The Merry Widow at the Met

Hanna’s wealth obviously went into her Pontevedran Tracht wardrobe.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Looking ahead, this year’s New Year’s Eve premiere at the Met is Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow). As you may know, Viennese operetta is my research specialty, and I was happy to be quoted by Zachary Woolfe in the Times preview of this production. A video from the production appears below. I’ll be going early in the New Year and look forward to writing about it here. There’s a long tradition of Broadway-style Witwes and it looks like this is going to be in that vein. I’m a bit ambivalent about another Jeremy Sams translation, but it makes sense to do it in English.

If you’d like to hear more about the operetta’s history, you can also read my academic article on this very topic, “Die lustige Witwe and the Creation of the Silver Age of Viennese Operetta,” which appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Cambridge Opera Journal. Here is the opening of my piece:

When Wilhelm Karczag first heard Franz Lehár’s score to Die lustige Witwe, he supposedly exclaimed, ‘Das is ka Musik! [That ain’t music!]’. The setting was Lehár’s own apartment on the Mariahilferstrasse in Vienna in the summer of 1905, a little before the operetta was to premiere at Karczag’s Theater an der Wien. This anecdote, not celebrated in print until 1924 and disputed by several of those who claim to have been present, makes Karczag the butt of a joke, for Die lustige Witwe was the music that would rule operetta for the next two and a half decades.  Karczag’s Hungarian accent—he had moved from Budapest only four years prior—is rendered phonetically, marking him as an outsider who could not hear what the rest of the Vienna later recognized.

Lehár’s audition for Karczag became an iconic event in Die lustige Witwe’s narrative as an underdog success. The operetta’s purportedly hostile initial reception, including not only the resistance of the theatrical management but also its ostensibly lukewarm opening night, positions it as a ‘Naturkind’—so radically different in tone from Karczag’s operetta habits that he was unable to recognize it as music. Against all odds, it emerged to conquer the theatrical world and launch what would become known as the Silver Age of Viennese operetta. This was a story told over and over again in Viennese newspapers. The shifting details in the retellings of this anecdote by those involved in the original production were, in large part, reflective of a dispute over ownership. Everyone—composer, librettists, impresarios, and actors—was eager to claim credit for (and preferably also some of the profits from) the greatest theatrical success of the time.

Continue here (PDF in Google Drive). If you have access to Cambridge University Press journals online (if you are reading this from a college or university network, you might), you can see the properly typeset version here.

Also on the operetta front, I hope to write an overdue post about Piotr Beczala and Jonas Kaufmann’s dueling attempts to resurrect 1920s operetta and Schlager, AKA the Eduard Künneke revival we’ve all been waiting for. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting.) See you soon.


Photo copyright Ken Howard/Met

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  1. Thank you for these comments, and for the google link to the full text of your article. I enjoyed it very much. It not only informed and enriched Witwe for me, but refreshed my somewhat jaded appreciation for operetta (unlike the festive but ultimately unrefreshing Netrebko-JDF Xmas broadcast).

    Your scholarship also brought me to a much richer appreciation of "Bambi" Salten. You may be interested in an account exploring his work in the context of Zionism: "Bambi's Jewish roots " by Paul Reitter, Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2014

    "Suggestively enough, Salten employed the key terms from his cultural Zionist writings to evoke the sounds with which the elk, those undaunted kings of the forest, call for renewal. As Bambi listens to the “elemental tones” of “a noble, unsettled blood, raging with Ur-power in its longing, anger, and pride,” he is transfixed. Regular conversation with the elk may not work quite yet, but their song affects him profoundly. Bambi can think of nothing else until it stops, and it makes him afraid, in part, perhaps, because of the stirring it induces in the deepest part of his being. "

  2. (Sorry to slack off on comment moderation, folks!)

    Indeed, Felix Salten is totally fascinating. He also co-founded a cabaret in the Theater an der Wien which went bankrupt after, I believe, seven performances. Thanks for the Paul Reitter article–I know his work on Kraus but I didn't know he'd written about Salten and Bambi. It's far more pleasant reading than Josephine Mutzenbacher.