Operetta Research Center
11 June, 2020
In 1924 Betty Fischer created one of the greatest operetta roles of the 20th century: Gräfin Mariza in Emmerich Kálmán’s Viennese super hit. I remember reading the original reviews crediting the overwhelming success mostly to Hubert Marischka and Betty Fischer. Neues Wiener Tagblatt praised her “grand and powerful voice” (“große Gewaltstimme”) possessing the “noble timbre of a countess” while singing, but also her “resounding” speaking voice. When she created Die Zirkusprinzessin in 1926, also with Marschika as partner, Die Reichspresse speaks of her “enchanting vocal and acting abilities,” the Illustriertes Wiener Extrablatt called her singing “fragrant and tender,” delivered with “bravura”. Ever since reading those lines I have wondered what Miss Fischer actually sounded like, since I’ve never been able to find a single recording of hers.
This absence of available recordings was puzzling to me, as almost everyone else involved in Gräfin Mariza had major recording and film careers, be it Max Hansen, Hans Moser, or Hubert Marischka. Now, Truesound Transfers have released an album with 25 of her recordings from 1912 to 1953, which already indicates the enormous span of her career.
Betty Fischer was born in Vienna in 1887 and found her way to the stage after training to be a seamstress. I only mention this because she was later praised, again and again, for the glamorous costumes she wore, which made of a fashion icon.
After appearing as a lieder singer, director Wilhelm Karczag hired her in 1910 to appear at Theater an der Wien. There, she gave her successful debut in Leo Ascher’s Hoheit tanzt Walzer. You get to hear three tracks from that show, recorded shortly after the debut: it’s a slender voice of great beauty, easy top and an almost floating quality that is easy on the ear, yet never overblown or operatic in an Anna Moffo of Anna Netrebko way. It is also very one-dimensional in the sense that Miss Fischer doesn’t change her tone, and she certainly doesn’t play with words. Which explains why Neues Wiener Tagblatt longed for more “of those Massary variations” in 1924 when reviewing her Mariza. But even without such variations, her singing is highly seductive. And effective.
Hoheit tanzt Walzer was written by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, the two librettists who would later write those Kálmán hits. They also created nostalgic pieces such as Die gold’ne Meisterin for Eysler, with Miss Fischer in the title role.
While she can be heard on this album in many less familiar shows, from Der Husarengeneral by Carl Ziehrer to Der Bauerngeneral by Oscar Strauss, and while there are some famous numbers such as “Ich muss wieder einmal in Grinzing sein” by Ralph Benatzky or “Im Prater blüh’n wieder die Bäume” by Robert Stolz, there is a complete absence of Kálmán tracks. Well, almost. Because what you do get are two numbers from Der kleine König (1913) which are a real rarity under any circumstances. It’s one of Kalman’s big flops that was only recently rediscovered and put back onto the stage at the Ohio Light Opera, with a coinciding DVD release. (For more information on that production, click here.)
Here, you get Fischer with Max Willenz as the king (in “Hinweg jetzt mit der ganzen Königswürde”) and with comedian Ernst Tautenhayn (in “Im ersten Jahr wollen wir wohnen…”). That’s a treat, because Tautenhayn represents a buffo tradition that is entirely lost today. He is remarkable to listen to!
Most numbers were recorded in 1912/13, then there is one from 1920 (Der blaue Mazur by Franz Lehár), and then we move onto 1930 and the smash hit Walzer aus Wien by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Julius Bittner which became The Great Waltz in the United States.
So you bypass Fischer’s two top Kálmán roles, Mariza and Fedora. But at least you can now imagine what they probably sounded like: bathed in melancholia, a certain nostalgic flair, and an effortless delivery from top to bottom, and the other way round.
Since the recordings on this album span such a vast amount of time it’s astonishing that Fischer’s voice hardly ever changes, it retains its youthful loveliness throughout. And only in the very last track, Leo Fall’s “Guglhupflied” from Brüderlein fein, recorded in 1953, do you hear that the vocal chords have aged, even if the style has remained the same.
The other famous role missing on this album is her Nadja Nadjakowska from Granichstaedten’s Der Orlow, which she also created next to Hubert Marischka. I wonder if there are recordings still out there that Christian Zwarg might one day restore for Truesound Transfers, too, and also release in cooperation with the Gesellschaft für historische Tonträger (GHT Wien).
I assume they gave him the 1949 radio interview (2 minutes long) in which Miss Fischer is asked how she intends to teach operetta at the conservatory and why she thinks the current state of operetta affairs is so dismal. When she starts saying that she believes the war years (i.e. the Nazi time) are largely responsible and the new generation of composers that has arrived on the scene because of it is to blame, the female journalist stops her mid-sentence and moves onto the next topic. Because god forbid there might be a critical discussion (or any discussion) of the recent Nazi disaster.
If you read the letters of Kálmán and Grünwald, you’ll find one in which Kalman re-visits Vienna for the first time after the war in 1949 and says how delighted he was to see Betty Fischer. Grünwald replies: “My dear friend Imre. […] Of course Vienna is a very beautiful town, and I can imagine what a satisfaction is must have been to see all of that Nazi riffraff again – and I am not excepting anyone here (not even our friend Hubsi [Hubert Marischa]. […] Your description of the Backhändl dinner in your garden sounds spooky – with that wannabe Mozart Korngold present, who they seem to have kicked out of Hollywood. And, last but not least, good old Petty [sic] Fischer. Ghosts in a ghost town! I admit I’d love to see them, too, but I couldn’t breathe there for more than 14 days. […] I cannot forget that notorious ‘Vienna Week’ which all Viennese citizens participated in, without exception, after the Anschluss. The Viennese have always been anti-Semites of the worst and most stupid sort, and they still are today. No one call tell me anything different. I can almost hear them telling you in their sweet voices: ‘Dear maestro, we were never Nazis. How sorry we were that we had to miss you and your divine music!’ But I can also imagine what they’re saying behind your back.”
Grünwald was right about the latter part, Viennese newspaper actually demanded that Kálmán be dispossessed of his villa because “as a millionaire who was spared the horrors of war in the United States” – such a big house should go to the needy Austrians instead, who suffered so much. Kálmán replied to this in an article, claiming that he didn’t exactly leave Austria in 1938 out of his own free will and that he and his family suffered a great deal, too, during the years that followed. (He got to keep his villa.)
Betty Fischer, by the way, left Austria in 1938 even though she was not Jewish, as Marie-Theres Arnbom says in her short biography in the catalogue Welt der Operette (Wikipedia says the opposite). Fischer went to live in Luxemburg and returned in 1947 to become a professor at the conservatory, which prompted the aforementioned interview. She died in Vienna in 1969, leaving 23 suitcases filled with 900 exquisite dressed to her local town hall.
When Miss Arnbom and I curated the exhibition Welt der Operette for Theatermuseum Wien in 2012 we presented Fischer’s costume for Die Königin, an operetta by Oscar Straus. A photo of Miss Fischer in that costume graces the cover of our catalogue. And now, after so many years, I finally get to hear the royal voice that goes with the costume. That, to me, is an unbelievable treat!