The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: The Merry Widow
James V. Schall, S.J. - 04/15/09
opera seats

No doubt the most popular operetta ever is Franz Lehar’s “Merry Widow.” Its German title is Die lustige Witwe, in French, La veuve joyeuse. It has been played by professionals and amateurs so many times all over the world, in every opera house, in many languages, that it is almost impossible to record how many. In 1934, Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier starred in it in a black and white movie. I saw a used DVD of this version on Amazon for $3.93, a steal if there ever was one. What great singer has not been Hanna Glawari, the merry widow? I note, among others, Frederica von Stade, Dagmar Schellenberger, Dorothy Kirsten, and Beverly Sills. Even Lana Turner played the part in the 1952 Technicolor movie version. The first Hanna was Mizzi Gunthur, on December 30, 1905, in Vienna. The first American performance was at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York, on October 21, 1907.

Of course, what is great about the operetta is the music, so lively and memorable and, yes, so often sentimental. One sings it to oneself for days after hearing it. Everyone has probably heard it even before seeing and hearing it on stage. Happily, I was invited to see a local production at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville, Maryland, one Sunday afternoon, as performed by a local, mostly amateur, opera company. I had not heard or seen “The Merry Widow” in years, but I could not pass up the opportunity when I was kindly invited. I do remember seeing it years ago, I cannot recall where, perhaps at the Kennedy Center. Even then, I was struck by the fact that it was something that was perfect in its kind.

Much exuberance enlivens this musical for sure. The program notes said that basically its plot was the traditional “battle of the sexes.” But in the outcome, both sides happily win, as it should be, if such a battle does indeed exist. The plot does have to do with money, politics, and Pontevedra, the legendary German duchy from which Hanna and her money hails. If the rich widow marries again to a foreigner, the country is in danger of losing her millions, a not un-contemporary theme. But it is an operetta of true love finally realized. This is where Count Danielo, her once spurned admirer, comes in to save both love for Hanna and the money for the country.

And we have Maxim’s in Paris with its dancing girls and example of how not to live a staid life back home in the boondocks of Pontevedra or wherever. Anyone who sees the finale must wonder how is it possible for him not to have joined this cast, even as a klutz in its least of roles, for one of its thousands of performances over the years? Someone is always redoing it. It all reminds me a bit of Plato’s remark about what we do in heaven, the “singing, the dancing, and the sacrificing.”

At the particular performance that I attended, we had two intermissions. During these intermissions, a lady played the music of the show we were attending on a grand piano in the foyer. After some time during the first intermission, I noticed a very lovely little girl on the floor before us. Her age I estimated at around three. Her mother was sitting by the piano watching her. As it turned out, after intermission, they were sitting right in front of us.

The little girl wore a lovely dress with long pink leggings, her long dark hair in a bow. Her shoes were off. She began to dance by herself. She obviously had had some ballet lessons, as she carefully moved in front of us. Soon, many of the people around her began to watch her. By objective standards, the majority of the audience was far closer to Schall’s age than the little girl’s.

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