Operetta Research Center
3 May, 2021
Rejoice greatly! There’s another big English language book on operetta, following last year’s Cambridge Companion to Operetta. This new publication is entitled The Operetta Empire and “examines Viennese operetta and identity from 1900 to 1930,” as author Micaela Baranello says. It’s a giant leap forward from Richard Traubner’s Operetta: A Theatrical History where we read in the last updated version of 2003 that the genre was “flowing champagne, ceaseless waltzing, … glittering ballgowns, romancing and dancing,” not to mention “sentiment and Schmalz.”
Instead of sentiment and Schmalz we now get a 235 page account of what characterizes the Viennese operetta industry. Given the space, Baranello goes into much more details than the authors of the respective essays in the Cambridge Companion who also cover the Viennese operetta industry, but also the broader German scene and the question of what happened to German language operetta after 1933/38 when the Nazis took over. Which is a fascinating topic Baranello only touches upon in passing.
The style is fluent and fun to read, Baranello is also a very informed author who quotes from many recent books and articles, showing that she’s very much aware of current debates surrounding a re-framing of the genre. It’s an aspect she deals with most extensively in the final chapter of her book: “Operetta in the Past Tense.” There, she compares the performance practices of operetta at Barrie Kosky’s Komische Oper in the 2010s with those at festivals in Bad Ischl or Mörbisch, or the style cultivated at Volksoper Vienna. She chooses to keep a diplomatic distance and doesn’t label anything as “good” or “bad” (as Volker Klotz did), instead she shows understanding and a certain love for a more nostalgic approach to the art form. But she puts it in historic context, pleading that both the modern and the retro style have their historic relevance.
One aspect, however, which is completely left out of the entire book is: sex. We get an intro which outlines how Jacques Offenbach’s works sparked the interest of the Viennese in operetta in the 1850s. Baranello writes: “What in Vienna was considered an Offenbachian style would continue to be a building block of operetta.” She talks about Offenbach’s “simple forms” and regular “melodic construction”, with the music making “a kind of anxious chatter, unfolding in short motives of straight eights or sixteenth in scalar motion.”
There is no mention of what Caroyln Williams analyses as the “parody style” that is basically a recycling and conscious quoting of others, for comic effect. There is no discussion why such a style of composing is extremely modern (as Williams outlines). And there is no mention of the fact that the original audience in Vienna didn’t really care about “straight eights or sixteenth,” instead there were debates about nude photos of the Helena actresses being on sale in downtown Vienna, not to mention the endless accusations that operetta à la Offenbach being morally questionable, shocking, taking forms of stage representation “to extremes” that had nothing to do with beautiful singing. We can read all about that in Offenbach und die Schauplätze seines Musiktheaters. We can’t read anything about it in The Operetta Empire. Which is a pity, because it would be interesting to ask how such a performance style – of operetta as pornography shown in theaters as brothels – might characterize the genre per se and differentiate it from opéra comique and Singspiel, which Baranello uses for immediate comparison.
She never wonders if the scandalous sexual side of early operetta – also with Suppé and Johann Strauss – might have been an important factor in making this new form of musical theater so popular. When Baranello moves into the early 20th century and Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe, we get a quote from the famous Felix Salten review in which he raves about this “modern” and up-to-date form of operetta. But we don’t get his observation that Lehár’s music makes us hear “carnal lust” or that Louis Treumann is an actor who successfully portrays ecstasy on stage, with ecstacy (and even hysteria) being what Witwe is all about, according to Salten.
Is this evasion the result of US-American prudery? Is it fear of ruining one’s reputation as a musicologist and assistant professor at the University of Arkansas? (We hope not.) Or did Baranello simply not find the sexual side of operetta interesting, despite that being the no. 1 aspect discussed in 19th century reviews?
Another aspect worth mentioning about the new book is the use of the “Gold” and “Silver” terminology. Baranello describes how that wording was first introduced by Franz Hadamowsky and Heinz Otte in their 1947 book Die Wiener Operette: “The authors intended the label as a bit of an insult to the later era, during which, they claimed, theater lost its ethical mission,” we read in The Operetta Empire. Baranello does not address the fact that this new gold/silver terminology supplanted the previous Nazi division of the genre into “Aryan” and “Degenerate” operetta, the former mostly applied to 19th century works by Strauss, Millöcker et al, the latter used to describe anything by Jewish composers following Lehár in the 20th century, i.e. exactly what is meant by gold and silver operetta. Considering how abreast Baranello is on most other debates, it’s slightly puzzling that she doesn’t deal with this problematic terminology and instead uses “Silver Age” operetta throughout without critical reflection. (For more information on this, click here.)
That said, it’s still a great read. And an important book that will hopefully move the debate about operetta in the USA forward. So that one day, soon, aspects that are on the agenda of general popular musical theater research – such as race, gender, religion, politics etc. – will be dealt with in an operetta context, too, by American authors.
And in case you’re wondering: the photo on the cover shows a scene from the original 1926 production of Emmerich Kalman’s Die Zirkusprinzessin at Theater an der Wien. We see the “little girls in their tricots,” driving the gentlemen visitors crazy with lust…