“Lustige Witwe”: Barrie Kosky Tackles the “Führer’s” Favorite Operetta in Zurich

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
6 April, 2023

In the past, Barrie Kosky has shunned the works of Franz Lehár. His operetta focus has been on works by Jewish authors who had been branded “degenerate” by the Nazis, works that had disappeared after 1933 and that Kosky brough back to modern times with a splash. Lehár – as the official favorite composer of the “Führer” who loved Witwe above all else, even Wagner– did not fit into that revival project. But now Kosky will direct his first Lustige Witwe, of all (unlikely) pieces, at the Opera Zurich in 2024.

Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper Berlin. (Photo: Jan Windszus Photography)

Barrie Kosky, former artistic director of the Komische Oper Berlin. (Photo: Jan Windszus Photography)

In the brochure for the 2023/24 season we read, that Mr. Kosky will stage this over-popular piece – but not with his usual aides-de-camp Adam Benzwi (conductor) and Otto Pichler (choreography), also without his tested star actors Dagmar Manzel, Max Hopp and Katharine Mehrling, though they’d surely be fabulous as Hanna, Danilo and Valiencienne. (The question would be: who plays what? Hopp as Valenicienne and Mehrling as Danilo would be a treat, considering how brilliantly Mr. Hopp played Lucy in Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will and how Miss Mehrling plays the cross-dressed Daisy in Ball im Savoy!)

Instead, the preview brochure lists Marlis Petersen as Glawari and Michael Volle as Graf Danilo, i.e. a totally traditional – some might say unoriginal – cast. (Petersen sang the role in Frankfurt previously and also recorded it, for more information click here.) Andrew Owens is scheduled to play Camille de Rossillon next to Katharina Konradi as Valencienne. Martin Winkler is Baron Mirko Zeta.

Conductor Patrick Hahn. (Photo: Alexander Maria Dhom / CC BY 4.0)

Conductor Patrick Hahn. (Photo: Alexander Maria Dhom / CC BY 4.0)

The production will be conducted by 27 year old Patrick Hahn who became the youngest music director (GMD) in the German speaking world in 2021/22 in Wuppertal. In the past he has shown an interest in jazz and the chansons of Georg Kreisler. (Always a good starting point for Viennese operetta.) The sets will be by Klaus Grünberg and costumes by Gianluca Falaschi. Instead of Otto Pichler, Kim Duddy will be in charge of the choreography, a woman who has worked with Bob Fossse and who has been associated with Cats in the past. Fabio Dietsche is the dramaturg for this Lustige Witwe.

It remains to be seen whether Kosky will highlight the “Yiddish” side of the show, as heard on the 1905 original cast recordings from Vienna with Louis Treumann and Mizzi Günther, or on the complete 1907 recording from Berlin (with all the dialogue presented in a very different kind of way than most people today would call even remotely “traditional”).

The cover of the Truesound Transfers "Lustige Witwe" album.

The cover of the Truesound Transfers “Lustige Witwe” album.

It will also be interesting to see if Kosky and Hahn will utilize elements from the recent attempt to reconstruct the famous jazz version of Lustige Witwe which Erik Charell created for Fritzi Massary in 1928. That reconstruction by Grimminger & Hagedorn was presented at the opera in Dortmund not too long ago. With somewhat mixed results.

Another interesting thought might be that Kosky quotes Harry Kupfer who famously staged Lustige Witwe before the collaps of the DDR in 1986 at Komische Oper with a new setting of the story in Nazi times, towards the end of WW2. In the finale, bombs dropped onto the stage and destroyed this whole decadent and contaminatedoperetta world.

This approach could easily be turned into a “Springtime for Hitler” moment of epic Mel Brooks proportions, a style very close to Mr. Kosky in certain ways. So let’s see what dramaturg Fabio Dietsche comes up with.

The "Springtime for Hitler" scene from the Mel Brooks musical "The Producers", with John Barrowman as a blond Nazi character. (Photo: YouTube /  jotauve)

The “Springtime for Hitler” scene from the Mel Brooks musical “The Producers”, with John Barrowman as a blond Nazi character. (Screenshot: YouTube / jotauve)

The opening night of the new Kosky production is 11 February, 2024. There are 11 further performances until 14 March, 2024.

For more information, click here.

There are 3 comments

  1. Kurt Gänzl

    Thats not ‘original’ casting! That’s over-operatic casting. Love Volle .. but rather as the Dutchman or Rigoletto. Kevin, both you and I have played Danilo in our time .. I would have died to have (had) a voice like Volle … but why is he playing a role written for a ligt baritone-almost tenor. I hope Ive got this wrong!


    Let’s our dear WITWE by ‘lustige’ and not something else as too many directors do to enjoy not the work they stage but only their egocentrismo. Uffa and uffa and uffa again …

  3. Peter

    Sad enough:
    In nowadays Regie Theater you can‘t expect an enjoying operetta evening anymore.
    The “esprit” of today – maybe there are exceptions – is completely against this type of music and stories.
    Most of the singers don’t have the authentic operetta feeling in their blood any more as it still was in the 1950ies and 1960ies.
    And the egocentric stage directors usually don’t have other solutions than to destroy the operetta, to make it ugly, monstrous and ridiculous, always pretending an intellectual interpretation. (Why don’t they stay away from this type of music and focus on contemporary music???)
    What a bullshit (pardon!)
    Every more or less intelligent and interested operetta goer knows what she/he is seeing and is able to interpret it and to integrate it in its context (sometimes the subject is even timeless and still valid nowadays)
    And if she/he wants to know something about daily problems or dark historical events one can consult newspapers, books, internet and television and doesn‘t want to have it during an operetta evening which should be entertaining first of all and not educational in an obtrusive way)
    What a stupid and arrogant attitude of many of our theatre people to deform and manipulate so many gorgeous pieces pretending to disdust them and interpreting things in a tasteless way although the evidence is already there, but in a much more subtle way!
    I live in Zurich and I will attend the operetta presentations this season all the same without expecting a treat concerning the “mise en scene” only to be able to hear the music live again which I usually know only from compact discs and youtube.
    Concerning Barrie Kosky:
    The end justifies the mean:
    If something generates money one can easily switch to an other attitude.
    And all at a sudden Lehár is welcome…
    What a luck that we still have the excellent recordings with Schwarzkopf, Güden and others where the operetta is represented in the most splendid way without ridiculous “arrières pensées”…