The career of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrian beauty Hanna Glawari has been truly fabulous. Within months of her debut, at Vienna's Theater an der Wien in 1905, she was a worldwide celebrity, with all manner of hats, trains, corsets, calendars, chocolates, films, parodies, even lunches named after her. Her melodies were so potent, her story so scintillating, that she launched a new wave of operettas from Vienna that capitalized on her comparatively frank depiction of sexual attraction and dalliance through music.
Over the years, The Merry Widow has become a metaphor for the glamorous pre-1914 period. Waltzing over an abyss, perhaps? Not at the time, I believe. As historian Edward Taylor related, in The Fall of Dynasties, "In retrospect we tend to see the carefree social life of prewar Europe as a kind of death waltz on the brink of doom, but to those who took part in it, it was not that at all. People did not throw themselves into a rout of pleasures to forget their worries; they simply joined in the dance to express their sense of well-being and to manifest their solidarity."
Between 1905 and the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, people needed no excuse to sing and dance to the music of Franz Lehár and his disciples, Leo Fall, Oscar Straus, Emmerich Kálmán, and several others. Viennese operetta then had an international vogue, and Hanna Glawari set the fashion.
Mme. Glawari came from solid Parisian stock, later mixed up with Balkan roots. Henri Meilhac, co-librettist (with Ludovic Halévy) of Offenbach's most popular operettas and also Bizet's Carmen, wrote a comedy entitled L'attaché d'ambassade, produced at the Variétés in December 1861. It found favor in Vienna, ultimately at the Burgtheater, with a cast that included Katharina Schratt, Emperor Franz Joseph's girlfriend, as the rich and wily widow, Madeleine.
French plays were always fair game for Austrian operettas, with or without credit. Composer Richard Heuberger, an esteemed music professor, had enjoyed a considerable hit at the Theater an der Wien in 1898 with Der Opernball, based on another Parisian comedy. Its librettist was a young Viennese, Viktor Léon, who the next year would team with Ljubljana-born Leo Stein on Wiener Blut (Viennese Blood), a pastiche of Johann Strauss Jr. melodies that eventually became another moneymaker for the same theater.
Viennese Blood? Well, then, how about Viennese Women? Wiener Frauen appeared at the Theater an der Wien in November 1902, the first operetta by the theater's new conductor, an ex-bandmaster from Moravia named Franz Lehár. It was moderately successful; much better was Der Rastelbinder (The Tinker), which opened a scant month later at the rival Carltheater, with score by Lehár and book by Léon.
Franz Lehár (1870-1948) had launched a career in a field he was to dominate. This followed years of wandering around the empire playing in and leading military bands, writing art songs, marches, waltzes, and several operas. (Kukuska was the first one that was produced, in Dresden, Königsberg, Budapest, and, later, Vienna.)
Lehár's 1904 operettas Der Göttergatte and Die Juxheirat were failures, however, despite a book for the former by Léon and Stein, and a cast that included Mizzi Günther and Louis Treumann, two attractive performers who already had appeared in Der Rastelbinder.
It was Stein who came up with the idea of transforming L'attaché into an operetta; hadn't Die Fledermaus been profitably based on a Meilhac and Halévy vaudeville? A draft libretto was prepared with Léon's help, retaining the central characters and ideas but changing the names and giving no credit to Meilhac. For the operetta, the embassy of a fictitious German principality was changed to one from the ersatz Balkan state of "Pontevedro" (i.e., Montenegro). Lehár was asked to write the score when Heuberger's initial attempts failed to please the librettists and the Theater an der Wien management.
Much of the score was composed in the summer of 1905 at Bad Ischl, where most of the operetta crowd went to escape Vienna's heat. On his return that autumn to the capital, Lehár played the score at his studio apartment off the Mariahilferstrasse, for an audience comprised of Léon and Stein, Karczag and Wallner (the directors of the Theater an der Wien), and Günther and Treumann, who had been earmarked to star in the new operetta as Hanna and Count Danilo. The stars loved it, but Karczag had his doubts‹the unusually sexy melodies and almost Puccini-esque harmonies were something not yet heard in an operetta.
The managers had little faith in the piece. They preferred their other new productions that winter (by Leo Ascher and Leo Fall) and stinted on their Widow outlay. Surprisingly, the Lehár operetta was quite well received on its premiere (December 30, 1905), drawing some excellent reviews. But ticket sales in the following weeks were scanty. By the 100th performance, on April 6, 1906, however the Ausverkauft (sold out) sign was posted nightly, and all Vienna was buying sheet music for the show's hit numbers.
By this time, the piece was already a big success in Germany (Hamburg, then Berlin), while in Vienna, photographic images and postcards of Treumann and Günther appeared everywhere. He was an arresting comedian and wonderful dancer with an adequate tenor; she had a good soprano and, more important, wore the latest fashions and hats with alluring sveltesse.
The work began its foreign-language conquest with performances in Budapest in 1906. A half year later, the operetta enjoyed a triumph at London's Daly Theatre, produced by George Edwardes with Lily Elsie and Joseph Coyne as the leads. The delicate Elsie was offset by the mournful-looking Coyne, an American dancing comedian whose lack of a singing voice worried Lehár, who had gone to London to conduct the premiere. But the production ran a tremendous 778 performances, followed by extensive tours and revivals. Viennese operetta consequently became terribly à la mode in the West End, as well as throughout Britain and its colonies‹there were even tours licensed by Edwardes playing in Calcutta and Rangoon.
On Broadway, Henry Savage presented a revision of the London Widow at the splendiferous New Amsterdam Theatre, starring Ethel Jackson and Donald Brian. The operetta started a mania in the U.S. Not since H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado, 30 years before, had any musical-theater work caused such a national furor. All kinds of products suddenly became Merry Widow-associated, and every music publisher found a way to come up with sheet music capitalizing not only on the score but on the look of Savage's production.
The young film industry quickly took note and there were unauthorized silent shorts as early as 1907, in Sweden. MGM acquired the rights in 1923 and made three versions of the work, assigning Germanic directors to each. The 1925 Erich von Stroheim production was a lavish perversion of the original; it went into sordid detail about how "Sally," an American chorine, became a merry widow. Mae Murray and John Gilbert were the picturesque lovers. A large orchestra playing a Lehár reduction accompanied the silent film in its venues. The 1934 Ernst Lubitsch version was minimally more faithful to the original work but excluded the bulk of the score and made an unwise decision to switch the period from 1905 to about 1885. It is still a pleasure, and Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier are the ideal "Sonia" and Danilo. Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas were far less ideal in Curtis Bernhardt's dull color remake of 1952. Decades later, talk of a new production, to be directed by Ingmar Bergman and to star Barbra Streisand, unfortunately came to naught.
Because of MGM, German firms were embargoed from filming the Widow. (There was a Lustigen Witwenball in 1936, but this was a Berlin farce with music by Will Meisel.) A 1962 Austrian-French co-production starring Peter Alexander and Karin Hübner put the work in modern dress.
It would be impossible to give statistics on the enduring success of The Merry Widow, but Lehár became a multimillionaire very quickly from his stage and sheet-music royalties. It remains high on the list of the most-performed operettas and has been translated, recorded, broadcast, televised, ballet-ized, and skated on ice innumerable times. It enjoyed Broadway revivals (Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura at the Majestic Theatre in 1943) and opened Richard Rodgers's Music Theater of Lincoln Center in August 1964, with Patrice Munsel in the title role. Countless opera stars have been drawn to the title part, from Maria Jeritza and Kirsten Flagstad to Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, and Ljuba Welitsch, who returned to the stage of the Vienna Volksoper late in her life as one of the wives of the Pontevedrian embassy staff.
Other notable revivals outside the opera house include the sumptuous revue version perpetrated by Erik Charell at the Grosses Schauspielhaus, Berlin, in 1928, in which Fritzi Massary starred as the widow of a planter from Honduras; and a production two years later in Stockholm, with the deep-voiced Zarah Leander in the title role and Sweden's legendary actor G?osta Ekman as Danilo.
One of The Merry Widow's greatest fans was Adolf Hitler. The failed artist saw the original at the Theater an der Wien (in the cheapest seats) and was a lifetime admirer of the operetta. That this work of Vienna-Paris frou-frou would appeal to Hitler at all is remarkable, more so when one realizes that both its librettists‹and Lehár's wife‹were Jews.
Lehár was 68 when Austria was annexed by the Nazis in 1938. As he was an "Aryan" composer, his works were properties the Nazis wished to support, mainly for their lucrative Reichsmark revenues. Lehár's conduct during the Hitler regime has been excused because of his old age, but the unsavory facts remain. He allowed his works to be performed without mention of their original (Jewish) librettists, or with new words; he continued to conduct in Vienna and Berlin; he dedicated a leather-bound souvenir of the 50th performance of The Merry Widow to Hitler; and he did not help colleagues who perished in concentration camps. In the meantime he lobbied for his works at important German and Austrian theaters over Third Reich reservations, all the while presumably collecting royalties from long runs of The Merry Widow in Allied cities.
But then, early-1940s Vienna was hardly the carefree operetta capital of the past. While the original Hanna, Mizzi Günther, played dowager roles in operettas on Viennese stages, the first Danilo, Louis Treumann, was deported to the "model" concentration camp at Theresienstadt. He died there in 1942.
Lehár would return to the opera house several times during this dark era. In 1940, Das Land des Lächelns was produced at the Vienna Staatsoper. His Zigeunerliebe was revised and produced at the Hungarian State Opera in 1943, as Garaboncias. A lavish production of The Merry Widow was presented at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in the early 1940s, with lyrics not by Léon and Stein, but by the future film director Helmut Käutner.
Richard Traubner is the author of Operetta: A Theatrical History, and writes for The Economist and other publications. A previous version of this article appeared in Opera News.