Then there’s that other phrase, the one reached for by directors who want to be cool in a more ‘gritty’ way. About a month ago, I went Kidlington Amateur Opera Society’s production of The Merry Widow** (which did not involve dragons).* Humming the tunes, I naturally then turned to YouTube to see if there were any complete versions on it, which there are. I clicked on one that looked as if it was not made in the era of orange hair, and did the “move the cursor forward a random amount to see what it is like” thing. I was slightly surprised to discover when “what it was like” was a bloke on stage looking surprisingly like David Mitchell*** in the “Are we the baddies?” sketch.
Yes, someone has made The Merry Widow with Nazis.
It had to happen eventually. There’s Lehar, Hitler’s favourite composer. A libretto that contains rather a lot of cynical references to the Fatherland. Opera’s general liking for dramatic costumes and a bit of updating. It’s still kind of bizarre. The Merry Widow is not darkly political stuff. It’s fluff. Glorious fluff, but basically fluff. Who looks at it and thinks it needs political realism of any sort, let alone updating to occupied Paris c. 1944?
Actually, I can see exactly how it happened:
Company member 1: What shall we do next? Our finances are looking a bit rough, so let’s make sure we get a good audience. Something popular with the old folk, small cast, good tunes. Not too complicated scenery.
Company member 2: How about Die Lustige Witwe.
Other company members: Groan! Too staid! Too conventional! Too Viennese!
Company member 2: No, wait! We can make it exciting. You know how the characters are always going on about the Fatherland?
Other company members: Ye-es?
Company member 2: We set it in the Third Reich! Think of Danilo’s first aria. What if he’s a disenchanted SS officer, the black uniforms will look great on stage. Zeta’s a French collaborator. Hanna’s a film star, like that woman in Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter. Oh! And Rossillon can be in the Resistance and Valencienne a secret sympathiser****. It can’t fail!
Other company members: I suppose we could give it a go…
In the event it worked pretty well, though as it was in German and my copy of the libretto omits some of the dialogue, I wasn’t always able to identify where changes had been made to the text (or I could identify a change, but not exactly what it meant). It’s certainly an awful lot better than the hideous San Francisco Opera production I saw on a library DVD, which was so arch you, could drive a chariot through it. Some of the interest for me lay in the choices made by a German company in terms of representing Nazi characters and insignia on stage. So the uniforms have the SS rune and the death’s head cap badge, but the swastikas are modified, and the salute is done with the arm position as usual, but the fingers open as in a Vulcan salute. But not being a German viewer I don’t have the nuances of why particular choices are made (I know there are legal issues, but I get the impression that these are also not straightforward in all contexts). I expect my next dose of The Merry Widow, a Metropolitan Opera cinema broadcast, to be rather different.
To finish on a random note, when I went to The Girl of the Golden West with antisoppist last month, I remarked that it had got me thinking about what replies various opera characters would get from agony aunts. It strikes me now that Danilo would be the perfect match for Captain Awkward, since he actually does need the message “Use your words”.
*It was surprisingly good. I hadn’t gone with high expectations for the singing, because I’m not an idiot, and so it was adequate. What greatly exceeded my expectations was that they had a director who could direct and a musical director who whipped a 24 piece orchestra on apace and in tune, as a result of which it went at a good clip, played the comedy well, and was thoroughly entertaining.
**Not that I would be surprised by TMW with dragons, given opera production concepts.
***He really does. It is quite hard to watch light opera when all the way through you are thinking that the male lead looks like a slightly thinner version of a British comedian.
****Valencienne actually offers the singer and director a surprising amount of space for characterisation choice. Opera North implied she was a former grisette who really did want to keep to her side of the marriage deal out of loyalty.
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