‘Csardas Princess’ gets the royal treatment

Yvonne Kalman, daughter of Hungarian Jewish composer Emmerich Kalman, promotes his operetta coming to Tel Aviv later this week.

Yvonne Kalman, daughter of composer Emmerich Kalman (photo credit: Vera Eder)
Yvonne Kalman, daughter of composer Emmerich Kalman
(photo credit: Vera Eder)
To say Yvonne Kalman is devoted to her father’s oeuvre would be a gross understatement. Kalman has been traveling the world for many years to attend performances of Hungarian Jewish composer Emmerich Kalman’s operettas.
Our paths recently crossed in Budapest where we both went to a performance of The Csardas Princess for which Kalman Sr. wrote the music in 1913, to a libretto by written by Leo Stein and Béla Jenbach.
It is the most entertaining of musical vehicles which will be performed at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv between December 12 and December 19. The shows will be accompanied by surtitles in English and Hebrew, and will be performed by soloists, dancers and the chorus of the Budapest Operetta and Musical Theater with instrumental support provided by the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra along with players from the Budapest Operetta Theater.
Despite being only a child when her father died in 1953, Kalman has clear and fond memories of him and some of his exploits.
One of the most incredible episodes in the composer’s life occurred in 1938, following the Anschluss, when amazingly it is said that Hitler offered Emmerich Kalman the title of “honorary Aryan” as one of the German leader’s favorite composers.
“Yes, that’s absolutely true,” says Kalman, although noting that the Kalman family was essentially out of the clutches of the Nazi regime by then.
Although Emmerich Kalman had initially planned on becoming a concert pianist, following the early onset of arthritis he focused on composition instead. He studied music theory and composition at the Budapest Academy of Music, where he was a fellow student of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.
His early symphonic poems Saturnalia and Endre es Johanna were well received, although he failed to achieve publication. He also composed piano music and wrote many songs, including a song cycle based on poems by Ludwig Jacobowski, and a song collection published under the title of Dalai.
Kalman Sr. also began to develop an entertaining writing style, particularly of humorous cabaret songs, and this naturally evolved into the composition of operettas. His first great success was The Gay Hussars, which was first staged at the Lustspieltheater in Budapest, on February 22, 1908. Thereafter he moved to Vienna where he achieved worldwide fame through his operettas The Blue House, Maritza, The Circus Princess and The Csardas Princess.
However, as the Nazi regime tightened its stranglehold on Jewish life he decided enough was enough and moved with his family to France. It was there that a personal emissary of Hitler caught up with him and made him an offer the composer simply had to refuse.
“It was in March 1940, just before the Germans invaded France,” Kalman recalls. “Hitler sent a general to make the offer to my father. My father listened to him and asked the general who would guarantee his life after he went to Germany, and the general said ‘I will.’ And then my father said, ‘but who will guarantee yours?’ And that was the end of that.”
The composer was evidently made of sterner stuff. “Yes, my father was a courageous man. I think we got on a ship out of Genoa the very next day and made for the States.
My father knew the writing was on the wall.”
Most of all, though, Kalman is proud of her father’s creative output, and especially the show that is coming to Tel Aviv later this week. The basic storyline, with its maze of crisscrossing romantic fervor, features a fun-loving aristocrat by the name of Edwin who loves cabaret star Sylva Varescu, and spends much of his time at the Budapest Orpheum, which hosts cabaret shows of questionable character. There Edwin mixes with undesirables of inferior social standing.
In an effort to put an end to his son’s social transgressions, Edwin’s father packs him off to the army and lines up a marriage to his far more socially acceptable cousin Stasi. Meanwhile, Sylvia and Edwin’s friend Boni become romantically attached and the romantic plot thickens.
“The Csardas Princess is a wonderful show,” declares Kalman, “because you all these relationships going on. It’s the same old story of trying to get two lovers together.” So, her dad was a romantic. “Absolutely,” concurs Kalman, “and this show even has a happy end.”
Kalman Sr. hailed from Hungary and moved to Vienna, the center of the Austro- Hungarian empire, where romance was all the rage. And the combination of his native and adopted cultures appears to be a perfect exciting fit.
“I always used to say, when people asked me about my father’s music, that he wrote in Technicolor. You can see and hear that in the operetta. He did all his own orchestrations and they are very rich. I was recently in Dresden to see the operetta, and it was played with a 110-piece orchestra, and it sounded wonderful.”
The entourage for the Tel Aviv dates is not quite that big, but the combination of the Hungarian actors and singers and the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra should do the trick. “The Csardas Princess always sounds good,” declares Kalman, “at least to me.”
Interestingly, too, the composer also combined his love of serious classical music with the more down-and-dirty vibes of folk music, and this is one of the keys to his success and the enduring popularity of his works.
Kalman is not alone in her praise of her father’s work and, particularly, The Csardas Princess. The operetta has been garnering rave reviews around the world for a century, and will probably continue to do so for many a year.
For tickets and more information: (03) 692- 7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il