Dancing and singing for joy

The Budapest Operetta and Musical Theater will soon bring its sweeping operetta melodies and colorful costumes to Tel Aviv.

dance sing 521 (photo credit: Varda)
dance sing 521
(photo credit: Varda)
Next month, the Israeli Opera will bring us a taste of entertainment from foreign climes and bygone times.
The Csardas Princess operetta is a story in which love – eventually – conquers all. It has been described as “a celebration of sweeping operetta melodies, colorful costumes and music that sparkles like champagne.”
While a pretty accurate nutshell appraisal, there is nothing even remotely capsule-like about the work, which is due to be performed in Tel Aviv nine times from December 12 to 19. The shows will be accompanied by subtitles 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 players from the Budapest Operetta.
A group of Israeli journalists were recently taken over to Budapest, at the behest of the Hungarian government and the Tourism Ministry, so we could get a taste of the kaleidoscope of color, dance, music and sheer joie de vivre of The Csardas Princess at the Operetta Theater in the Hungarian capital, on its foray to Tel Aviv. While the dialogue was largely indecipherable – Hungarian is unlike almost any other recognizable language and you simply cannot guess at its meaning, although the German subtitles helped a bit – there was no way we could help but be swept along by the bon-vivant vibe on the stage in the sumptuous hall.
The Csardas Princess (a.k.a. The Riviera Girl and The Gypsy Princess) is an operetta in three acts with music by Hungarian Jewish composer Emmerich Kalman, and a libretto written by Leo Stein and Béla Jenbach. It is a boisterous, insouciant, gay and hedonistic brew that exudes a devil-may-care ethos, which plays on the audience’s heartstrings and grabs their attention from the get-go.
The basic storyline, with its maze of crisscrossing romantic fervor, goes roughly as follows: Fun-loving aristocrat Edwin loves cabaret star Sylva Varescu, and spends much of his time at the Budapest Orpheum, which hosts cabaret shows of questionable character, and where he mixes with – to the horror of his fellow aristocrats, and certainly his elders – undesirables of inferior social standing. In an effort to cut his son’s social meanderings off at the pass, Edwin’s dad packs his errant son off to the army and lines up a marriage to his eminently more socially credible cousin, Stasi. Meanwhile, Sylva and Edwin’s friend, Boni, become seemingly romantically attached and the love plot thickens.
Interestingly, the operetta was written and unveiled just prior to the outbreak of World War I, which also signaled the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a radical change in the social class structure. Kalman inferred that all is not entirely well with the empire, and there are dark shades sewn into the sonic and visually aesthetic mix.
After the show in his city, Budapest Operetta and Musical Theater general director Miklos Gabor Kerenyi expressed his delight at the company’s imminent trip to this part of the world, and the opportunity to present the work to Israeli audiences. Kerenyi added that The Csardas Princess composer is one of the most venerated figures of Hungarian culture. “We believe that this form of art, the operetta, is very important and Emmerich Kalman is the second most famous Hungarian in the world. Not a second goes by without someone, somewhere in the world, listening to one of Kalman’s compositions on the radio.”
Kalman was one of the leading composers of the “Silver Age” of Viennese operetta during the first quarter of the 20th century. He became wellknown for his fusion of Viennese waltz with Hungarian csárdás – traditional Hungarian folk dance.
There is an intriguing and quite astounding footnote to Kalman’s career which, had he not stuck to his principles and used his loaf, could have ended in calamity. Despite his Jewish origins, he was one of Hitler’s favorite composers and, after the Anschluss (annexation of Austria), rejected Hitler’s offer to become an “honorary Aryan.”
He was forced to flee first to France, then to the US, settling in California in 1940. Naturally, in the wake of his emigration, performances of his works were prohibited in Nazi Germany. He returned to Vienna from New York in 1949 before moving in 1951 to Paris, where he died.
The director explained that operettas and musicals are highly regarded creative and entertainment vehicles in his country. “There is a large number of original Hungarian musicals, and we endeavor to perform musicals of great historical and ethical importance.” Kerenyi’s point was suitably accentuated by the alfresco entertainment laid on in the piazza at the front of the theater building, where a two-day Broadway musical program ran throughout the afternoon.
“Our singers are only too happy to perform as often as they can,” continued the director, “and they perform for free outside.”
Kerenyi proudly unfurled a long list of important works performed by the company, including adaptations of works from different cultures and languages, principally a musical rendition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “We have performed that over 500 times, to more 500,000 people,” he notes. “For me the storyline has a strong message, in which love conquers all – including politics,” he added with a laugh. The same could be said for the production the Hungarian director will bring over here next month.
Kerenyi said that while keeping the audience entertained is a primary goal of the operetta format, and of the company, there is more to what he and his staff do than just churning out tried-and-tested material. “The material and the way of presenting the work have to be constantly tailored to the age and the makeup of the audience. You have to keep up with the times – otherwise you end up with a lifeless museum piece.”
The director has clearly done his homework on what makes audiences tick. “There are three types of musicals around in the world,” he stated. “There is the dreamy, boring kind with staid melodies.” For our listening displeasure, and to make his point absolutely clear, Kerenyi broke out in an exaggeratedly soporific waltz-tempo hum.
“The second type has artistic ambitions, where everything changes, and can be modified – the acting, the music – and you can produce amazing shows with this approach.”
This, stressed the director, is not exactly a recipe for box-office success. “It brings audiences of the same size as experimental theater. It can be exciting and even interesting, but it has never been popular. Our dream is to produce folk theater on a grand scale, which brings joy to everyone and offers them a cerebral adventure, with plenty of emotional and intellectual stimulation and, of course, wonderful entertainment. The operetta format generally provides a happy ending.”
Israeli culture and entertainment consumers can rest assured.
There is nothing even remotely museum-like in this work or the production. From the moment the curtain goes up on the multicolored, multi-sequined opening scene, the stage is awash with drama, romance, nimble footwork, pathos and unadulterated fun. And, yes, there is a happy ending.
“There is so much woe and violence and bloodshed in the world,” observed Kerenyi sagely.
“This operetta offers people an opportunity to forget all that for a while, and to be happy.”
Amen to that!
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il