Articles & Essays

Rediscovering Operetta — and Overcoming the Nazi Shadow

By Dr. Kevin Clarke

How did this happen? Or more importantly: how could it happen? How did the up-to-date, cheeky, cosmopolitan art form known as ”operetta“ become transformed from a popular, commercial genre into the old-fashioned, state subsidized, sexually repressed waltz-and-schmaltz entertainment that it is usually seen as today? There are several answers to these questions. Although there is a somewhat different explanation for the shift in the United States, in the German speaking world the line that divides operetta history into a ”before“ and ”after“ is the year 1933.

Let's take a step back and look at the original — or ”authentic“ — form of the genre. The French operettas of Jacques Offenbach, which conquered the world in the 1850s and ’60s and established this new form of musical theater internationally, were grotesquely exaggerated, anti-realistic sex farces for rich, upper class gentlemen and their demi-monde companions. (We can read all about this in Emil Zola's novel Nana.) The shows presented a witty commentary on the socio-political situation of the Second Empire, and the authors loved ridiculing the moral standards of the newly empowered bourgeoisie. As a result, these early operettas are characterized by a liberal use of eroticism, verging on the pornographic, and the inclusion of the latest scandalous dance crazes: the can-can in Paris and the sensual waltz in Vienna. After 1918, American jazz, the dernier cri, was what every self-respecting operetta composer from Emmerich Kálmán and Eduard Künneke to Bruno Granichstaedten and Paul Ábrahám included in his scores. Ábrahám's Die Blume von Hawaii (1931) became the most successful stage work of the Weimar Republic.

Almost all European operetta composers in those years looked to Broadway and the operettas of Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml and Vincent Youmans as models: they imported American rhythms and themes into Germany and Austria. This transatlantic symbiosis led to the genre's heyday and creative peak.

But it all changed after January 30, 1933.

Contrary to popular belief, there was no official black list for shows when Hitler's regime came to power, the sole exception having been Leo Fall's Der fidele Bauer, which was prohibited after protests by the Reichsbauernführer, who claimed that the operetta did not properly represent the German farmer. Instead of issuing official bans, the newly installed Reichsdramaturg, Dr. Rainer Schlösser, invited theater directors to his office for one-on-one meetings during which the new guide lines were explained. After the 1934-35 season, all theater programming had to be presented to the Propaganda Ministry for approval, but the planning and organization of theater seasons remained the sole responsibility of the theater directors themselves. The fact that they ”voluntarily“ took shows out of circulation and that many Jewish artists ”voluntarily“ fled from Germany soon after January 1933 was a direct consequence of the so called Wilde Massnahmen (wild actions) organized by radical Nazi groups: they stormed into theaters, screamed and threw eggs and other objects at performers, beat up artists after performances and caused chaos all around. Although not a single official decree was issued, many directors, if they stayed in Germany at all, immediately changed their repertoire so as not to provoke such incidents in their houses. As a result, the repertoire and casting of operetta theaters changed swiftly.

A discussion of operetta in Nazi times involves three basic varieties of the form: (1) revue operettas and revue operetta films, such as the popular UFA movies starring Johannes Heesters and Marika Rökk (Gasparone, Clivia, Maske in Blau etc.). All of these shows continued the tradition of the 1920s jazz operettas but avoided the more avant-garde style of the music of Paul Ábrahám or Kurt Weill and the open sexuality of the lyrics of Fritz Löhner-Beda and Alfred Grünwald; (2) operettas ”elevated“ to opera status and presented with famous opera singers and renowned symphony orchestras, such as the Wiener Philharmoniker, playing Lehár or re-discovered older works by Johann Strauss, Carl Millöcker, Carl Michael Ziehrer, Franz von Suppé  and others; (3) nostalgic Singspiele that avoided all modernist tendencies and transported the viewer back to the ”good old days:“ Ännchen von Tharau, Hofball in Schönbrunn or Liebe in der Lerchengasse (including their respective film versions).

Since the entertainment industry of the Weimar Republic was considered a Verwesungserscheinung — something that was rotting from within, like an illness — the Reichsdramaturg recommended playing the ”ennobling“ nineteenth-century Viennese waltz operettas as a cure. These older titles were forthwith labeled ”Golden Operettas,“ and many long-forgotten works, such as Der Obersteiger, were suddenly put back on stage. These shows were given performances by the best available opera singers and were packaged as Spielopern, equal to the comic operas of Gaetano Donizetti (Don Pasquale) or Albert Lortzing (Der Wildschütz, Zar und Zimmermann).

Hans Severus Ziegler explained this equation and the new ideal in his introduction to the popular Reclams Operettenführer of 1939: ”The tasteful and musically cultivated operetta of older and newer times is nothing other than a modern singspiel and a sister of the farce [Schwank]. Obviously it would be desirable that in addition to current operetta treasures, the comic operas displaying the light-heartedness and real humor of Lortzing's Wildschütz were put on again, which would be in the interest of educating the tastes of the audience, their sense of style and their understanding of entertainment, the level of which should not be lowered any further.“

Such operatic re-interpretations of operetta were useful, also because private theaters eventually disappeared, and operettas were performed, for the most part, at state houses with opera singers whose characteristics were different than those of the multi-talented pre-1933 operetta actors. As a direct consequence, the formerly booming commercial theater world of Berlin and Vienna — once equal to London's West End or New York's Broadway — disappeared. Operettas no longer followed the dictate of audiences's tastes; they followed standards set by cabinet ministers and their political agendas.

Another advantage of returning to the classic Viennese operettas was the fact that most of those works' composers were not Jewish, and it was easy to eliminate Jewish librettists' names from playbills since the authors in question were already dead. Another side-effect that was positive, from the Nazis' point of view, was that no royalties had to be paid to composers and librettists in exile.

Yet audiences accustomed to syncopated rhythms and Hollywood film musicals, which were still playing in Germany until 1939, did not wish to see only taste-refining classics in their theaters. A substitute for the former jazz operettas had to be found, and this need helped the careers of many second-rate composers who were now given a chance to be heard. The tradition of Ábrahám's operettas was continued by Frey Raymond, whose Maske in Blau copies Ábrahám's Ball im Savoy and whose Salzburger Nockerln is a replica of Im weissen Rössl/White Horse Inn. An additional benefit:  already extant costumes and sets could be re-used for these new works that followed old patterns. As a substitute for Kálmán's Gräfin Mariza there was Nico Dostal's Ungarische Hochzeit; as a substitute for Leon Jessel's Schwarzwaldmädel there was Dostal's Monika; and so on. In his book Kulturgeschichte der Operette, Bernard Grun writes: ”The new generation of composers proved — without exception — to be incapable of living up to the situation. Not one of the new works created in those years managed to achieve more that ephemeral importance.“

One example of the ideological change that immediately occurred in 1933 is Heinrich Strecker's Ännchen von Tharau; the piano score of this work contains the warning remark: ”Avoid anything jazz-like!” Instead of syncopated rhythms and frivolous songs, there are six stomping marches by Brandenburg regiments: ”Our Fatherland is in danger. Give your heart and hand to the Fatherland. Say goodbye to your beloved, even if it hurts. Whatever happens, we will protect our Land.“

Even more radical was Rudolf Kattnigg's Prinz von Thule (1936), a battleship sailing into the smooth new operetta seas. The crew sings: ”If the proud flag leads the way, for the Lion's banner, every man stands ready for the courageous fight.” Not coincidentally, this number was highly reminiscent of Baldur von Schirach's famous Hitler Youth march.

In Kattnigg's Balkanliebe a chorus, added in 1938, celebrates the annexing of Austria: ”Children, isn't it unbelievable that now from every house and tree in Vienna German flags are happily waving in the wind! Who could have guessed that this could happen? Is it a dream? No! It is wonderful reality. The whole of Austria is proudly welcoming the new time. And all bells high up on St. Stephen's cathedral are loudly proclaiming it.“

Until the outbreak of World War II, many foreign musical films played in Germany and Austria. To demonstrate the superiority of ”Aryan“ operetta, Nazi operetta films had to equal or surpass Hollywood productions, and the stage versions also had to compare favorably with their American counterparts. The best remaining popular musicians in Germany were commissioned to write songs for these enterprises. An ideal example is the film version of Gasparone, made in 1937, with Marika Rökk and Johannes Heesters presenting a re-worked Millöcker score by Peter Kreuder, who went on to adapt The Merry Widow, with Heesters as Danilo, for the Theater am Gärtnerplatz; this became Hitler's favorite version of his favorite operetta. One could argue that such adaptations are similar to what Erik Charell or Hermann Haller had done with their jazz-updates of The Merry Widow or Csardasfürstin in the 1920s, except that now everything had become amazingly chaste and less radical, and the plots, instead of being moved into the present (as with Charell/Haller), took place in the nondescript Nirvana into which all ”modern“ operettas were exiled — close enough to seem contemporary, but remote enough to be unthreatening. This eventually led many to believe that operetta was escapist and irrelevant. A formerly cosmopolitan entertainment for sophisticated urban audiences was now redefined as an art form for ”those wider circles of the population that are caught up in the hard battles of life and are thankful for simple forms of musical relaxation” (Ziegler). The idea that operetta is entertainment for the poor stems from these years: this ideal stands in total opposition to the original character of the operettas written by Offenbach, Suppé and Strauss in nineteenth-century Paris, Vienna and Berlin.

Operetta as Resistance

Many composers driven into exile continued writing after 1933; most of them did so in Vienna until 1938. Since the authentic form of operetta always aimed to be up-to-date, the works written in exile picked up current topics, such as the new situation in Germany. One example is Ábrahám's Märchen vom Grand Hotel, which is about a royal family driven into exile; they sit around in a hotel lobby waiting to return home and reclaim their kingdom. In 1937 Ábrahám wrote the football ”vaudeville operetta“ Roxy und ihr Wunderteam that ridicules the new Nazi ideals of cleanliness, hero worship and race, by showing the lust-driven side of humanity, laughing at the sports image the Nazis had propagated a year earlier at the Olympic Games and enshrined by Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia movies. In Roxy, an entire team of football players and female gymnasts cannot focus on sport, because all they think about is sex. They sing about it in black walks, shimmies, fox-trots, and all the ”degenerate“ rhythms forbidden in Germany. Roxy turned out to be the swan-song of authentic German-language operetta. Its film version, starring Rosy Barsony and Oscar Denes, came out in Austria one week before the Anschluss and disappeared immediately. It was not re-discovered until the new millennium. The stage show itself was not seen in a German theater until November 2014: the Nazis cast a long shadow.

On the Other Side

English and American composers also created works dealing with the new situation in Germany. One of them was Ivor Novello, whose The Dancing Years (1939) tells the story of a Jewish operetta composer in Vienna who is arrested by the Nazis, whose music is forbidden from one day to the next and who escapes deportation and death only at the very last minute. This operetta was exceptionally successful in England, but it has never been seen or heard in Germany or Austria.

On the other side of the Atlantic, exiled operetta artists also dealt with the new political landscape in Europe. Emmerich Kálmán worked with Lorenz Hart on Miss Underground, a 1943 show set in occupied Paris that ridicules the Nazi forces who are outwitted by a clever female agent of the Resistance. One could argue that this show continues the tradition of Hellzapoppin (1938), by Sammy Fain and Charles Tobias. Unfortunately, it was never completed, and the extant songs still await their world-premiere.

Turning Away

Most of the works and background stories presented here have been ignored by the German and Austrian operetta scene since the war. Many considered it inconceivable that in the glitter-and-be-gay world of operetta anything as horrid as the Holocaust could play a role. They simply turned a blind eye to anything that might be considered controversial, making operetta as a genre appear even more harmless than the Nazis had done. Additionally, any attempt by those exiled operetta composers who returned to Europe after 1945, trying to re-establish a modern operetta tradition, was boycotted. When Emmerich Kálmán wanted to present his final operetta, a wild cowboy piece called Arizona Lady, which sings of the glories of the new world, theater directors in Germany, Austria and Switzerland turned him down, claiming that audiences wanted only folkloric pieces with a Hungarian flavor from him, not American-style musical comedy, which might have heralded a fresh start for the operetta scene in central Europe.

It was not until 2005 that a conference, Operette unterm Hakenkreuz (Operetta under the Swastika), addressed some of the more pressing issues discussed here. Later exhibitions, such as Welt der Operette (2012), at the theater museums in Vienna and Munich, presented the genre as it existed under the Nazis and analyzed it critically. In everyday performances of operetta in Germany and Austria, however, the Spieloper ideal as well as the ”mindless entertainment“ approach are still alive and kicking, Lortzing figuring prominently in the repertoire of all major operetta theaters (as well as in the famous EMI post-war opera/operetta series starring Anneliese Rothenberger, Fritz Wunderlich et al.). Only very recently have stage director such as Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper Berlin shown that there once was another way of playing operetta and that this way is worth rediscovering, by explicitly harking back to the pre-1933 ”Jewish“ tradition of Ábrahám, Kálmán, Strauss and Offenbach.

Most famous operetta films from pre-Nazi times — even those made in Austria or Hungary until 1938 — have never been issued commercially on DVD, whereas the movies of Marika Rökk and Johannes Heesters, despite their problematic ideological baggage, have been available for years in ”classics“ editions and have been broadcast frequently on German and Austrian TV ever since the 1950s. At least many historic pre-war sound recordings have meanwhile been restored and brought back into circulation; listening to Fritzi Massary, Max Hansen or Rosy Barsony helps us to understand what a glorious tradition was nearly lost. The rediscovery of these artists ultimately overthrows the malign influence of the Nazi regime on the wonderfully subversive art form that is operetta.

The Komische Oper Berlin, in explicitly re-connecting with that tradition, was voted ”opera house of the year“ by international critics of the magazine Opernwelt twice in a row. And it is even more significant that the operetta resurrections at the Komische Oper are constantly sold out. Modern cosmopolitan audiences seem to have made up their minds as to what to think of Paul Ábrahám, Oscar Straus and Emmerich Kálmán. Kálmán's Arizona Lady triumphed in Berlin in December 2014, with a superlative cast of new, non-operatic stars who were far removed from the ”ennobling“ Nazi approach and as unlike the Rökk/Heesters ideal as possible.

Editor's note:  Arizona Opera's new production of Kálmán's Arizona Lady is scheduled for five performances in Tucson and Phoenix in October 2015.

Dr. Kevin Clarke is Director of the Operetta Research Center Amsterdam.


Articles & Essays