Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Power of the Letter: Werther

An image of Werther's letters
from a BLO promotional video
For hundreds of years, the primary mode of communication between people separated by distance was letters. Correspondence was an art and a pastime, a way to articulate emotions, deliver information, and even philosophize or theorize on the great questions of the day. The collected letters of great writers, thinkers, artists, and statesmen provide clues and insight to their thought processes and inner lives that are invaluable to researchers and readers alike.

Beyond real-world correspondence, letters have also become part of art in an integral way. Literature, theater, and opera are full of examples of crucial letters that go astray, are mis-delivered, arrive too late (or too early), and therefore provide critical dramatic moments. The prevalence of letters also gave rise to the form of the epistolary novel, in which the central story is told through documents (usually letters), rather than through a traditional first- or third-person narrative. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a prime example of the epistolary novel, and even helped give the genre its popularity.

How else can letters bring a story to life? Here are a few examples:

Kiera Knightley in the 2005 film.
Pride and Prejudice
Probably the most beloved of Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice in many ways revolves around the information disclosed through letters throughout the novel. Two of the letters especially tend to get hearts beating faster as the romance between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth clicks into place. First, Mr. Darcy’s long letter to Elizabeth after she refuses his offer of marriage explains his actions and causes Elizabeth to doubt her initial impression of him as cold-hearted and aloof. Later in the novel, Elizabeth reads from her aunt that Mr. Darcy arranged for her silly youngest sister to marry the roguish Mr. Wickham and her heart races—because she knows it is evidence of his feelings for her. Will they find their way to one another?!

Glenn Close, John Malkovich
and Michelle Pfeiffer for the 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Another famous epistolary novel, written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses tells the story of the deceitful and cruel Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont through a series of letters by various characters written to one another. The book, published in 1782 amidst the decadence of the French aristocracy, caused a scandal at its depictions of amoral characters and their romantic games. It has been adapted for stage, opera, film, television, ballet, and more!

There are many examples of crucial letters (and messengers) in Shakespeare’s plays, but perhaps none sets off so dramatic a chain of events than Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth near the beginning of the play. The scene opens with Lady Macbeth reading Macbeth’s tale of encountering the three witches and their strange prophecy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and then King. Lady Macbeth, in a monologue for the ages (that also coined the phrase “the milk of human kindness”), immediately knows what to do: kill the king while he sleeps and seize the crown.

Eugene Onegin
In both the original Pushkin verse novel and the Tchaikovsky opera, Tatiana’s letter scene is a masterpiece of emotion. Tatiana is a young, impressionable girl who has fallen in love with the dashing and cynical Eugene Onegin. Despite the mores of the time and the difference in their social status, Tatiana takes a chance and bares her soul to Onegin through a letter, confessing her love. Onegin, though flattered, does not reciprocate—a decision that comes back to haunt him later.

How are composers and writers using letters today in theater? Look no further than the hottest ticket currently on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. The story of founding father Alexander Hamilton told through the modern genres of hip-hop and R&B, with strong influences of the Broadway musical (all with a multi-racial, diverse cast), letters play another crucial role throughout in voicing the characters’ inner feelings, and in advancing the plot. Alexander woos his future wife, Eliza, through a series of love letters; later, his witty, flirtatious correspondence (and a crucially misplaced comma) makes another woman who loves him wonder about his true heart. Letters also provide major dramatic turns in the story; when Alexander has an affair, he is blackmailed via letter by the woman’s husband and his own wife retaliates by burning all of her saved letters. And finally, Alexander and his nemesis, Aaron Burr, exchange a heated series of letters that leads to their fateful duel. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Obsessive Love and Werther

Goethe's obsession, Lotte Buff.
Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was based in large part on his own unrequited love for Lotte Buff, a young woman he met while living in Wetzlar, Germany. Lotte was engaged to (and later married) Goethe’s friend, Johann Kestner. But while Goethe’s literary alter-ego, Werther, saw suicide as the only way out of this untenable situation, Goethe himself chose the pen as an alternative, creating a literary sensation that took Europe by storm and reverberates to this day.

Unrequited, obsessive, overwhelming love can be destructive—as in the case of Werther—but it also has the capacity to be inspiring, motivational, and even transcendent. What is it about this emotion that so affects our senses and even our brains? Here are a few theories about the power of unrequited love, in life and in art.

•    Author Lisa A. Phillips reminds us that unrequited love can, perhaps, be the most powerful muse. “How unrequited love can make us more creative” from The Washington Post

•    Survey some of the works of literature and drama that retell the age-old story of unreturned love—with results that are inspiring and cathartic. (Spoiler alert: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther ranks #12.) 50 Greatest Unrequited Love Stories Ever

•    What happens to your brain on love? How about obsession? These scientists have the answer. “Mapping ‘obsessive love’ in the brain

•    Goethe certainly wasn’t the only writer to sublimate heartache into works of literature. Learn about a few of his kindred spirits. “Perpetual Virginity: Five Writers Who Turned Unrequited Love Into Literary Gold” on the Huffington Post

•    Massenet’s opera Werther is full of romantic, yearning melodies and orchestration, sweeping the audience away in the intensity of Werther’s feelings for Charlotte. For how to listen and get the most of the music, our friends at the Metropolitan Opera have a fantastic listening guide, created for students but full of info that helps us all: Met Opera Werther Guide Musical Highlights

•    Does Werther really deserve all of this pity? Mike Drucker on Split Sider points out the importance of parody amidst all the emo weeping: “The Sorrows of Young Werther and the Rise of Parody

Monday, February 1, 2016

Get to Know Lehár's The Merry Widow

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

Franz Lehár
December 30, 1905 at the Theater an der Wien
Contrary to an often-stated misconception, the original production was an immediate success (a success which has been triumphantly replicated worldwide ever since). It was Lehár’s first international hit (he was 35), and although he lived until 1948 and wrote many more operettas, The Merry Widow remains his undisputed masterpiece.

In the years leading up to 1905, the Theater an der Wien had suffered from a series of recent failures, and so to keep their investment to a minimum, the management decided to use recycled sets and costumes—and to avoid paying rights fees for Meilhac’s original play, the billing read “partly based on a foreign idea.” As rehearsals proceeded, the producers became increasingly pessimistic that Lehár’s innovative use of orchestral color (usually reserved for more serious compositions) would be favorably received. At one point Lehár was offered 5,000 crowns to shut down the production. Wisely, he refused (and thank God).

Court Ball at the Hofburg by Wilhelm Gause, 1900.
The Merry Widow’s source was an 1861 comedy by the prolific playwright, Henri Meilhac (now best remembered for his role as a co-librettist for many of Offenbach’s hits). The play, L’Attaché d'Ambassade, was not particularly successful in Paris, but a German adaptation enjoyed a profitable run in Vienna and was frequently revived. In early 1905 it caught the attention of veteran librettist Leo Stein, who brought it to his occasional collaborator Viktor Léon. Their updated version was taken on by the Theater an der Wien and the music assigned to the well-known Richard Heuberger, who had given the theater its greatest recent success with Der Opernball (1898). The theater intendant, Wilhelm Karczag, was so disappointed when he heard Heuberger’s resulting music that he took back the script  (perhaps to Heuberger’s relief?). Karczag wanted to scrap the project, but his secretary steered him to the up-and-coming Lehár, who had scored some modest success with two earlier attempts at operetta.

Leo Stein (1861-1921) was a playwright and librettist. He collaborated with composers Johann Strauss II, Emmerich Kálmán, and (of course) Lehár, in such works as Wiener Blut (1899), Der Graf von Luxemburg (1909), and Die Csárdásfürstin (1915). He frequently worked with Viktor Léon (1858-1940). After The Merry Widow, perhaps Léon’s best-known work, again with Lehár, is The Land of Smiles (1930). Léon’s property was confiscated after Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938. He died of starvation while in hiding in 1940 at the age of 82.

Lily Elsie as Hanna in London, 1907.
The Merry Widow’s popularity led to productions in Austria, Berlin, and Budapest and then around the world. Revisions, new songs, translations, changed character names, and plot-tweaking ensued. It is said that at one point in 1907, Buenos Aires had five productions running simultaneously. It opened in London in 1907 in its first English-language version. There were some diplomatically motivated changes. The original German libretto had angered the Balkan kingdom of Montenegro, where the royal family’s name was Njegus and the real crown prince was named Danilo. “Zeta” became “Popoff” and was played by the very popular comedian George Graves—much comic shtick was added. That production of The Merry Widow opened at Daly’s Theater and ran for 778 performances.

The American premiere took place at the sumptuous New Amsterdam Theater on October 21, 1907, using the same English version done in London. The producer, Henry Savage, sent touring companies to cities all across the United States. The success of The Merry Widow produced a outburst of merchandising frenzy perhaps not seen again until Disney: sheet music, piano rolls, chocolates, cigars, shoes, oversize hats, and so on. 1907 also saw Widow in Stockholm. Copenhagen, Milan, and Moscow productions performed the following year, and in 1909, it opened in Madrid and Paris, where it was initially met with suspicion (how would those Viennese foreigners treat their untouchable city?), but eventually declared a success.

In his biography of Lehár (Gold and Silver), Dr. Bernard Grün estimates that the piece may have been performed half a million times in its first 60 years. No other play or musical up to that time had enjoyed such international success.

In 1943, it was revived in New York City with Jan Kiepura and Marta Eggerth and choreography by George Balanchine. It ran for 322 performances—in the same year that Oklahoma! opened. The first performance at the Metropolitan Opera was not until 2000 and starred Frederica von Stade and Plácido Domingo.

Piano score for The Merry Widow, Vienna, 1906.
Inevitably, sequels, spoofs, parodies, and burlesques followed. Ballet eventually seized upon the story and Lehár’s irresistibly danceable melodies. In 1953 Ruth Page’s version (titled Vilia) opened in England and subsequently toured, coming to Broadway (retitled as The Merry Widow) with Alicia Markova. Maurice Béjart did a version in 1963, and Robert Helpmann produced yet another in 1975 for the Australian Ballet…it came to London and NYC with Margot Fonteyn.

The year after The Merry Widow opened in Vienna, the original Hanna and Danilo, Mizzi Günther and Louis Treumann, recorded their arias and duets.

Film versions were also inevitable, two of the most famous being Stroheim’s (1925) and Lubitsch’s (1934).

For a utterly chilling use of the “waltz” theme, take a look at Hitchcock’s 1943 film, Shadow of a Doubt.

In 1905, the year of The Merry Widow’s premiere:
•    Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated for a second term
•    David Belasco produced his play, The Girl of the Golden West
•    George Bernard Shaw wrote Major Barbara
•    The first regular cinema opened in Pittsburgh
•    Debussy wrote La Mer
•    Richard Strauss’ Salome premiered in Dresden
•    Einstein formulated his “Special Theory of Relativity”
•    Freud wrote “Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex”
•    The first neon signs appeared
•    The Rotary Club was founded

The Merry Widow Recommendations

Recommendations for further study by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

The Merry Widow Reading

Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination
By Vesna Goldsworthy
Columbia University Press, 2012

Ruritania, Grustark, Marsovia, Pontevedro…all famous kingdoms of improbable love affairs and intrigue, grand dukes and grand balls, duels, midnight assignations, and all the adorable claptrap of the frothy world of escapist romance—and operetta. And yet these places are also fictional dreams, darkly reflecting (or attempting to cover up and repress) a historical Balkan world of instability, violence and historical chaos. After all, this was the site (Sarajevo) of the lighting of the fuse that blew up that pretty European world into a million bloody pieces. This fascinating book charts the fraught relationship of Central Europe to this area in its historical dimensions, psychological complexity, and its intricate and often unexpected literary and cultural manifestations.

The BLO production of The Merry Widow is set in 1913 on the New Year’s Eve of a year that would lead, in eight months, to the unimaginable violence and destruction of WWI…where the beautiful and the good of Europe blindly, heedlessly, recklessly waltzed their way into a Hell of their own making.

There are numerous books that chart this terrible but compelling journey. Here are two of the most vivid:

1913: The Year Before the Storm
By Florian Illies
Melville House, 2013

Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle
A month-by-month account detailing the events, both big and small, of that crucial year. Rich, even idiosyncratic, in detail, vast in its historical sweep, and breathtaking in its illuminating evocation of a world about to commit suicide.

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914
By Phillip Blom
Basic Books, 2008

A step further back…now a year-by-year account of a “world adrift…a pulsating era of creativity and contradiction, possibilities and nightmares. Prime ministers and peasants, anarchists and actresses, scientists and psychopaths intermingle on the stage of a new century in this portrait of an opulent and unstable age…”

Waltzing at the Cinema

The Merry Widow has been a popular subject for cinematic treatment practically from the beginning of its illustrious career. Two of the best are:

The Merry Widow (1925)
The silent version, with a partial Lehárian musical accompaniment, directed by Erich von Stroheim, starring John Gilbert and a unexpectedly winning Mae Murray.

The Merry Widow (1934)
The Ernst Lubitsch film, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald.

Both deviate quite a bit from the original, as each expresses the idiosyncratic and unmistakable sensibility of its director…obsessive (even a bit kinky) in the case of Stroheim and elegantly sophisticated and visually witty with Lubitsch. Although Chevalier and MacDonald are not my favorite performers (their smug satisfaction with their too evident charms do not wear particularly well), who could miss any tempting examples of the “Lubitsch touch”? Incidentally, the English lyrics in the Lubitsch film are by another master of sophistication, Lorenz Hart. And the characterization of Hanna as an American showgirl in Lillian Groag’s new adaptation for the upcoming BLO production is inspired by the Stroheim film (“Sally” in the 1925 movie).

The 1952 lushly campy version (in quasi-lurid Technicolor ) with Lana Turner (also as an American widow) and Fernando Lamas is also perhaps worth a quick look, but is pretty feeble compared to the above (which are both available in excellent DVD versions).

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