Operetta Research Center
16 Febuary, 2021
Austrian author and feminist activist Marlene Streeruwitz spoke out against the patriotic “kitsch culture” in her homeland in an interview that caused quite a stir. Among other things she attacked the genre operetta as sexist and racist, and demanded that Johann Strauss’ Zigeunerbaron should be taken out of circulation. The piece will be presented after the Corona lockdown in a Tobias Kratzer production at Komische Oper Berlin, where they changed the title to Der “Zigeuner”baron after the talk show Die letzte Instanz on German TV had caused (yet another) heated debate about the term “Zigeuner.” We spoke with conductor Florian Ziemen, a dedicated researcher and performing-practice-specialist of operettas. He is also GMD (general music director) at Theater für Niedersachsen in Hildesheim. In 2018 he presented a New Year’s concert there entitled “Spiel, Zigeuner!” (“Play, Gypsy”).
Marlene Streeruwitz claims operettas are racist and sexist. In particular, she’s referring to Zigeunerbaron. You did a “Spiel, Zigeuner!” concert. Why did you choose such a triggering title?
It was my first New Year’s concert as GMD in Hildesheim. It’s an important social event in town, performed for a total of seven times. I had read that Hildesheim is the oldest Sinti settlement in northern Germany. This led to the triangular thought: Johann Strauss for New Year – “Zigeuner” – Sinti. As we all know, there’s a lot of “gypsy” themed operetta music that can be performed in a New Year’s concert, much more than just Zigeunerbaron. If we had just done this, we would have been performing songs about a group of people who have a complicated and often painful history, music that presents clichés that are outdated, if not racist. That is the kind of obliviousness that is not up-to-date. So our basic idea for Hildesheim was to confront such clichés with actual Sinti and Roma musicians on the podium. We invited a fantastic cymbalom soloist from Budapest, Balogh Kálmán, who is a Rom, and Sascha and Kussi Weiss, two guitarists from the local Sinti music scene, to appear in the second half of the concert and perform alone as well as together with the orchestra.
The basic setting of any concert is that the audiences look up to the performers on stage and cheer them ecstatically, which is what happened with our brilliant musicians. But the admiration of the audience was now in sharp contrast to the hierarchical title “Spiel, Zigeuner!” (Play, Gypsy) as well as to the first concert half from which the title was taken. We wanted our audience to reflect how they accepted the conventional “gypsy” titles by Kalman, Strauss and others, and how the images this music creates held up with reality when actual “gypsies” performed their real music. You might call this a V-Effekt à la Brecht, making the audience rethink their prejudices. This is very simple, but what I liked about it, is that the two concert halves confronted one another, without taking anything away from either half. You could enjoy the music from both parts, but you started a dialogue between them.
In preparation for the concert you spoke with your local Sinti representatives. What did they think about the “Zigeuner”?
We chose the title in accordance with the local Sinti representatives, who were in favour of using the word. Of course, I know that there are contrasting positions in the community. But my point is not to defend a controversial word. Because of the provocatively condescending title I think it was clear to everyone that we challenged the term and put it, and its use, under scrutiny. Ideally, everybody in the audience went home with real-life experiences regarding this terminology, about the difference between the past and now, and I hope no one afterwards will not use the word again in an oblivious way.
Was there a public controversy?
Our concerts, with the chosen titles and performers, felt very right for everyone involved. We presented the historic clichés as historic, confronting them with contemporary realities. And the concerts themselves were very touching, fresh and joyful, the success was unanimous. Surprisingly, there was no controversy at all!
Is that your answer to Marlene Streeruwitz?
It is great that there is a broad debate today about how we want to live together respectfully and how we want to deal with our and with other cultures. It’s a discussion that now includes many previously unheard or ignored voices. That’s important! But the statement by Ms Streeruwitz represents an unfortunate aspect of recent developments. She combines a moral high horse position with a demand to ban art works, based on a superficial and undifferentiated argument. That is a recipe for being unhelpful in this debate.
What do you mean?
Her accusations are extremely broad, directed against the entire genre operetta which she even calls anti-Semitic. This is bizarre, considering that most authors, composers and performers from the early 20th century were Jewish and left a strong Jewish mark on the art form. But the main thing is: we don’t know what precisely she is referring to when she talks about racism and sexism in operetta. Did she read the scores and libretti? Or is she talking about performances she saw? My guess is that her judgment is based on typical Austrian operetta performances of the last decades. But to equate such performances with the works themselves – especially in the context of this debate – is a big problem. Because anyone who has ever bothered to take a closer look knows that the performance tradition of operetta is often terrible, particularly in Austria. It tends to celebrate all the things that Streeruwitz brands as kitschy and stereotypical. Criticizing such a performance practice would be totally legitimate. But instead she criticizes the pieces which themselves are suffering from such a performance practice.
Could her criticism change the performance practices?
Such blatant and generalized accusations will not bring a single person who loves the works in question enter into a debate about racism or sexism. On the contrary, it will most likely provoke a strong counter reaction. People will fear that something might be taken away from them by “cancelling” the respective works. After all, Streeruwitz suggests “toxic” works should be put away for 20 years at the very last.
The other work she wants taken out of circulation is Die lustige Witwe. Would it really be so terrible to not have Merry Widows and Gypsy Barons for two decades?
I agree with her that these works contain disturbing elements. But it’s wrong to ban them, based on extremely generalized notions. It would serve us better as a society to differentiate and to accept the challenges these operettas pose. Merry Widow is from 1905, from the peak of the suffragette movement. It’s surely not just “sexist,” just like Zigeunerbaron with its often very positive portrayal of “gypsies” is not just “racist.” However, many mindless productions are. They are the problem here.
Obviously, there’s an audience for such productions. Are the members of that audience all racist and sexist?
Audiences tend to accept a lot, and in operetta we have the problem that for more than a lifetime people have been told that the post-WW2 performance tradition is what operetta as a genre is. After all it’s us – the people doing operetta – who should know better. We are the experts. Ideally, we should take the audience on a journey, taking their needs as a starting point, even fulfilling them, but then taking them onwards on a path of discovery that is empathic, up-to-date, and conscious of history.
Bertram K. Steiner entitled his 1997 essay “Operetta as Pain Killer,” referring to Austrian performance practices and the way an “existentialist” audience consumed works such as Csardasfürstin, Zigeunerbaron et al after the horrors of World War 2…
We have to be aware where this started: after the buzz, creativity, even subversiveness that surrounded operetta in its prime, it was the Nazis who put an end to this. Using operettas as pain killer and amnesia, to relax after a hard day’s work, was proposed by Hans Severus Ziegler in 1939 in Reclams Operettenführer. He was the man who created the infamous Entartete Musik exhibition. We must make clear that these are misconceptions! A number of important operetta artists died in concentration camps! Knowing the history really makes it – apart from the artistic side – ethically wrong to still participate in this “tradition”. As a conductor I wouldn’t want to do this, and the supposed need of the public for such traditions is a very poor excuse. But also the critique of Streeruwitz fell right into that trap!
Is a typical operetta audience – as described by Steiner – capable of up-to-date reflection and a journey to new ways of enjoying the genre?
Yes, and it has been proven possible many times over by great productions. If you doubt this you doubt any capability of art. People in general can be touched, inspired to think, be empathic. But the performers have to sit down, too, and consider which bridges they can build for the audience to keep them interested. That mostly works via the piece itself. People come to see a particular operetta. So you need to draw them in as intensely as possible. But that doesn’t exclude presenting the content of a show in a contemporary way which resonates with what is going on outside of the theatre.
Isn’t critical reflection what most modern stage directors do?
Following the “traditional” way of thinking about the genre, there are still many directors who feel that they have to choose between catering to – assumed – audience expectations, or making a controversial artistic point. In which case they often take it as a given fact from the outset that the piece in question is bad, because it contains problematic aspects. This results in using the entire show – or even the genre – as nothing more than a door mat. This leaves a great void. The piece is not allowed to happen. And the “traditional” segment of the audience is disappointed and angry. That cannot be the solution.
Why play operettas at all, if they are supposedly out of date and out of touch?
One aspect is: operettas are a great asset for us as theatre people because many audience members have a strong connection with them. There are powerful emotional histories. So a lot can happen in a performance, if we tap into that history. That’s what happened in our New Year’s concert. We played the pieces the audience loves and expected. There was “Heia in den Bergen” from Csardasfürstin and “Komm, Zigan” from Gräfin Mariza. But we didn’t stop there, we went further. That doesn’t have to be a painful process. On the contrary, it’s an expanding process, opening doors and new perspectives.
Young people don’t have an emotional history with operetta. Often, they don’t even know the works. Is the inclusion of topics such as racism, gender, colonialism etc. a chance to interest a new generation in the genre?
When operetta is done well, it gives – more than any other genre – room for something that I find incredibly valuable: ambiguity. The exaggerated, often grotesque style of singing, acting and music making that claims one thing and undermines it at the same time can touch the very bottom of your soul, can be deeply moving because it’s deeply human. Human affairs are mostly entwined, mixed up and chaotic. And many of the racism and sexism questions are, too.
In which way?
Within the current discussions about all these “-ism” topics we can see an enormous longing for clarity and certainty. But many things are – and will remain – contradictory. It is absolutely right to point out racist and sexist injustices, today and historically, and to deal with painful experiences past and present in a respectful way. At the same time, we see this leading to a massive emphasis of “group criteria” like skin colour, ethnic origin, gender and sexual orientation. Which is diametrically opposed to the ideal of an equal society. Art has different, sometimes better, means to express such paradoxes and dilemmas than rational discourse. I believe we need to train the ability to endure ambiguities. There is no easy way out. Not playing problematic pieces presents a supposedly easy way out that doesn’t really exist. We need to address and discuss these issues. That’s what art is for.
Your colleague Adam Benzwi has often said that it’s an advantage to play unknown works, because the audience does not have fixed expectations as with Lustige Witwe or Fledermaus, not to mention Zigeunerbaron. You could easily start a discussion about racism and colonialism with other works too: Franz von Suppé’s Afrikareise for example.
Of course there’s greater freedom when you perform lesser known pieces, and there is an enormous amount of titles worth rediscovering. And I’m sure that Afrikareise would be an tough challenge with all the colonial elements it contains, reflecting the zeitgeist of the late 19th century. But we make it too much about the words: to theatre there is more than that! Operettas were written in an era that celebrated the art of performance. There was electricity between the actors on stage and the audience. Many of the political and social messages of a show were transported via the way actors connected with their audience. The works themselves and their music are often simple, structurally speaking, not because the composers were untalented or dumb, but because the performers needed space to communicate with the audience. And that’s something you can – and should – revive, fill the gaps with today’s nuances and shadings.
Isn’t the magic of operettas that they turn reality upside down and shift the world to a topsy turvy level of fantasy?
And when that magic works the characters take me to places where I normally wouldn’t go. Which starts a whole series of questions … If I find that a song isn’t clear enough in its positioning towards sexism, gender or whatever, then the material is incredibly flexible and open. It allows for many interpretations with all sorts of attitudes. I don’t have to sing “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” like Richard Tauber or “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt” like Marlene Dietrich if I find this unsuitable for today. Tobias Kratzer recently spoke in a radio interview about the ambiguous implications of “So elend und so treu” from Zigeunerbaron, and he chose Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s classic recording. That is old stuff, you don’t have to do it like her! Kratzer emphasized that and he’s right. Theatre always happens in the present tense, regardless of when the pieces were written. And I need to find a present-day approach when I perform these shows, highlighting the aspects that are important in society at any given moment.
Why is there rarely anything like electricity in operetta performances today?
There are some fantastic exceptions, but in general you’re right. Many performers don’t utilize the freedom operettas allow. Opera singers are usually not trained to fill gaps in the structure of a work with their own individuality. The element of exaggeration and larger-than-life craziness is deeply inherent to operetta, but we as classical musicians are too much taught to always dutifully follow the instructions of the composer, to do things correctly or, positively put, to serve the composer. That can work fine if you have a structurally strong work by Wagner or Mozart. But in the case of operettas, with all their liberties and intentional gaps left for the performers to fill with their personality, that is a problem. If a singer doesn’t fill the gaps it leaves a huge emptiness.
As a conductor, you’ve been a champion of “historically informed performance practice” for operetta, ever since you presented your groundbreaking version of Der Vetter aus Dingsda in Bremen, based on the original handwritten Künneke score. Does a re-focussing on original scores and scripts help when we want to overcome racism and sexism accusations with regard to operetta?
There’s a musicological side to this, since these pieces were done in the sloppiest way for long time, undermining their musical qualities. But the main point is something else: trying to unearth how operettas sounded and were interpreted before they became something for keeping the elderly off the streets is helping to find out what operetta is and can be. For establishing the principles that I spoke of before and for trying to find ways that performances get playful, ambiguously dazzling, experimental, and daring to touch current debates, for this the historic research teaches invaluable lessons. That the singing can be highly individual and should be so much freer than in opera, that the freedom of the tempo rubato can contribute so much in shaping a character on stage and a message, that an operetta orchestra can sound – particularly in the 20th century works – as experimental, troubling and exciting as the time was when these things were written – this has fundamentally to do with the meaning of the genre itself.
For decades no one asked disturbing questions about operettas, and the genre lay there like Sleeping Beauty, undisturbed and pretty, but irrelevant and unexciting. Is the fact that “Cancel Culture” has reached the genre a chance for things to change?
You can see this as a chance, yes. Especially since other aspects, such as cultural appropriation, are being included in the discussion. It’s our responsibility as theatre people to turn this into a constructive discussion. To include, if possible, members of the groups that are talked about on and behind the stage is always a good idea. And if you only allow for thumps up or thumps down you are not going to get very far. We need to face history, confront the abyss that opens up and learn from the good things. In this sense, taking an extreme example, finding a way to perform a piece like “Bin nur ein Johnny, fahr durch die Welt” from Abraham’s Blume von Hawaii from 1931 – a melancholic song that speaks about the hardship of black musicians but is full of problems including the N-word – becomes a challenge that should ideally engage many of today’s societal struggles.
What about historic documents that are “fixed” and cannot be changed anymore, recordings of Blume von Hawaii, Zigeunerbaron or Lustige Witwe? They mirror the attitudes of their times… attitudes many today find highly problematic.
Every “dissonance” contains a learning potential. I believe it’s wise to deal with historic performances, even if they don’t fit our modern standards of moral and language. We should analyse how things have changed, why they have changed, when they changed, and what caused the changes… That sharpens our senses and our intellect. Just like listening to people who have different opinions. You can’t just cancel them either, and you shouldn’t try to do so.
It always depends on how you look at things, and whether you’re willing to take the trouble to look closely at all. In Zigeunerbaron it’s possible to see Czipra as an empowering feminist role model, instead of a racist caricature.
It’s fully valid to see Czipra as an empowering, feminist character who is a single mother, who has created an existence for herself and her daughter outside of mainstream society, who makes money from her secret knowledge as a fortune teller. But you don’t have necessarily to look out for empowering role models, actually they are less interesting than questionable characters like Zsupán or Barinkay. Because you can portray them in a way that stimulates reflection and leads to rethinking. You can look at them and their problematic sides, their shortcomings, with a loving gaze and an understanding of human – and historic! – deficiency. I personally believe developing such an empathic view on each other – together with improving the real world! – is helping more to overcome racial and gender injustices than ever more sophisticated prescriptions on wordings and terms.