What’s the lowliest form of classical music? (Bear in mind that “classical music” is an almost infinitely flexible term—probably too flexible. It encompasses both the Bach B-Minor Mass and Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance.) Many would say that operetta is the lowliest form. But then, some people aren’t too sure about opera itself: it’s all slumming, they say, a tawdry world of passions, costumes, and make-up. Don Giovanni, Fidelio, and Parsifal? Exceptions, perhaps!

“Operetta,” in its most literal sense, means “little opera.” But, of course, we’re not talking about Ravel’s Enfant et les sortilèges, and certainly not about Strauss’s Elektra. No, we mean far more Johann Strauss than Richard Strauss. In fact, as a music dictionary will tell you, “operetta” has come to be synonymous with “light opera.” There are undoubtedly very high examples of light opera. Anyone in his right mind would kill to have written Lehár’s Merry Widow, a beautiful, inspired little creation (never mind Hitler’s great attachment to it). Die Fledermaus, by Johann Strauss, Jr., is another very high operetta, a staple of the operatic repertory generally, or an operetta token in it, if you will.

Over the years, many of our greatest singers have indulged in the guilty pleasure of operetta. More than a few have done so unguiltily! One of the great Schwarzkopf’s most accomplished recordings is her album of operetta arias, including Richard Heuberger’s “Im chambre séparée,” from Der Opernball. Anyone who can resist that can resist anything. (The album is available from EMI Classics as a Great Recording of the Century.) The tenor Richard Tauber was the undisputed King of Operetta in the time roughly between the wars; he was a considerable singer by any measure. Ever since him, tenors of every stripe have loved to open their mouths in “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!” (or “My Heart Belongs to You!”) from Lehár’s Land of Smiles.

Well, operetta is now making a bit of a comeback; or, at least, Decca Broadway has reissued recordings of eight operettas, recordings made in the 1940s and ’50s. These discs—which contain two operettas each—feature some familiar, well-loved works, like Sigmund Romberg’s Student Prince, and some less familiar ones, too, such as Jerome Kern’s Roberta. (This is the operetta that boasts “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Furthermore, the name Kern brings up the kinship between operetta—certainly “Broadway operetta,” as opposed to the pure, Viennese variety—and the traditional musical. The operetta, of course, was to lose out badly to the musical.) The Decca discs offer not the complete operettas, but highlights—which, not to be unpleasant about it, amply suffice. A note from the company says, “America in the 21st century seems to have little time for operetta, the ultimate musical confection.” True. But let’s make a little time.

One of the discs is devoted entirely to Romberg, namely, his operettas The Desert Song and The New Moon. As Eric Myers reminds us in his excellent liner notes, the former work was accorded no fewer than three film versions, in 1929, 1943, and 1953. It was revived on Broadway in 1973, though unsuccessfully, and was given the royal treatment at the New York City Opera in the 1980s—there, it was a hit.

The star of the Decca recording is Kitty Carlisle, whose career has been long and varied. The senior-most of our senior citizens know her as a singer-actress from Broadway and movies; the subsequent generation or two know her as a regular on television’s To Tell the Truth, where she was a panelist from 1956 to 1977; and New Yorkers of any age may remember her as head of the state’s arts council from 1976 to 1996. Kitty Carlisle—Kitty Carlisle Hart, really, the wife of the playwright/director Moss Hart—was born in 1910, and I happened to see her at a party not long ago. She looked almost exactly as she did on television in the 1970s. Someone remarked to me, “Do you realize that this lady dated George Gershwin?”

In The Desert Song, she makes pretty and sturdy sounds, and she articulates with exceptional clarity. Her co-star is Wilbur Evans, a classic operetta baritone, romantic and virile. Romberg’s music is unquestionably nostalgic, but slightly hard to take in large doses. It needs to be laughed with (when laughter is called for), and not laughed at. It needs to be accepted, without sneering or groans. One must have the tastebud for this “confection.” Sings Mrs. Hart, “When life is gray, I know a way to keep it gay. I pass the time of day romancing.” That’s the spirit.

The New Moon, as Eric Myers informs us, was Romberg’s final hit. (The plots of these shows tend to be so byzantine and zany, one can scarcely get into them.) It contains one very familiar song, “Stouthearted Men,” which is sometimes mistaken for a Gilbert and Sullivan number. (An endearing line: “Start me with ten who are stronghearted men, and I’ll soon give you ten thousand more.” The lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II, who was co-lyricist on The Desert Song. He was to move on to much greater things, chiefly with his partner Richard Rodgers.) Thomas Hayward is the dreamy tenor here, and Lee Sweetland—a wonderful name for an operetta singer—is the dreamy baritone. It may be said that listening to Romberg at length increases one’s regard for the masters of opera proper, even the “low” variety: Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, in comparison to The Desert Song, is a late Beethoven quartet.

Better music is to be found in the works of Victor Herbert, that American original and one-time first cellist with the Metropolitan Opera. His CD from Decca features two of his best, Babes in Toyland and The Red Mill. The conductor on Babes is Alexander Smallens, of properly “classical” fame. It should be said straight off that Herbert’s March from this operetta is one of the great, truly distinguished little marches, not dissimilar to Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette. Many years ago, Eugene Ormandy included it on an album of marches with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And the title song lingers in many a memory: “Toyland, Toyland, little girl and boy land … childhood’s joyland, mystic, merry Toyland.” The tenor Kenny Baker sings this, and other songs, with fond tenderness.

Three years after Babes (1903) came The Red Mill, lyrics by Henry Blossom—another name made for operetta! The Red Mill may be largely forgotten now—Herbert is far better known for Babes and, even more, Naughty Marietta—but Eric Myers records that it was the composer’s “biggest success.” He further notes that “with its satirical, Americans-abroad plot and its abundance of Tin Pan Alley-style songs, The Red Mill was actually closer to the nascent form of musical comedy than to operetta.”

Of chief interest on this recording is the participation of Eileen Farrell, the … what should we call her? “Singer” will do. She was one of the most versatile and unusual singers in history, a natural, unfettered soprano who didn’t care whether she sang an advertising jingle or Isolde—and who did them both superbly. Her way with Herbert is typically winning. One is struck by how controlled and modulated she is; she had a very substantial instrument, yet she could lighten it at will. And she never sings down to the music—she treats it all with dignity, and appropriateness. I think of Arthur Fiedler’s line: “There’s no second-rate music, only second-rate performances.” That’s debatable, at a minimum, but the line is nice.

Decca is not the only company having a little fun. Video Artists International is an invaluable purveyor of historic CDs, videocassettes, and DVDs. The company has in its stockroom two shows—on video—from Max Liebman, the legendary producer. They were both live on television, and come from 1955. They are Herbert’s Naughty Marietta and a concoction called The Great Waltz, a life of Johann Strauss, Jr., with that composer’s music (drawn from a variety of sources).

Each of these productions is hard to resist; it would take a heart of stone not to enjoy them. Introducing The Great Waltz, the announcer (who is Don Pardo: the announcer) says, “The place? Vienna. The time? Three-quarter!” All the songs are performed in English—it is imperative in operetta that the songs be rendered in the language of the audience—and the production is definitely live. Proof comes in the few flubbed lines and a glitch in the camera work. This is the sort of music around which it’s hard to be sad. Indeed, operetta music, generally, is happy music. The Gershwin song that either mocks or pays tribute to this genre—“By Strauss!”—is giddily happy. (“So I say to cha-cha-cha, Heraus! Just give me an oom-pah-pah by Strauss!”)

In The Great Waltz, Johann, Jr., is a young composer trying to emerge from his father’s shadow, and his father is trying to subvert him at every turn. If this is not roughly accurate, Johann Strauss the Elder has been seriously libeled. Eventually, however, the father softens, and the Younger is able to prove himself the far greater composer. The star here is Patrice Munsel, a coloratura/lyric soprano who was on the roster of the Met. It’s easy to see why she was chosen for this “light” work: she’s a charming actress, an effervescent personality, and a sport. Though she may be “slumming,” she doesn’t act like it, or sing like it. Munsel is guileless and winsome, with a pure, flexible, often quicksilver voice.

Joining her is a more noted soprano, Jarmila Novotna, who is clearly having a ball in Liebman’s production, cavorting and conspiring in her Czech accent. Keith Andes—known as a movie and TV character actor—does a solid job as Strauss, and Bert Lahr does a brilliant turn as Hans Ebesteder, the café owner. It matters not that Lahr is supposed to be a solid Viennese citizen: his New York accent remains as thick as ever. And he talks his way magnificently through a novelty song about his character’s dislike of the waltz—a Viennese who can’t stand the waltz! (“The house is filled with Strauss!” he grouses.)

It is perhaps of further interest that one of the writers responsible for the “book” was Neil Simon. Munsel, Novotna, Lahr, Simon, Pardo: Liebman could produce ’em.

And he did smashingly with Naughty Marietta, the blue-ribbon winner in this bumper crop of operettas, for my money. This is a crackling show, gloriously performed. We are in French-ruled New Orleans, just after the Americans have won their independence. As the announcer says, “The Old City was a cauldron of intrigue, hot tempers, cold steel, and fiery passions, which can only lead to one thing … Operetta!” Indeed.

This production married an opera star—Munsel again—and a Broadway star, Alfred Drake, the baritone known for Oklahoma!’s Curly and many other roles. Naughty Marietta has practically everything: singing, dancing, dueling (complete with nonstop repartée)—even a Punch ’n’ Judy show. It is packed with gaiety and sauciness. Munsel is an unalloyed delight, sporting a French accent that actually grows on you rather than wears on you. Drake is as fresh as a daisy, his singing polished and easy, his manner effortless and appealing. John Conte is the handsome villain, and Gale Sherwood is melting as Yvonne, the (basically) good girl who loves the villain. This is a beautiful woman, a beautiful singer, and a compelling presence. For many years, Sherwood was Nelson Eddy’s partner, though not nearly as well known as Jeanette MacDonald.

We should know two songs from Naughty Marietta. The first is the “Italian Street Song,” a coloratura romp, with plentiful high C’s. Beverly Sills liked to sing this number, and recorded it (as part of an entire album of Herbert). Munsel glitters and dazzles in it. The second song is the show’s concluding number, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”—and it’s possible that, at this date, the phrase is more famous than the song. Naughty is, in a nutshell, sincere fun. I mentioned earlier that anyone should kill to have written The Merry Widow; one might at least commit battery to have written Naughty Marietta.

What can we say of the genre—of the poor, discarded operetta? That it is clever, entertaining, romantic, and often ingenious. It is not necessarily to be gorged on, even as meringue isn’t. One can go a long while—years—without hearing any operetta, and not notice any dissatisfaction. But forever? Are you kidding? Excuse me, but I must go and find The Land of Smiles.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 2, on page 51
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