shadows of history that crowd round it and in the thread of loss and longing that weaves through its sunniness.
Set on a posh estate in the Hungarian boonies, Maritza is a visual feast, serving up lavishly dressed barons, counts, showgirls, and exotically costumed Gypsies. The music teems with earworms – so many that you can get rid of one simply by listening to the next.
The story is as predictable and far-fetched as any self-respecting operetta ought to be. Countess Maritza is young, very rich, and very tired of being pestered by men who want to marry her for her money. So she invents a fiancé and gives him the first name that pops into her head – Baron Zsupan, the fictional pig farmer in Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron. Cue a genuine pig-farming Baron Zsupan, who shows up at her door, eager to go through with the wedding.
Meanwhile Maritza’s eye is caught by her handsome, new, and very efficient farm manager, whom she finds disturbingly uppity, but strangely attractive. Little does she know that he is actually the impoverished Count Tassilo, working incognito to earn a dowry for his sister Lisa – who happens to be Maritza’s new best friend.
After an inevitable flurry of misunderstandings, true love overcomes jealousy and suspicion, and we are left to contemplate the futures of not one, but three happy couples.
Many of the delights of Countess Maritza come from its gentle mockery of the highfaluting aristocrats who swan about the countryside, utterly clueless about farming, pursuing their endless round of tennis and cabarets, while expecting the Gypsies to entertain them and the servants to know their place.
Countess Maritza is a masterpiece of the so-called Silver Age of Viennese operetta. The earlier Golden Age was epitomized by the works of Johann Strauss II, notably Die Fledermaus (1874) and The Gypsy Baron (1885) – riches from the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Vienna was one of the cultural centres of the world.
The Silver Age, extending from Lehár’s The Merry Widow (1905) to the early 1930s, is characterized by a sense of nostalgia for a vanishing world, of longing for the glamour of a empire that, by 1918, had self-destructed.
The leading composers of the Silver Age were the Hungarians Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán. When Countess Maritza premiered in 1924, Kálmán was already world famous; Maritza was yet another hit, running for 374 performances at the Theater an der Wien before moving to Broadway in 1926 where it played for 321 performances.
The work’s enormous popularity stemmed in part from its timing: Europe was still reeling from the Great War, longing for charm and cheeriness, ravishing tunes, a reliably happy ending.
As musician and critic Christopher Howell noted, Though I confess to a sweet tooth generally where post-Johann Strauss Viennese operetta is concerned, … Countess Maritza has always struck a particular chord in me.… Its melodies and harmonies seem to me to transcend their actual comedy context to express strong, melancholy emotions which somehow tug at my heartstrings.
The shadows behind the frivolity of Countess Maritza are thrown into sharper relief when we consider what followed.
When Maritza premiered in 1924, Hitler was already chair of the Nazi party. In the next two decades, the shadows would close in.
Like many creators of Viennese operetta, Kálmán and his librettists, Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, were Jewish. Brammer and Grünwald, the most successful writing team of Vienna’s Silver Age, worked with Lehár and Oscar Strauss, among others, and wrote five operettas with Kálmán.
But with the Anschluss – the 1938 annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany – the creators of Countess Maritza were forced into exile. All three fled to Paris. Brammer died in 1943 in France. Both Grünwald and Kálmán emigrated to the US in 1940.
Kálmán’s works were then banned by the Nazis as Entartete (degenerate), their performances prohibited. Hence the irony, as George Zukerman recalls, that the Kálmán scores stored in the Bremen Opera House survived the war and the bombing precisely because they had been cast aside. And after the war, there was Countess Maritza: an imperishable bauble glittering amid the ruins.
In a tribute to the glory of what he calls the much-mocked art of Viennese operetta, critic Richard Bratby said,
An ephemeral art can evoke something enduring … a dance rhythm, a telling lyric and an indelible tune can speak to the human condition…. It’s glorious entertainment. But if you chose to take it seriously … you could see and hear a tragedy of alienation, exile and disillusion.
Notes from the Artistic Director
EuroNight Kálmán Imre is an overnight train from Zurich and Munich to Budapest, with stops in Salzburg and Vienna. On reflection, the name seems natural, almost inevitable, yet evokes the atmosphere – the melody, the perfume – of another era. From a North American perspective, so does this expression of love and gratitude for a composer of genius.
Born into the Jewish family Koppstein, on the southern shore of Hungary’s Lake Balaton, Kálmán , a classmate of Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi, grew to conquer the world with his ravishing melodies, by turns sprightly and melancholy. Hitler loved his music so much, he offered to make Kálmán an ‘honorary Aryan’, which, to his everlasting honour, the composer refused, choosing exile instead.
Much as he loved the Strauss of Die Fledermaus and found a stimulating model in The Merry Widow, Kálmán’s compositions have an indelible personal stamp that derives from two main elements: the incorporation of Hungarian dance rhythms, and the chiaroscuro effect of his major/minor harmonies and ‘gypsy scale’, which give his scores a special poignancy. He knew the gypsy traditions, and drew freely from them. Maritza is meant to have, in addition to a gypsy fiddler, a cimbalom (strings struck by hammers), both of which you will hear, and a tárogató (an ethnic cousin of the clarinet).
Kálmán’s great love, however, was Puccini; in his writing for the voice, especially for soprano and tenor, one finds comparable great lines, with a similar arching expansiveness, which great singers have found grateful. His orchestra is hugely rich and colourful – far from simply set bare accompaniments to the voice.
By definition the operetta is a lighter form, with art turned more towards entertainment than to profound explorations of our inner lives. Frivolity rules. If you lack a sense, not so much of the absurd as of the silly – the happy and harmless resolution of problems that only seem serious for a moment – then you will never get the point, and tant pis pour toi, I say.
But if you can give yourself to a moment of sentiment, if you love lilting tunes, great singing, zestful dance rhythms, and farcical plots much like 20th c. BC politics, peopled by beautifully elegant women, and men in uniforms ablaze with cords and medals, you may join me in wondering why the enormous Classical Operetta repertoire is so little known in North America. It is a trove of golden musical treasure. And it bestows at least one inestimable gift: you will always leave the theatre with a smile!
With its gorgeous melodies and comic plot twists, it would be easy to take the enchanting exuberance of Countess Maritza at face value. Opposites attract, liaisons are formed, identities are revealed, hearts are broken, and lovers are united—all to the lilting strains of a Gypsy Czardas and a Viennese waltz. Yet Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta possesses a romantic, lyrical sensibility that speaks far more of longing. It speaks of the longing for home, for family, for acceptance, and for a lifestyle gently slipping away. Above all, Maritza embodies a longing to understand oneself and be truly loved for who you are.
When Kálmán wrote Countess Maritza in 1924, the frothy giddiness and aristocratic superiority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been shattered by the devastation of World War I. In the aftermath of so much carnage, Kálmán’s operetta hearkened back to the past where homes, lives, and hope were still intact. Hungary provided the melancholy soul of Kálmán’s music with the Czardas as its lifeblood. It was the music of the Gypsy, filled with longing and nostalgia, always searching for a return home. Ironically, two of the operetta’s most famous songs, “Vienna Mine” and “Play Gypsy Play,” embodied the longing for home and loved ones during another war when musicians played them in the concentration camps of WWII.
To capture the feeling of life on the verge of change, designer Patrick Clark and I have chosen 1910 to 1912 as our approximate timeline. It is an unsettled period, when established rulers are overthrown and new governments come to power. The new music of Stravinsky’s The Firebird serves in stark contrast to Massenet’s lyrical Don Quichotte even as the paintings of Kandinsky draw crowds away from an exhibit by Renoir. The landscape paintings of Gustav Klimt are our inspiration, capturing the complex tapestry of Maritza’s emotional as well as physical world. The clothing is graceful, elegant and sensual, yet it gives a hint of the emancipation that is to come.
We invite you to enter into Maritza’s world and hope you will find the essence of Hungarian operetta—love, humour, and the need to dream. Along the way, we invite you to ponder two Hungarian Gypsy sayings. When questioning if a place is welcoming, they say, “Is there heart here?” When love and beauty are found, they say, “The people make you dance.” With this production of Countess Maritza, may you find heart and dance!
Just an hour’s drive from Vienna (at 1920’s speeds), deep in the heart of rural Hungary, lies a country estate…It is clear from the start that this dream of a place is worth imagining. Conductor Timothy Vernon and stage director Linda Brovsky conjure up a world of genuine sentiment.
Into this bucolic idyll comes the Countess Maritza. She is the fabulously wealthy absentee land owner. She is also the drop-dead gorgeous and gorgeously voiced Leslie Ann Bradley…
Typical twists and turns of the plot keep the action moving along with plenty of time for misunderstandings, hidden secrets, gypsy music and dancing. This is a good natured operetta though so only the music and dancing are serious…
All the best of light, middle-European music of some hundred years ago was here, to be indulged in and enjoyed.
Timothy Vernon … has abundant affection for and insight into Central European repertoires requiring a special stylistic touch.
Conducting the Victoria Symphony and a faultless cast, Vernon gives a buoyant, sparkling, passionate account of Kálmán’s score….
Leslie Ann Bradley is immensely personable in the title role … Suzanne Rigden, as Lisa, has a light, clear, sweet tone beautifully appropriate to the genre…. Michael Barrett is endearingly goofy as Baron Zsupan, while Adam Luther, as Count Tassilo, is engagingly ardent….
Veteran Canadian actress Nicola Cavendish … offers a masterclass in comedy as Princess Bozena, assisted with infectious flamboyance by Brian Linds as her servant, Penizek.
Director Linda Brovsky has mounted a show that is both funny and touching, and her staging always seems animated, natural and efficient.