Hungary for a song, or two

"Our dream is to produce folk theater on a grand scale, which brings joy to everyone and offers them a cerebral adventure," says general director Miklos Gabor Kerenyi.

Operetta Bayadere   (photo credit: Courtesy)
Operetta Bayadere
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In his day, Jewish composer Emmerich Kalman was adept at producing music tailored to get his audiences on board his musical merry-go-round. If the response of my fellow spectators at the Budapest Operetta and Musical Theater last month was anything to go by, Kalman’s operetta Bayadere (Die Bajadere) continued that legacy.
One could say that Bayadere – which will be performed at the Israeli Opera House from February 12 to 21 – is a wholly Jewish-based operetta, at least in terms of its creators. Kalman was born Imre Koppstein in Siofok, in what was then Austria-Hungary. The libretto was written by two other Jews, Moravia-born Julius Brammer and Vienna-born Alfred Grunwald. Brammer did not survive the Holocaust, but both Grunwald and Kalman did, even though the latter had a close shave with the Nazi hierarchy.
The operetta has undergone several adaptations over the years, but the basic storyline has remained constant, offering a heady mix of cultures and musical styles. It tells the tale of a young Indian prince who goes west, ostensibly to further his formal education, but who in fact becomes something of a hedonist.
He gradually loses interest in assuming responsibility for affairs of state in his home country, falling in love with a femme fatale in the process.
Betwixt and between, Bayadere goes for entertainment broke. It is chock-full of catchy numbers, beguiling routines and alluring aesthetics, along with slapstick comedy and impressive acrobatics.
Kalman was used to mixing and matching musical mind-sets, and he and Franz Lehar were the leading composers of the so-called “Silver Age” of Viennese operetta during the first quarter of the 20th century. Among other things, Kalman was known for fusing Viennese waltzes with Hungarian czardas – a gypsy-style music and dance format.
As a youngster, Kalman had designs on a career as a concert pianist, but the early onset of arthritis forced him to channel his creative endeavor toward composition. Polyphonically and melodically, Kalman was a devoted follower of Puccini, while his orchestral methods drew much of their inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s music.
And there is no shortage of romance in Bayadere, which is suffused with unbridled joie de vivre and treats the audience to a whirlwind of color and sound.
Budapest Operetta and Musical Theater general director Miklos Gabor Kerenyi is an avowed fan of Kalman’s work and has been overseeing the performance of operettas for many years.
“The operetta is a Hungarian art form and is part of Hungarian identity and culture,” declares Kerenyi, though he adds that bending cultural borders was common when Bayadere was created.
“There were lots of Eastern elements in opera and other musical works at the beginning of the 20th century, and you would see people of different colors on the stage.”
Kerenyi says he was also keen to ensure that contemporary audiences could identify with a work that was written almost 100 years ago.
“When you talk about revivals in the field of the operetta, there are those who believe you have to rebuild the whole thing, with new musical definitions and new stories,” he says. “I revive works by returning to the roots, on which a story is developed which is relevant to today’s audiences.”
This approach, he continues, works well with Bayadere, and with operetta in general. “In this regard, we managed to create a genre in which the dramaturgy of the music enhances the power of the dramatic scenes, and allows the audience to identify more closely with the storyline.”
That was undoubtedly the case in Budapest last month. At the end of the show, the entire audience stood, clapped, and cheered the performers, who had to keep returning to the stage to take their bows.
IT SEEMS that Kalman was not only a highly successful operetta composer he also had his wits about him off stage too.
Although she was only a child when her father died in 1953, US-based Yvonne Kalman does her utmost to catch as many performances of Kalman’s operettas as she can, wherever they are around the globe. We met in December 2013, when one of her father’s bestknown works, The Csardas Princess, was performed in Budapest prior to a string of well-received January 2014 performances in Tel Aviv.
At the time, she related one of the most incredible episodes in the composer’s life. It occurred in 1938, following the Anschluss. It seems that Hitler enjoyed his operettas and offered the then-Vienna-based Kalman, as one of the German leader’s favorite composers, the status of “honorary Aryan.”
According to Yvonne, Hitler dispatched a high-ranking officer to convey the Nazi leader’s “generous” offer. When Kalman expressed concern about the wisdom of going to Berlin, the officer said he would personally vouch for his safety. The composer retorted, “Yes, but who is going to vouch for yours?” Kalman packed his bags and relocated to Paris the next day, eventually settling in California. He returned to Vienna from New York in 1949 before moving to Paris in 1951, where he died two years later.
Interestingly Lehar had a similar experience.
His wife was born Jewish, though she later converted to Catholicism. As Hitler had a fondness for Lehar’s music, Mrs. Lehar was, like Kalman, offered the status of “honorary Aryan.” Unlike the Jewish composer, she accepted.
Kerenyi says that while keeping the audience entertained is a primary goal of the operetta format, and of his company, there is more to what he and his staff do than just churning out tried and tested material.
“The content and the way of presenting the work have to be constantly tailored to the age and the makeup of the audience,” he says. “You have to keep up with the times. Otherwise you end up with a lifeless museum piece.”
The theater director has clearly done his homework on what makes audiences tick.
“There are three types of musicals in the world,” he says. The first “is the dreamy, boring kind with staid melodies.
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.”
However, he stresses, that is not a sure recipe for box-office success. “It brings audiences of the same size as experimental theater [does]. It can be exciting and even interesting, but it has never been popular. Our dream is to produce [the third type:] 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 end.”
Kerenyi is coming over here with the full cast of soloists, chorus members and dancers from the Budapest Operetta and Musical Theatre, along with conductor and music director Laszlo Maklary, set designer Erzsebet Turi, costume designer Rita Velich and choreographer Jeno Locsei. The Israeli Opera’s regular ensemble, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, will be on hand to provide the instrumental substratum for the show, and the St. Petersburg State Musical Comedy Theater will share production duties with the Budapest- based company.
Soprano Monika Fischl will make a return visit here next month, following her appearance last year in The Csardas Princess. At the press conference after the show in Budapest last month, she noted that Kalman’s music had clearly caught on in Israel: “I walked along the street in Tel Aviv, after one of the shows, and I heard someone playing a tune from The Csardas Princess on a violin.
That was nice.”
Judging by the response of the Tel Aviv audiences to last year’s Kalman offering, a similarly enthusiastic reception is in the cards for Bayadere.
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