Michael H. Hardern
Operetta Research Center
17 March, 2017
There was a whiff of fresh air in the room at the Tanz-Signale 2015. The Wiener Institut für Strauss-Forschung had invited researchers from all over Europe to discuss the music of the Strauss family in Vienna. This year’s conference was dedicated to operetta, more precisely: to the librettist Victor Léon (1858-1940) who wrote Simplicius and Wiener Blut for Johann Strauss before becoming mega-famous for The Merry Widow in 1905.
The two-day conference was preceded by a so called “Wiener Vorlesung” at the imposing Festsaal of the Rathaus. There, Hans-Dieter Roser and Marion Linhardt both looked at “Viennese Operetta” from a decidedly erotic and gendered angle. This was especially fascinating in the case of Lindhardt’s “Diva versus Komiker: Johann Strauss und seine frühen Operetten zwischen Marie Geistinger und Alexander Girardi.” Lindhardt’s point was that the early Strauss works, written for superstar Marie Geistinger, presented strong and sexy women in the lead, following the example of Offenbach’s Paris operettas written for Hortense Schneider. When Geistinger withdrew from the operetta scene and comedian Alexander Girardi became the new alternative star, the operettas changed too. Instead of a central highly sexualized female lead, the focus was now on the male comedy role, or – as Linhardt pointed out – the two central male comedy roles, for example in Eine Nacht in Venedig where Girardi starred opposite Felix Schweighofer. This new male double-model substituted the female model of Belle Hélène and such-like women-centered operettas. Which obviously had far reaching consequences for the genre.
Instead of a singing vamp, you now needed two hilarious men to pull off the new productions. Girardi and Schweighofer were both no opera singers, but grotesque vaudevillians.
So, as a consequence, many of the operettas written for them only work, today, if you play out the comedy element and do not try to ennoble the shows with “operatic singing” – something they are definitely not about. Even if the music is stunningly beautiful.
Some of these “gender” and “style” topics were also discussed during the following two days at the University of Vienna, in the musicology department. Professor Michele Calella, head of the department, greeted the international guests and saw to it that there was ample food and drinks during the intervals. And some really amazing cakes!
The people who spoke at the conference basically came from two different worlds. On the one hand, there was the “old fashioned” Viennese crowd who spoke of “Stabilisierungsversuche der Psyche” (which roughly translates as “attempts to stabilize the psyche”) with regard to artists born after the 1848 revolution – claiming they all (!) longed for the good old times of pre-1848, and expressed this longing in their work. The example given here was Victor Léon and his operetta Wiener Blut. Another typical word used by this group of Strauss experts was “Redlichkeitsmaxime”: the ideal of “honorableness” in operetta. (Something Girardi & Schweighofer were certainly not busy with.)
As a counterpart to some rather imprecise and dry speeches by group one about the glory of Strauss and operetta in general, their ennobling nature and high art aspects, stood the talks by group two, made up by a younger generation of researchers.
Since the focus of these Tanz-Signale was in Victor Léon, the talk that must be mentioned first here is that by Barbara Denscher. She is currently working on the first fully fledged Léon biography, based on the documents in the archive of the music collection at the Rathaus: boxes and boxes filled with letters, transcripts, manuscripts and contracts. From the bits Miss Denscher presented at the conference it is clear that this will be a major new book and one we here at the Operetta Research Center look forward to reading. The writing process will be finished within two months, so there is a chance that the biography will be out in print towards the end of this year.
The other researcher talking about Léon was Marie Theres Arnbom. She, too, just wrote a book that deals with Victor Léon: Damals war Heimat. Die Welt des Wiener jüdischen Großbürgertums. This book is not strictly about operetta, but the rich Jewish world in Vienna before 1938. Léon and his family, the Hirschfelds, were part of that world, and Arnbom sketches the lives of all members of the Hirschfeld family, including Victor. It is a fascinating read and appetizer for the Denscher blockbuster that will follow soon.
Léon worked as editor of a women’s magazine for a few years, a magazine that was intensely busy with emancipation, the position of women in marriage and society. Many of these aspects are mirrored in the way Léon portrays the three female lead characters in Wiener Blut, as Kevin Clarke pointed out in his talk “Wiener Blut: Eine explosive Gender-Komödie ums Triebleben aller Beteiligten.” His ideas included a description of “sex addiction” in the role of Count Zedlau, and how Léon presents all the typical signs of such an addiction without ever calling it so. This caused some rather passionate reactions from group one. But it also led to the head of the German Johann Strauss Society asking to reprint the essay in the next Mitteilungsblatt der Deutschen Johann Strauss Gesellschaft.
In the end, it’s a positive sign that there is discussion and that there are different points of view worth taking into consideration.
There are, so much was obvious at the conference, two highly distinct ways of looking at Strauss and operetta. One that “stabilizes the psyche” and one that stimulates a modern mind. Both have their value and both are important.
Eduard Strauss, last living Strauss family member and organizer of the Tanz-Signale, pointed out that next year’s edition depends on who will win the election in Vienna this fall. A major change in politics could mean that there will be no more money for such events. If there is fresh money, the 2016 conference will be about “Strauss im Schatten: 100. Todestag von Eduard Strauss (1835-1916),” commemorating the centenary of Eduard Straus’s death. In his closing speech, Eduard Strauss Jr. pointed out that Leigh Bailey has written a new English language biography of Eduard Strauss and is looking for a publisher.