Lily Elsie and Joseph Coyne in the first London production of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow

Foulsham and Banfield Studio

Lily Elsie and Joseph Coyne in the first London production of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, 1907

In December 1905 Richard Strauss’s opera Salome—blasphemous and obscene in its libretto, fiercely dissonant in its music—had its scandalous premiere in Dresden, and Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) was first performed in Vienna. Salome offered the shock of the modern in biblical dress (and undress)—it was banned from the Metropolitan Opera after its first performance there in 1907. The Merry Widow, however, was an instant hummable triumph, full of reassuringly sentimental charms that have made it an international favorite ever since. The silent film versions by Michael Curtiz in 1918 and Erich von Stroheim in 1925 were followed by Ernst Lubitsch’s Hollywood musical in 1934, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, while Alfred Hitchcock, in 1943, used the tune of the “Merry Widow Waltz” to creepy effect in Shadow of a Doubt as a leitmotif for the killer. From 1934 to 1943 Lehár also racked up royalties in Nazi Germany, where The Merry Widow was Hitler’s favorite operetta—even as the Jewish tenor Louis Treumann, who had created the lead role of Count Danilo, died at Theresienstadt, and one of the Jewish librettists, Victor Léon, starved to death while hiding in Vienna.

The musicologist Micaela Baranello, in The Operetta Empire: Music Theater in Early Twentieth-Century Vienna, focuses on the particular theatrical setting of the late Habsburg monarchy to understand how The Merry Widow launched a new “Silver Age” of Viennese operetta, following the “Golden Age” of Johann Strauss Jr. This Silver Age, extending across the first three decades of the twentieth century, featured composers like Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán, who came from the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary and brought operettas to Vienna that both reflected and constructed the multinational identity of the Habsburg empire in its final decade.

Operetta then became a vehicle for patriotic engagement as well as escapist diversion during World War I and, Baranello argues, a means of nostalgically preserving a sense of Habsburg identity in Vienna after the breakup of the far-flung empire, when the former imperial metropolis became the capital of the little Austrian republic. The “operetta empire” of the title is the Habsburg monarchy that produced a spectacular repertory of such works, but also the wider world to which they were exported in a display of musical soft power and, finally, the fantasy that they created in performance, an imaginary multicultural empire of song and dance, of cultural misunderstandings that could be tunefully resolved in time for happy (though sometimes bittersweet) endings.

The beginnings of the Golden Age of Viennese operetta had coincided with the establishment of a liberal constitutional monarchy under Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, by the terms of the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867. That was also the year of Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Blue Danube Waltz” celebrating the river that connected the monarchy’s two capitals, Vienna and Budapest. The genre of popular operetta, with its combination of song, dance, dialogue, and farce, had already been established by Jacques Offenbach in Paris in the 1850s and 1860s. Strauss made the genre his own in the 1870s and 1880s by joining Viennese waltz rhythms to operetta comedy. The central act of his Die Fledermaus, which premiered in 1874, is a carnival ball in contemporary Vienna with people of all social classes—the nobility, the bourgeoisie, the servants—mingling in masks for one intimately emancipatory night. The vocal highlight of the ball is an aria sung by the heroine, Rosalinde, composed with the dance rhythms and tempo variations of the Hungarian folk dance known as the csárdás—Strauss’s playful Viennese tribute to the dual structure of Austria-Hungary.

The death of Strauss in 1899 marked the end of the Golden Age, and Baranello notes that the 1890s, the decade of Viennese fin-de-siècle modernism, were already a period of crisis for operetta, which seemed obdurately unmodern. In 1897—the year of Strauss’s last work, The Goddess of Reason (set during the French Revolution)—Gustav Klimt established the Secession movement in art, Gustav Mahler became the conductor of the Vienna Court Opera, and Sigmund Freud first articulated the Oedipus complex in his correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess.

While The Merry Widow offered a glimpse of the Parisian demimonde, it could hardly compare, as modern drama, with Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen (published 1903; also known as La Ronde), an exploration of Vienna’s intimate sexual mores. Furthermore, when The Merry Widow was first performed in 1905, the mayor of Vienna was Karl Lueger, a master of mobilizing mass political support by the strategic use of anti-Semitism. Lueger’s style of political demagogy intensified class and cultural antagonisms and undermined the Straussian operetta fantasy of a society that could come together to the waltzing rhythms of a masked ball.


The triumph of The Merry Widow was also incongruously concurrent with the ascent of musical modernism, contrasting with an orchestral culture defined by the tone poems and symphonies of Richard Strauss and Mahler, at the same time that Arnold Schoenberg was beginning to abolish conventional harmony altogether. Lehár, much less adventurously, employed some of the complex harmonies of late Romanticism as well as an exoticism that derived from his origins in Hungarian Slovakia to convey the rhythms of the imaginary country of Pontevedro. The plot involves Count Danilo traveling to Paris to court the widow Hanna Glawari in order to preserve her wealth for the Pontevedran economy. This was the age of the imaginary Eastern European principality—most notably the fictional Ruritania in Anthony Hope’s novel The Prisoner of Zenda (1894)—and Lehár claimed such principalities for the “operetta empire” of Austria-Hungary, which he infused with his own folkloric musical style.

The horrors of World War I might have brought down the curtain on the frivolous charms of Viennese operetta. Yet as Baranello demonstrates, the genre flourished in wartime, both as escapist entertainment and as theatrical engagement with the war itself. The Habsburg military alliance with the Ottoman Empire, for instance, was reflected in the staging of Leo Fall’s Die Rose von Stambul, set in Istanbul and Switzerland, which had its premiere in Vienna in 1916; the operetta played on musical aspects of Turkish exoticism that dated back to Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, first performed in Vienna in 1782.

The most important wartime operetta composer was Kálmán, who in the autumn of 1914 presented I Gave Gold for Iron (Gold gab ich für Eisen), about contributing gold jewelry to the war effort. Kálmán then had a big hit with The Csárdás Princess (Die Csárdásfürstin) in 1915, set in Budapest and Vienna, which glamorously represented the bonds and tensions of Austro-Hungarian dualism. The heroine, a Hungarian cabaret singer, is snubbed by her lover’s grand Viennese family until it is revealed that his grand Viennese mother was also once a Hungarian cabaret singer. The operetta was not just a meditation on Austro-Hungarian identity but also a meta-reflection on the genre of operetta—its social status, its concealed affinities, its powers of assimilation.

Kálmán, born Imre Koppstein, was himself a study in cultural assimilation. The drive to assimilate through language and culture was very powerful among Hungarian Jews in the later nineteenth century, and for Kálmán that inevitably included national music. He had been a conservatory student in Budapest at the same time as Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, and just as they undertook serious study of folk music in Hungary, Kálmán in his operettas emphasized a similar style, which was also thought to be Romani (or “Gypsy”). The deployment of this sort of folk idiom in classical music dated back to Haydn in the eighteenth century and was crucial for the work of Liszt in the nineteenth, but Lehár and especially Kálmán made it essential to the expression of passion in Silver Age operetta. In 1912 (while Bartók was working on Bluebeard’s Castle) Kálmán had his first Viennese hit with The Gypsy Violinist (Der Zigeunerprimas), about a Roma musician, Pali Rácz (an actual historical figure), in conflict with his son, who wants to play classical violin. This was, in some sense, the dilemma of operetta itself as a genre—between high and low, between opera and cabaret.

Baranello suggests that the musical formula for Silver Age operetta involved the untamed passion of the Hungarian csárdás entering into dialectical balance with the civilized sentimentality of the Viennese waltz. That balance was orchestrated by Jewish composers like Kálmán and Fall, with operetta constituting an avenue of assimilation for Jewish artists and audiences, allowing them to participate in an overarching Austro-Hungarian culture. At the Fledermaus ball, it would have been impossible to determine who was Jewish behind the carnival masks, and there have been productions that suggest that Gabriel and Rosalinde von Eisenstein, the principal Fledermaus couple with their marital misunderstandings, might be assimilated Viennese Jews who revise their identities once again as a French marquis and a Hungarian countess.

It was precisely operetta’s capacity to both include and conceal the Jewish aspects of its creative world—including the remote Jewish origins of Johann Strauss himself—that made it a target for anti-Semitism in the increasingly polarized climate of the early twentieth century. Richard Wagner had pointed the way when he denounced the Scheusslichkeit (abomination) of Offenbach’s operettas, and in 1913, with the Silver Age in full swing, the musicologist Hans Joachim Moser denounced what he deemed a cultural pathology in his essay “The Operetta Epidemic.” Moser later became an important cultural official in the Third Reich. After World War II, his daughter, the soprano Edda Moser, was a charming Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus.


The fiercest denunciations of Silver Age operetta in Vienna came from the journalist Karl Kraus (a Jewish-born apostate), whose magazine Die Fackel engaged in uncompromising and eccentric cultural criticism for more than thirty-five years, beginning in 1899. Kraus was a devotee of Offenbach, relished his spirit of satire, and delivered one-man performances of his French operettas in German—while believing that twentieth-century Viennese operetta was a completely debased genre. In 1912 he published an attack on Vienna’s “operetta culture” for its supposed superficiality and for generating demagogic and dangerous “patriotic enthusiasm.”

Probably thinking of the ongoing Balkan Wars and their operetta implications (“we have rhapsodized over the world of Danilo”), Kraus proposed the peculiar equation of operetta and militarism: “An operetta culture marches out with thirst for war. Its soldiers are writers. Wholly irresponsible subjects, who launch a premiere today and a war tomorrow.” When war actually came to Austria-Hungary in August 1914, Kraus doubled down on this connection between the sentimental seductions of operetta and the blindness of militarism. His apocalyptic satirical drama The Last Days of Mankind, about wartime Vienna, frequently emphasizes the presence of operetta as a sort of soundtrack for the home front.

The composer Ralph Benatzky was already patriotically active in September 1914, presenting at the Rideamus Cabaret a revue of operetta songs under the title Anno 14 and fashioning a new brand of sentimental patriotism with his ballad “Draussen in Schönbrunn” (“Outside at Schönbrunn”). The song conjured an old man seated in the park at Schönbrunn Palace, full of worries. Obviously he was none other than the Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph, overwhelmed by troubles at the age of eighty-four. Benatzky’s operetta style rallied the public of Vienna around their dynastic patriarch:

Was wir können, woll’n wir tun, lass dir bisserl Zeit zum Ruh’n,
lieber, guter, alter Herr von Schönbrunn.

[What we can, we will do, to leave you a little time for peace,
dear good old man of Schönbrunn.

Two years before his death, the spirit of operetta had already created around the emperor the halo of nostalgia that would persist into the post-Habsburg world. Benatzky’s lyricist, the Moravian-born Fritz Grünbaum, fought in World War I—and survived—but was murdered by the Nazis at Dachau during World War II.

Franz Joseph did not have particularly sophisticated musical taste, but he enjoyed operetta. After a performance of Die Fledermaus at the spa town of Bad Ischl in 1910, he was supposedly so charmed by Maria Jeritza, the young Moravian soprano who sang Rosalinde, that he insisted on bringing her to the court opera. There she became one of the great divas of the early twentieth century, famous for portraying the heroines of Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss. She created the title role of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in 1912 and of the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1919. Worrying over the heaviness of his orchestration, Strauss claimed that in the future he wanted to write only light operettas: “Long live the political-satirical-parodistic operetta!” he wrote to his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1916.

Baranello reserves particular attention for Viennese operetta between the world wars. The genre, already implicitly nostalgic before the end of the Habsburg monarchy, became a vehicle for negotiating the relation of the new, narrowly Austrian identity to the Habsburg legacy. In November 1918, when there was no longer an emperor at Schönbrunn, it was difficult to say what it meant to be “Austrian”—a citizen of the postwar Alpine republic now detached from Hungary, shorn of provinces, forbidden to merge with Germany, and yet preserving the capital of the former empire, Vienna, a museum of monuments from the imperial past.

In Kálmán’s operetta The Duchess of Chicago (Die Herzogin von Chicago), Prince Sandor Boris of the fictional country Sylvaria cherishes a nostalgic devotion to Romani violin music, while Mary Lloyd of Chicago heralds the triumph of American jazz in Europe. They meet cute in Budapest and bring about the battle of the csárdás against the Charleston, with Kálmán providing the music for both sides. Baranello, focusing on Vienna, does not discuss the American careers of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml, roughly contemporaries of Kálmán, who were born as subjects of Franz Joseph but made their operetta careers on Broadway. Their style helped shape the emergence of the Broadway musical, for example in Jerome Kern’s Show Boat (1927), which revealed its operetta influence in a song like “You Are Love,” composed in three-quarter time with almost-operatic top notes.

Kálmán’s Duchess of Chicago premiered in Vienna in 1928, the same year that Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera was first performed in Berlin and set a radically new standard for modernism in musical theater. Nothing could have illustrated more clearly that operetta, even when dancing the Charleston, was looking backward.

Lehár, who launched the Silver Age in 1905 with The Merry Widow, delivered its culminating masterpiece in Berlin in 1929, The Land of Smiles (Das Land des Lächelns), a fantasy of Chinese-Viennese romance. The smiling of the title was meant to suggest the politeness of Chinese culture, which concealed its inner emotions and tensions, though it simultaneously evoked the old Habsburg operetta culture of song and sentiment, of merry widows. Lehár’s first act is set nostalgically in Habsburg Vienna, where Lisa, a young Viennese aristocrat, becomes fascinated with Sou-Chong, a Chinese prince, and the second and third acts are set in China, where she begins to regret her marriage, especially when it turns out that a Chinese prince is expected to have multiple wives.

Richard Tauber in the film version of The Land of Smiles

SZ Photo/Bridgeman Images

Richard Tauber in the film version of Franz Lehár’s The Land of Smiles, directed by Max Reichmann, 1930

Lehár created the role of Sou-Chong for the most celebrated Austrian operatic tenor of the era, Richard Tauber, who, unusually, crossed over into operetta repertory and also starred in the 1930 film of The Land of Smiles. While the composer dabbled here in pseudo-Chinese pentatonic musical phrases, he also wrote for Tauber (performing in what we would now call yellowface) what became his most celebrated aria: “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (Yours Is My Heart Alone). It was an American hit for Bing Crosby in 1940 and has been beloved by tenors ever since, even though its literal meaning derives from the polygamous plot. Tauber sang it with multiple encores, and when Sou-Chong’s Viennese love left him to return to Vienna in the third act, he remained poignantly bereft. She was going back to a Habsburg Austria that no longer existed when the opera was composed and performed, allowing the audience a fantasy return to the past as well. China itself in the 1920s, like little Austria, was a new republic, formerly the realm of emperors—and architectural traces of the old Habsburg empire survived even in China at the neobaroque former Austro-Hungarian legation complex in Tianjin, just southeast of Beijing.

Tauber was a big enough star to bring The Land of Smiles out of the popular sphere of operetta and into the more elevated realm of the Vienna State Opera. It had its premiere there at the time of the Vienna Fasching carnival on January 30, 1938, starring Tauber, with Lehár conducting—just six weeks before the Anschluss, when Hitler marched into Austria and annexed it to Nazi Germany. The Viennese crowds cheered for Hitler and stopped cheering for Tauber. An Austrian Jew who had distilled and preserved the spirit of late-Habsburg operetta while wearing the costume of a Chinese prince, Tauber fled to England. Jewish Austrians no longer had the liberty to assume the alternative identities of operetta fantasy.

Lehár, whose work was enthusiastically performed in the Third Reich, underwent a cursory denazification review after World War II and died at Bad Ischl in 1948, the same year that Tauber died in London. Kálmán spent the war in California and died in Paris in 1953. In that same year there was a Viennese production of Lehár’s Merry Widow, staged while the city was still being rebuilt after Allied bombing and Austria remained under occupation. Silver Age operetta was already returning to Vienna, and the nostalgic yearning for a less disturbing past had never been so powerful, as Austria presented to the world the convenient fiction that it had been Hitler’s innocent victim all along.

In 1953 both The Merry Widow and The Land of Smiles were recorded for the new age of the LP, featuring the exquisite voice of the German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who had begun her career in Nazi Germany. Though she was not Austrian by birth, Schwarzkopf became a paragon of Viennese phrasing in the postwar decades, conjuring the Habsburg ancien régime as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier as well as the vocal enchantment of Viennese Silver Age operetta. Her adoring Chinese prince on the Land of Smiles recording was the young Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, singing with consummate sweetness.

More than three decades later, when Gedda sang the role of Sou-Chong in Vienna in 1988—the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss, while the former Nazi Kurt Waldheim was the president of Austria—the tenor was at the end of a great career, channeling Tauber as he offered a series of encore verses of “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” He sang the penultimate encore pianissimo, as Tauber sometimes did, and the final encore in Swedish. Across the twentieth century, from the age of Franz Joseph to the end of the cold war, Silver Age operetta had offered Austrians clues to their historically shifting identity, and the Chinese prince, who sang to the Viennese public the aching secret of his heart in incomprehensibly beautiful Swedish, continued to renegotiate the sentimental boundaries of the once and future Habsburg operetta empire.