Did Leo Fall Suffer From Serious Drug Addiction?

Michael S. Hardern
Operetta Research Center
25 July, 2014

It’s always a good time to pay attention to Leo Fall (1873-1925) because his operettas – Der fidele Bauer, Die Dollarprinzessin, Die Rose von Stambul, Madame Pompadour et al. – are some of the greatest glories the genre has ever brought forth, and some of Fall’s waltzes are so infectious that you will not be able to get them out of your head for ages. But who was the man who wrote these glories, and why did the first serious biography of Leo and his wife Bertha Fall not appear in print until 2010?

The cover of Stefan Frey's Leo Fall biography.

The cover of Stefan Frey’s Leo Fall biography.

This biography, entitled Leo Fall: Der spöttische Rebell (“the sneering rebel”), was written by Stefan Frey. According to his own account, it is one of the “definitive biographies of the three giants of the Silver Age of Viennese Operetta: Franz Lehár, Emmerich Kálmán, and Leo Fall.” To use Mr. Frey’s words as printed in the flyer for the 2014 Ohio Light Opera symposium on operetta.

What sets Frey’s book apart from other texts on Fall – Widmar Hader’s Leben und Werk eines Meisters der Operette (1974), Walter Zimmerli’s Leo Fall und sein kompositorisches Werk (1949) most prominently – is the fact that he was allowed to make use of the extensive correspondence between Fall, his wife and their lawyer and doctor. This correspondence sheds new light on the operetta composer, as well as the genre itself, because it shows a man driven: to ruin. Fall constantly disappeared for days and weeks, could not be reached by anyone, and was notoriously behind schedule with all of his operetta scores which he piled up, and up, and up, until it was impossible to fulfill contracts even if he wanted to do so. The fact that the Falls, Mr. and Mrs., hired a lawyer to look after their finances because they themselves were apparently unable to do so and feared they would end in total bankruptcy – at a time when money was flooding in from all the performances of Fall’s successful shows all over the world – should give anyone pause. It’s a cue, isn’t it?

If you have ever lived with a drug addict or any other kind of addict, or a person with depressions, or a person with bipolar behavior, you are likely to say that these symptoms described in the letters ring a bell, and sound familiar. You could also ask, why shouldn’t an operetta composer (and his wife) be drug addicts? It’s not as if such things are unheard of in the arts, or anywhere else.

Strangely enough, Stefan Frey gives a detailed account of Leo Fall’s life and career, of his marriage, of his many disappearances, but he never once (!) asks if drugs could have played a role in all of it. (Or depression, or burn-out.) Why?

Poster for Leo Fall's "The Dollar Princess."

Poster for Leo Fall’s “The Dollar Princess,” produced in London at the Pleasure Garden Theatre.

Is it the long shadow of the post-war operetta world where it was unimaginable that anything “off” could stain the perfect idyllic ideal of a nostalgic universe in ¾-time? Why can we read about today’s pop stars dying of overdoses day in, day out, and think such occurrences perfectly “natural” in the context of popular arts, yet we can’t even ask (!) if such like happenings might have been at the bottom of lives lived by people working in the entertainment business of the 1910s and 20s?

A drug addict composer would certainly allow a very modern reading of the operetta scene in the first decades of the 20th century. It would shed new light on the exuberant music that Fall wrote, music that in many cases does not fit together. Yet, in some cases, it does fit, in a mad-cap way. And the resulting shows deserve a more radically up-to-date and unashamed analysis than Mr. Frey offers.

Miss Evelyn Lay as Madame Pompadour.

Miss Evelyn Laye as Madame Pompadour.

Of course, there is no alternative available at the moment. And, truth be told, it is possible to get a good overview of Fall’s stellar career from Spöttischer Rebell der Operette. Whether the book is a “definitive biography” is a point worth discussing. Thanks to the help of Christine Stemrock and Wolfgang Dosch it offers an extensive appendix with the first performance history of all Fall shows, including adaptations and films, a discography is also included which in turn includes radio productions. That alone would make this book published by Edition Steinbauer worth having.

There is a wealth of facts presented here, of course, and it makes you long to hear the music immediately. The only recent new CD production of a Leo Fall show is Madame Pompadour, recorded live at the Vienna Volksoper with Annette Dasch in the title role (released by cpo). It is not an altogether happy experience listening to this disc; you certainly don’t get any feeling for the manic side of Fall’s music. That is much more apparent in the new vintage releases of Truesound Transfers where you get Fritzi Massary singing highlights from Der liebe Augustin (1912), Die Kaiserin (1915), Die Rose von Stambul (1917) and Die spanische Nachtigall (1920), with Bruno Seidler-Winkler conducting.

These fabulously restored historical marvels tell a different tale of operetta, a version that makes it possible – for modern listeners – to understand why these shows and their stars were such a sensation in their time. Something that’s not quite possible to comprehend when you listen to Annette Dasch sing “Joseph, ach Joseph” from Madame Pompadour. It’s no serious alternative to Massary and her husband Max Pallenberg singing the same duet – one of the all-time classics of the operetta (and Fall) discography. It has an edginess missing from many modern operetta recordings and publications.

But you can say, Stefan Frey has pointed the way for a next generation of operetta researchers. There is obviously a lot of long neglected material available; it just needs to be interpreted without fear. A daunting task, but a worthwhile one. Maybe a task to be taken up by an English language writer, to make it possible to re-appreciate Fall’s oeuvre outside of Germany and Austria once more?