Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Operetta: for some serious music-lovers it’s long been a term of dismissal – if not actual abuse – and today it finds little support elsewhere.

This much-maligned art form (the diminutive “operetta” originally indicating a one-act piece) now tends to fall into a no-man’s-land of live entertainment somewhere between grand opera and modern musicals. Having developed from popular theatre traditions, including commedia dell’arte, operetta went on to flourish in distinct national styles throughout the 19th century. But since the 1920s and 1930s, its rich heritage has been eroded by new waves of pop culture, and in recent years operetta has fizzled into a cliché of sequins, frocks and feather boas.

Canadian Opera Company’s 2012 staging of ‘Die Fledermaus’, which is due to open at ENO

This month a new production of Die Fledermaus, directed by Christopher Alden, and first seen at the Canadian Opera Company last year, opens at English National Opera this month. While it is hardly daring programming – the piece epitomises Viennese operetta, and is chief among a small number of surviving operettas – it highlights the many works that have disappeared and prompts the question of whether the form still has relevance for 21st-century audiences.

ENO has staged more operettas than many of its rival companies – Lehar’s The Merry Widow and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado among them – but John Berry, the company’s artistic director, highlights problems faced by the big houses: “Operetta was the popular entertainment of the time, and that mixture of music and dialogue is never easy on the operatic stage, and isn’t something that’s absolutely natural for operatic singers.”

At first glance Alden, who is known for his dark, conceptual opera productions, seems an unlikely choice of director but he has a deep connection with musical theatre and operetta.

“When my mother was pregnant with me and my twin brother, she danced on Broadway in the original Annie Get Your Gun, so we were serenaded in the womb by Ethel Merman,” he says. And at eight or nine the twins became obsessed with G&S operettas. “When the other kids were out doing what kids are supposed to do, we were sitting at home listening and studying, following the librettos.”

While Alden has an interest in keeping operetta alive (and admits he would love to direct some G&S before he retires), he is aware of its stylistic challenges, and his interpretation of Die Fledermaus is designed to enhance its modern appeal.

Johann Strauss’s 1874 work is based on a Parisian vaudeville play Le Réveillon, itself sourced in part from a German farce. The narrative centres on Gabriel von Eisenstein, a Viennese playboy cuckolded by his wife and facing time in prison, who becomes the victim of an elaborate plot by his friend, Dr Falke.

An 1887 production of ‘The Mikado’

“When you put all those things together – Vienna, subconscious urges, dysfunctional marriage – what do you think of? Freud,” Alden says.

There is frolicking slapstick and a charade of mistaken identity as the characters congregate for Prince Orlofsky’s ball. Many opera directors – and indeed opera houses – shy away from comedy, always a difficult trick to pull off on the opera stage, but for Alden the humour of the piece is part of its appeal. “It’s interesting how comedy can speak to us about deeper, darker things,” he says. “The reason Fledermaus is sort of the number one operetta is not just about the brilliance and genius of the music theatre writing but about what the piece has to say about our lives.”

Still, it’s difficult to see the quaint humour of many other operettas holding its own amid the sassy sophistication and slick sex appeal of today’s popular entertainment, and the retro-mania that has fuelled such hits as Mamma Mia!, Dirty Dancing and Viva Forever! is unlikely to lead as far back as the 19th century. Added to this, the regional character of many operettas is ill-suited to the global market, where productions are shared by different companies, and play to diverse international audiences.

Berry admits as much. “ENO has a very strong identity with its work, travelling around the world,” he says. “If we’re going to do a Fledermaus, it’s got to feel like it fits into the ENO unique selling points and, in a sense, into our brand.”

These issues of interpretation stretch beyond the narrative or libretto to include musical language too – the waltz, the lifeblood of later operetta, being the most striking example.

Strauss, known in his time as Der Walzerkönig, used waltzes as a romantic shorthand throughout his work – the score of Die Fledermaus is coursing with 3/4 time – but they became tainted by musical developments in the early 20th century. Within the first decade, Richard Strauss had employed the motif variously to signal lust and depravity (in Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils), trauma and despair (in the build-up to Elektra’s Totentanz), and nostalgic kitsch (in Der Rosenkavalier). From then on, it would be difficult for theatre audiences to interpret the waltz without a sense of irony.

In more practical terms, too, the scores of operettas can cause problems. These works, especially early on, were not written for professionally trained singers or high-quality orchestras but, rather, well-rounded performers with easy and comedic charm, and nimble house bands.

Joan Sutherland in ‘The Merry Widow’ in 1987

Andrew Dickinson, co-founder of a new London-based company called Opera Danube, which launches with a production of The Merry Widow next month, has chosen to focus on operetta precisely because of its scarcity.

“There are so many opera companies out there now,” he says. “We wanted to create something that stood out a little bit, and by focusing on operetta we did that immediately.” The repertoire is also well suited to the young cast of singers. “A lot of operetta is very flattering on the voice, it’s not too heavy, even with a full orchestra, and it’s often written very sensitively for young voices.”

In the UK, a strong tradition of amateur G&S performances has run parallel to poor exposure on the professional stage. And, as Stuart Box, honourable secretary of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society, explains, since the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s performing rights for G&S works lapsed in 1966, new and different interpretations have been allowed to develop. Box notes that a number of opera companies have begun to add G&S to their repertoire because “it’s straightforward, easy and often very cost-effective.” He mentions fresh stagings seen at last month’s International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Buxton.

An increasingly experimental approach to venues (there have been bold and successful productions of Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance at Wilton’s music hall, in London’s East End, in recent years) coupled with a growing hunger among the theatre-going public for more obscure works could spur greater interest.

Dickinson intends to establish his company with well-known operettas – there are plans for Die Fledermaus and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld – before embarking on a more ambitious programme aimed at broadening audiences’ perceptions. “There are some absolutely brilliant pieces out there. There’s one called Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, which has a very famous aria that [Nicolai] Gedda has sung,” Dickinson says, and he mentions an interest in the German composer Albert Lortzing and Offenbach’s lesser-known works.

Meanwhile, Berry reveals that a new Gilbert and Sullivan production is planned at ENO next season (he says little, except to confirm that Christopher Alden is not involved) and he hints at more operettas in the future.

“I’m not naturally drawn to operetta, and frankly I’ve seen so much of it done badly that that hasn’t helped,” he says, “but [Die Fledermaus] is an exciting project for us, and maybe it’ll be the beginning of more exploring, both the well-known repertoire and some of the undiscovered operettas.”

‘Die Fledermaus’, September 30-November 6, www.eno.org; ‘The Merry Widow’, October 18 and 19, www.operadanube.co.uk

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.