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A Kálmán Idyll: Bassoonist and Impresario George Zukerman takes us back to a remarkable interlude in his life. It was 1945, and in the bombed out ruins of the Bremen Opera House, he discovered the delight of playing the operettas of Emmerich Kálmán.
The Importance of Being Silly: Countess Maritza, like many VIennese operettas, is frothy and silly, full of melody and romance. But behind its lightheartedness is an unexpected poignancy.
Meet the Artists of Countess Maritza: Pacific Opera welcomes the creative team and the cast of singers and actors who will bring Maritza to the stage.
Events Calendar: What's on at Pacific Opera – opera performances, free public previews, activities for schools and artists.
In late April, 1945, just as World War II was drawing to a close in the European theatre of conflict, I was posted with a naval unit to the ruined city of Bremerhaven, in North Germany.
The Chief Executive Officer of our base was an enlightened patrician New England reserve officer who preferred Opera to operations. His mother, he proudly informed whomsoever would listen, had served on the Board of the Boston Opera in the mid 30's. He lamented (even to a mere enlisted man) that his deepest regret was to be posted in Germany where he had not yet been able to attend a single musical event – if, indeed, any were being held in those final days of the European war.
One day, shortly after the official declaration of the end of hostilities, I was summoned to the executive office. "With the signing of the armistice, there has been a lifting of restrictions on fraternization with the former enemy," explained our commanding officer. "We recently received a request from the municipal authorities for instrumentalists to play with the Bremen Opera orchestra. In particular, they asked if by any chance we had a bassoonist." I did not know that he was aware of the avocations of every one of his ship's company, but obviously he had done his research and had discovered that I had brought my bassoon with me to the Bremerhaven posting.
"They are in the process of re-creating their Opera company and I have initialled your assignment to play with the orchestra," he said. "Of course, you will continue your other duties here on the base, but a jeep will be available each day to take you to rehearsals." The commander continued, revealing his full plan, "On performance nights, I will drive you there myself."
As I saluted and turned to leave, he added, "The Bremen Opera house has been badly damaged in the raids. I urge you to take a warm coat with you."
Even then he would not let me depart so quickly. "Have you read all of the Grimms' fairy tales?" he asked. "Not recently, Sir," I replied. "Well," he responded, "now at last you'll become one of the Town musicians of Bremen." With that he returned my salute and I rushed to my barracks to see if I could find a good reed.
I had never before played Opera, and it seemed to me that the entire repertoire of this particular company consisted of the operettas of Emmerich Kálmán, Hungarian fellow student of Bartók and Kodály, banned, as Jewish, during the war years. They were all endlessly tuneful, wonderfully nostalgic, and emotionally satisfying to an audience deprived of any relaxed entertainment during so many years of harsh warfare.
I discovered later the reason why we played this endless banquet of Kálmán delicacies. In the shattered and badly damaged music library of the Bremen Opera House, the only intact orchestral scores and parts were of these Kálmán operettas. Scores of Mozart, Wagner, Weber, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti had been destroyed in the fire that gutted most of the building, but the Kálmán material had been discarded in some distant corner of the building, where, forbidden in performance, at least it survived in hidden storage.
The orchestra generally rehearsed in bits and pieces for about forty-five minutes before the curtain was due to rise, and after that it became a feast of sight-reading! Night after night we played Kálmán, Kálmán and more Kálmán in the unheated shell of what was once a magnificent 1800-seat opera house. We performed Countess Maritza sixteen times, The Gay Hussars on ten occasions, and The Gypsy Princess at least seven times.
I was not allowed to shed my uniform, and the astonished stares of the audience each night should have made me decidedly uncomfortable. What could be made of the spectacle of a young musician playing in Allied military uniform with an all-German orchestra, less than a month after the war's ending? Heaven knows what they would have thought if they had suspected, on top of all else, that I might be Jewish. But I was young then and felt nothing more than the delight of sampling Kálmán for the first time.
The costumes had been rescued from some musty safe storage, where they had been mothballed since long before the war. The overpowering smell of camphor wafted downwards into the pit, so that I shall always associate those delicious bassoon passages that accompany the tenor in so many Kálmán arias with the aroma of a dry cleaning establishment.
Indeed, tenor parts were often doubled by the bassoon, and since there was a desperate shortage of good tenors, each performance became a feast of glorious solo passages for me. Kálmán-in-Bremen in 1945 became a kind of bassoon accompanied Singspiel.
The experiment with fraternization did not last long and the policy changed after five months of Kálmán immersion. As suddenly as it had started, I was returned to my full time naval duties.
I learned later that the Executive Officer of the base had been transferred to Terceira in the Azores. His jeep no longer made its clandestine trips to the Opera House, and presumably the tenors of the Bremen Opera company had to make do with the second clarinetist covering the melody line on – what else? – a tenor saxophone.
George Zukerman, O.C., O.B.C.
Jan 2019, Reprinted with permission, pending publication: A Restless Sonata – an anecdotal memoir of a Canadian virtuoso and impresario.
Virtuoso-Impresario George Zukerman has led parallel careers on the Canadian music scene since the 1950's. As a solo bassoonist he was one of the few artists to achieve recognition on his instrument outside the ranks of a Symphony Orchestra. He was the first soloist on his instrument ever invited to tour in the former Soviet Union, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and China. He has recorded the major concerto repertoire for the bassoon for the Vox-Turnabout label.
As impresario he specialized in bringing music to smaller communities throughout the West, and was awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia for his lifetime contributions to music and touring. Until 2015, he was Artistic Director of the White Rock Concerts series which he founded in 1956.
Born in Great Britain, Mr. Zukerman has lived in Canada since 1953. Prior to settling in Canada, where he now lives in Surrey with his partner, violinist Erika Bennedik, he was a member of the world-renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra From 1953 to 1965 he was a member of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the CBC Chamber Orchestra.
It's easy to dismiss Countess Maritza as a piece of fluff (while keeping in mind that it is perfectly legitimate for an operetta to do nothing more than delight the senses and add a bit of laughter to the world).
Maritza is a lovely, silly, warmhearted romantic comedy, but it has an unexpected poignancy, both in the shadows of history that crowd round it and in the thread of loss and longing that weaves through its sunniness.
Set on a posh estate in the Hungarian boonies, Maritza is a visual feast, serving up lavishly dressed barons, counts, showgirls, and exotically costumed Gypsies. The music teems with earworms – so many that you can get rid of one simply by listening to the next.
The story is as predictable and far-fetched as any self-respecting operetta ought to be. Countess Maritza is young, very rich, and very tired of being pestered by men who want to marry her for her money. So she invents a fiancé and gives him the first name that pops into her head – Baron Zsupan, the fictional pig farmer in Strauss's The Gypsy Baron. Cue a genuine pig-farming Baron Zsupan, who shows up at her door, eager to go through with the wedding.
Meanwhile Maritza's eye is caught by her handsome, new, and very efficient farm manager, whom she finds disturbingly uppity, but strangely attractive. Little does she know that he is actually the impoverished Count Tassilo, working incognito to earn a dowry for his sister Lisa – who happens to be Maritza's new best friend.
Sparks fly as Maritza, Tassilo, Lisa, and Zsupan try to sort out their feelings. Things get even flakier when Princess Bozena – a dowager reminiscent of a benevolent, slightly dotty Lady Bracknell – turns up with her Shakespeare-spouting valet, a retired theatre prompter who clearly has unrealized ambitions to steal every scene he's in.
After an inevitable flurry of misunderstandings, true love overcomes jealousy and suspicion, and we are left to contemplate the futures of not one, but three happy couples.
Many of the delights of Countess Maritza come from its gentle mockery of the highfaluting aristocrats who swan about the countryside, utterly clueless about farming, pursuing their endless round of tennis and cabarets, while expecting the Gypsies to entertain them and the servants to know their place.
Countess Maritza is a masterpiece of the so-called Silver Age of Viennese operetta. The earlier Golden Age was epitomized by the works of Johann Strauss II, notably Die Fledermaus (1874) and The Gypsy Baron (1885) – riches from the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Vienna was one of the cultural centres of the world.
The Silver Age, extending from Lehár's The Merry Widow (1905) to the early 1930s, is characterized by a sense of nostalgia for a vanishing world, of longing for the glamour of a empire that, by 1918, had self-destructed.
The leading composers of the Silver Age were the Hungarians Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán. When Countess Maritza premiered in 1924, Kálmán was already world famous; Maritza was yet another hit, running for 374 performances at the Theater an der Wien before moving to Broadway in 1926 where it played for 321 performances.
The work's enormous popularity stemmed in part from its timing: Europe was still reeling from the Great War, longing for charm and cheeriness, ravishing tunes, a reliably happy ending.
Maritza brims with music that compels you to tap your toes, to swoon, to dream. It has all the nostalgic elegance of a Viennese operetta; but Kálmán's score is spiced with Hungarian flavours – just enough Magyar melancholy, edgy syncopation, and soulful Gypsy passion to counterbalance the waltz and the schmaltz.
As musician and critic Christopher Howell noted,
Though I confess to a sweet tooth generally where post-Johann Strauss Viennese operetta is concerned, ... Countess Maritza has always struck a particular chord in me.... Its melodies and harmonies seem to me to transcend their actual comedy context to express strong, melancholy emotions which somehow tug at my heartstrings.
The shadows behind the frivolity of Countess Maritza are thrown into sharper relief when we consider what followed.
When Maritza premiered in 1924, Hitler was already chair of the Nazi party. In the next two decades, the shadows would close in.
Like many creators of Viennese operetta, Kálmán and his librettists, Julius Brammer and Alfred Grünwald, were Jewish. Brammer and Grünwald, the most successful writing team of Vienna's Silver Age, worked with Lehár and Oscar Strauss, among others, and wrote five operettas with Kálmán.
But with the Anschluss – the 1938 annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany – the creators of Countess Maritza were forced into exile. All three fled to Paris. Brammer died in 1943 in France. Both Grünwald and Kálmán emigrated to the US in 1940.
Kálmán's daughter Yvonne has often recounted the story that in 1940, Hitler sent an officer to Paris with an offer to make Kálmán, one of Hitler's favourite composers, "an honorary Aryan" if he would return to Vienna. Kálmán took that as his cue to leave for America with his family, getting out just before the Nazis occupied Paris.
Kálmán's works were then banned by the Nazis as Entartete (degenerate), their performances prohibited. Hence the irony, as George Zukerman recalls, that the Kálmán scores stored in the Bremen Opera House survived the war and the bombing precisely because they had been cast aside. And after the war, there was Countess Maritza: an imperishable bauble glittering amid the ruins.
In a tribute to the glory of what he calls the much-mocked art of Viennese operetta, critic Richard Bratby said,
An ephemeral art can evoke something enduring ... a dance rhythm, a telling lyric and an indelible tune can speak to the human condition.... It's glorious entertainment. But if you chose to take it seriously ... you could see and hear a tragedy of alienation, exile and disillusion.
Artistic Director Timothy Vernon has been aflutter with anticipation as he prepares to lead the Victoria Symphony in performances of Countess Maritza. It is, he raves, a masterpiece of the genre, aswirl with infectious tunes, singing to rival Puccini, and a surge of warmth and humour – all with a dash of Paprika!
We welcome New-York based director Linda Brovsky, who has directed opera productions across the US and in Israel and Italy. She recently directed her critically acclaimed Seattle Opera production of Don Quichotte for the Canadian Opera Company.
Our design team includes Patrick Clark, who was responsible for two of our most beautiful past productions, Albert Herring and Madama Butterfly, along with Kimberly Purtell who did the gorgeous lighting for Ariadne auf Naxos and The Barber of Seville.
Dance plays an important role in Countess Maritza, and the choreography is in expert hands with the gifted Jacques Lemay, whose work for February's La traviata was a triumph.
Leslie Ann Bradley, who plays Countess Maritza, was the less frivolous Countess in our 2014 The Marriage of Figaro. She was last at Pacific Opera for a beautiful performance as Desdemona in Otello.
Adam Luther (Tassilo) returns to Pacific Opera following recent performances as Tamino (The Magic Flute) and Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly).
Jennifer Taverner, who lit up the stage (literally) as the evil Armida in last season's Rinaldo, makes a welcome return as the Gypsy Manja.
Tenor Michael Barrett (Baron Zsupan) played the dual roles of Don Curzio and Don Basilio in our 2014 production of The Marriage of Figaro.
Bruce Kelly is Prince Popolescu – another of his wonderful character roles for Pacific Opera, including, most recently, the Magician in Rinaldo and the High Priest in The Magic Flute.
Coloratura soprano Suzanne RIgden was a sassy Zerbinetta in our 2014 Ariadne auf Naxos and a bewitching Tytania in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She now returns as the love-lorn Lisa.
A big perk of operetta is being able to incorporate theatre actors for a little scene-stealing spoken dialogue.
The thespian brigade is led by Canadian theatre icon Nicola Cavendish as the princess Bozena. A veteran of the Shaw Festival and beloved for hundreds of performances as Shirley Valentine, Nicola is no stranger to opera. She played Florence Foster Jenkins in Glorious (that counts as opera – sort of), and she was the Duchess of Krakenthorp in The Daughter of the Regiment for Vancouver Opera (before Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a splash in the role).
As Penizek, the Shakespeare-quoting valet, we welcome Brian Linds, a well-known local actor, playwright and sound designer, who played Owl in our recent libretto workshop of The Flight of the Hummingbird.
Also in speaking roles are Jim Leard (Tschekko), founder of Story Theatre Company and local theatre luminary; actor/director R.J. Peters (Karl-Stefan); and Nolan Kehler (Berko). In a cameo as the Gypsy violinist is Julian Vitek.
Adding music and colour are the Pacific Opera Chorus, directed by Giuseppe Pietraroia, and members of the Victoria Children's Choir under Madeleine Humer, who is VCC's Artistic and Concert Choir Director, longtime Director of the St. Christopher Singers, and a respected educator and community leader.
Kálmán's daughter Yvonne will bring particular panache to Countess Maritza. She travels the world to attend performances of her father's operettas. We are delighted to welcome her to Victoria and to Pacific Opera!