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Famous Operetta Overtures

Operetta was essentially a development of the second half of the nineteenth century, a product of Paris, where Jacques Offenbach achieved enormous success with a form of music-theatre that neatly filled the gap between the weightier production of the Opéra-Comique and popular vaudeville. From France the genre was taken up elsewhere, and most notably in Vienna, with the work of Milloecker, von Suppé and Johann Strauss, leading to Kálmán, Lehár, Robert Stolz and others. Fashions were to change and operetta suffered a gradual decline, while the works of its heyday retained their popularity. Johann Strauss and Jacques Offenbach at least still hold the stage, although Suppé may now be better known for the overtures that introduced his music for the theatre.

Jacques Offenbach was of German Jewish origin. His father, Isaac Juda Eberst, came from Offenbach-am-Main, moving to Cologne, where he carried on his trade as a bookbinder and served as cantor in a synagogue. It was in Cologne that his second son, Jakob, was born in 1819, and in that city that he began playing the cello in a trio with one of his brothers and a sister. In 1833 he moved with his brother Julius, a violinist, to Paris, studied briefly at the Conservatoire, and embarked on a career as a cellist with the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique. By 1838 he was able to leave the orchestra to earn a living by his compositions and by his performances in the salons of the French capital, and by an increasingly busy career as a virtuoso cellist, appearing with some of the most distinguished musicians of the day.

It was not until the year of the Great Exhibition, 1855, that Offenbach was able to begin to make a success of his stage works and three years later he put on the operetta that was to make his name, Orpheus in the Underworld, a parody of Gluck's famous opera. La belle Hélène, written in 1864, with a libretto by Meilhac and Halévy, also won very considerable success, with its similarly satirical treatment of classical legend. His operettas were to dominate Paris and to lead to pirated versions of his work elsewhere, before he was able to direct performances for himself in Vienna, in London and in the United States of America. Towards the end of his life he showed particular concern for another work, which was to become a valued part of operatic repertoire. This was The Tales of Hoffmann, which was left incomplete at the composer's death in Paris in 1880.

Franz von Suppé was born in Dalmatia in the town of Spalato, now known as Split, in 1819, the son of a Belgian father in the service of the Austrian government, and a mother from Vienna. He was christened, with a certain extravagance, Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo and bore the title Cavaliere and the surnames Suppé Demelli. In Vienna, where he moved with his mother after his father's death in 1835, he was to be known more simply as Franz von Suppé. There he studied music, taking lessons from Mozart's pupil Ignaz von Seyfried, who found him a position at the Josefstadt Theater, for which he wrote score after score, later moving as Kapellmeister to the Theater an der Wien.

It was through the influence of Offenbach that true Viennese operetta was created, an early example being Suppé's Das Pensionat in 1860. By 1865 Suppé had established himself at the Carltheater, the old Leopoldstadt Theater of Mozart's time, and it was there that he had some of his greatest successes, that were to bring him the freedom of the city of Vienna and enough money to buy a comfortable country estate.

Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna, remembered for its sparkling overture, was a play with songs, mounted at the Josefstadt in 1844. The Beautiful Galatea, described as a comic-mythological operetta, had its first performance in Berlin in 1865, while Light Cavalry was one of the first of Suppé's operettas to be mounted at the Carltheater. These overtures have remained popular favourites in various versions.

Johann Strauss, the son of a father who had established the position of the family in light music in Vienna, was the principal figure in the world of the Viennese waltz, with which his name will always be associated. He turned to the theatre relatively late in his career, partly through the persuasion of his second wife and the example of Franz von Suppé. Indigo and the Forty Thieves appeared in 1871 and the most famous of all operettas, Die Fledermaus, in 1874. Fledermaus was based on a French vaudeville, derived in turn from a play by the Leipzig singer and theatre-director Roderich Benedix.

Its light-hearted comedy seems to epitomise Vienna of the period, with the brilliant overture deftly capturing the spirit of the whole piece.

The Gypsy Baron, based on a Hungarian story, was staged in Vienna in 1885 to tumultuous applause. Even during the Overture each new melody was greeted with audible enthusiasm, and there were to be so many encores that the whole operetta was extended to three times its length. The work marked the climax of Strauss's career as a composer for the stage, with a happy choice of libretto and a setting that did much to soothe relations between the Austrian and Hungarian elements of the Habsburg Empire. Strauss retained his unassailable position as the Waltz King, but never repeated the triumph of The Gypsy Baron, a work that retains a popular position in current operetta repertoire.

The operetta A Night in Venice was completed in 1883, at a time when the composer was preoccupied with the possibility of divorce from his second wife, Lili, a conflict finally resolved when he renounced his Austrian citizenship for that of Protestant Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, where a divorce was possible. The completion of the operetta owed much to the calming presence of Adele, who was to be the composer's third wife. The work, however, met no success at its first staging in Berlin, but justified itself in a revised version in Vienna, when applause broke out even during the Overture, after the first waltz.

Alfred Walter
Alfred Walter was born in Southern Bohemia in 1929 of Austrian parents. He studied at the University of Graz and in 1948 was appointed assistant conductor to the Opera of Ravensburg. At the age of 22 he became conductor of the Graz Opera, where he continued until 1965, while serving at Bayreuth as assistant to Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Böhm. From 1966 until 1969 he was Principal Conductor of the Durban Symphony Orchestra in South Africa, followed by a period of 15 years as General Director of Music in Monster. In Vienna he has worked as guest conductor at the State Opera and in 1986 was given the title of Professor by the Austrian Government. In 1980 he was awarded the Golden Medal of the International Gustav Mahler Society.

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