I know… now people (and particularly Western people) do not know operettas. In the best-case scenarios they know opera and the Broadway musicals. Literally meaning a 'little opera', the term has become associated with a form of light opera, with spoken dialogue replacing recitative, following in the steps of the op’ra-comique composers, and with a tendency to isolated musical numbers of a tuneful kind. The genre was to lead towards musical comedy and the modern musical.
Before WWII operettas were hugely popular in Europe. The unique mix of Slavic spirit, dieing-hard Romanism and deep exposure to the roots of in German music helped Kalman to create the most magnificent operettas ever were composed.
Born in Siofok on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary, Kálmán’s interest in music and theatre developed from an early age by family music-making and surreptitious attendance at rehearsals and performances at the local summer theatre. His family moved to Budapest when he was 14 after his father’s business collapsed and the consequent harsh economic circumstances through which they lived transformed Kálmán into a cautious, rather gloomy person.
He began composition lessons at the Budapest Academy of Music with Hans Kössler when still at school and, although his parents insisted he study law, he abandoned his legal studies to write music criticism for one of the leading Budapest newspapers. His colleagues at the Academy of Music included Bartók, Kodaly and Leo Weiner and his music was performed with theirs in a student concert in 1903. He won the Robert Volkmann composition prize in 1906 but irritated at his failure to have his music published, he approached Karl von Bakonyi, a successful librettist, and suggested they write an operetta together. The subject, the army manoeuvres that were a regular feature of life in pre-1914 Austria-Hungary, was Kálmán’s and after persuading a small Budapest theatre to stage the piece (Hertbstmanöver), news of its quality spread to Vienna and the directors of the Theater an der Wien came to Budapest to see it. Liking what they saw, the signed up the rights and produced it in Vienna in 1909, following which it was staged the same year in Hamburg, Stockholm, New York and London.
Kálmán thereafter focused his energies on writing operetta for the Capital City of operetta, and he became world-famous as a result. In 1915, Die Csardasfürstin appeared and it remains his most popular and commercially successful work. The war disrupted life, but Kálmán took up where he had left off, producing Gräfin Mariza in 1924 and Die Zirkusprinzessin in 1926. The Great Depression of the late 1920s affected theatre life greatly and Kálmán never again repeated his earlier successes. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, his music was banned first in Germany, then in Austria and he immigrated to America with his family in 1940, where he remained until after the war. The Kálmans returned to Europe in 1949 and Kálmán completed his last operetta, Arizona Lady, though sadly, he did not live to see it staged, he died in Paris in 1953
Here is a not completed list of the most significant Kálmán’s works:
Scherzando, Suites - 1905
Mikes's farewell, Choruses - 1907
The Gay Hussars, Operetta - 1909
The Soldier on Leave, Operetta - 1911
Her Soldier Boy, Operetta - 1911
The Blue House, Operetta - 1912
The Emigrants, Operetta - 1913
Miss Springtime, Operetta - 1915
The Gipsy Princess, Operetta (Die Csardasfurstin) - 1915
A Little Dutch Girl, Operetta - 1920
The Yankee Princess, Operetta (Die Bajadere) - 1921
Grafin Mariza, Operetta 1924
The Circus Princess, Operetta (Die Zirkusprinzessin) - 1926
Die Herzogin von Chicago, Operetta - 1928
Paris in Spring, Operetta (Das Veilchen vom Montmartre) - 1930
Der Teufelsreiter, Operetta - 1932
Kaiserin Josephine, Operetta - 1936
Miss Underground, Operetta -1943
Marinka, Operetta - 1945
Arizona Lady, Operetta (completed by C. Kalman) – 1954
Musically Kálmán is amassing. After you hear a single Kálmán’s note you would instantly recognize that it was not composer by a German composer, however you must hear Kálmán in German. The Kálmán’s German is so fluent and so melodic the many Italians might be really sorry. Try to get his works like “Die Csardasfurstin” or “Die Zirkusprinzessin” or “Grafin Mariza” and you would see what I mean.
Among the recordings probably the 1920-55 would be best period to hunt for Kálmán. Pasido Domingo, Nicolai Gedda, Sari Barabass, Rudolf Schock, Richard Tauber, Anneliese Rothenberger and many other sang Kálmán a lot with Berlin Symphony, Odeon-Kunstler, Graunke, Straatsoper Munchen and other orchestras. I less impressed with the contemporary attempts by Richard Bonynge, but this is just my opinion. Yes, if you find a good recording of “Das Veilchen vom Montmartre” then, please let me know….
Romy the Cat
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche