Die Herzogin von Chicago by Kalman

The American "Mary Lloyd" above, heiress to a Chicago sausage fortune

This 1928 operetta is ostensibly about America but is really all about the feelings of Imre Kalman. Kalman was a Hungarian Jew who wrote a string of very popular operettas in the '20s and '30s. His music was so popular that Hitler even offered to make him an honorary Aryan. Kalman declined and wisely left Germany, ending up in the scorned America. And this operetta embodies Kalman's reflections and feelings about America and Europe. And it is a very European perspective. 

The DVD I have is of a 2005 performance from the Volksoper in Vienna, sung in German. I see that the show had an extended run there so was obviously highly regarded by Viennese audiences


To this day Europeans tend to regard Americans as uncultured people who care only about money. That is of course a great overgeneralization and oversimplification. In most countries the average people are uncultured from an elite perspective but that takes no account of the diversity in the country concerned. Even if only 1% of America's 300 million population are cultured by some arbitrary standard, that means there are 3 million of those splendidly cultured beings in America. And 3 million is a pretty fair potential audience for a show.

At the risk of drifting away from Kalman, I should perhaps mention smart fraction theory here. Originally proposed by the pseudonymous "La Griffe du Lion", smart fraction theory holds that the achievements of any given nation, society or culture are determined not by how smart the population as a whole is but rather by how smart the top people in the society are. I agree with the Bitter Clinger that Griffe's numbers are implausible (they were only meant as an exploration) but the general idea seems sound and has had some empirical support. So evaluations of a society based on what is normal or average can underestimate the potential and productivity in any field of that society.

The prime example in support of the theory is of course high-achieving Israel, which has an average IQ but a clear smart fraction in the Ashkenazim, but the same is also probably true for the USA -- which for various reasons has long drawn the smartest people of other societies to it -- including Kalman and about 5 million other Ashkenazi Jews. And America's scientific and artistic productivity is indeed great. The whole world sings American popular songs, for instance. And American performers spread their wings worldwide. Despite Europe's own great productivity in the arts, American sopranos, tenors and baritones still show up rather a lot on European stages. The leading lady in this show is in fact Canadian, if that counts. 

I doubt that I really need to give examples but the 1975 Stuttgart performance of Zigeuner Baron that I have has TWO attractive young American sopranos as leading ladies  -- with the powerful voice of Ellen Shade and the  small but sweet voice of  Janet Perry. And the Zuerich Oper 2004 version of Lustige Witwe features the big Californian Rodney Gilfry as the hilariously tormented Graf.

And even American composers are making a mark. The only interesting composer in the second half of the 20th century, in my view, is Philip Glass, an American Jew.

But Kalman can be forgiven his jaundiced feelings. Russia was by far the biggest loser from WWI but Austria was badly hit too, losing something like 90% of its territory. And Kalman is clearly a heartfelt European who misses terribly the brilliant cultural, intellectual and musical life of the great city that was prewar Vienna. Via his main character, he even hopes plaintively at a couple of points in the show that it will one day return. So Europe in the '20s is in alarming disarray and America seems crass. 

Does Kalman have any consolation? He does. His gypsies. Kalman has what could almost be called a manic and delusory fascination with gypsies. His operetta Graefin Mariza can be seen as one long hymn to them. So in "Chicago Princess" they are also portrayed as a great consolation. They were all that Kalman could hang on to. Lehar debunked that, though.

But the music was brilliant, very lively and varied. It probably tells you all you need to know about '20s popular music. It was in fact written in the late '20s and was a deliberate attempt by a brilliant composer to capture what was characteristic of the music of that period.

The casting

The Prince is well cast in the person of the Iranian-Austrian tenor Mehrzad Montazeri. I watch and re-watch the show mainly to see him singing.  I usually like the leading ladies best in an operetta but Eberhard Waechter in my DVD of  Graf von Luxemburg is another instance where I liked the male lead best. And in the 2008 performance of Im Weissen Roessl at Moerbisch, my favourite actor is Klaus-Dieter Lerche, not for his singing but for his expert delivery of his hilarious part as Herr Gieseke.

Montazeri is a big well-built man with a big voice and a big presence. He looked and sounded like a prince. I like to see a manly man in the leading male role and Montazeri is a most manly man. The star of the show is presumably meant to be the "Duchess of Chicago" but, although Canadian mezzo Norine Burgess (what an Anglo name! She is definitely one of my Volk) was perfectly competent in that role, it was Montazeri who stood out and more or less stole the show. He seemed to have a natural good humour which showed -- particularly towards the end.

He also had an irrefragable dignity, which I liked.  And his part  as a conservative advocate of monarchy would be either a mystery or a folly to Americans but it went down well with me. I am a conservative monarchist happily living in a monarchy! God save the Queen! So I actually agreed with most of what the main character was preaching!   Did Kalman really have a soft spot for the Austro-Hungarian monarchy?  It seems so.

It was perhaps a bit mad to have an Iranian singing the great song about the wonders of Viennese music around the middle of the show but he did it so well that I cannot imagine it done better. I think he has just become my favourite operatic tenor -- with useless apologies to the late Josef Schmidt. Montazeri is these days an Austrian citizen and has lived in Austria for nearly 40 years so I think we can now gladly call him an Austrian.

His part in this show was certainly a great one for him. He was cast to portray a great range of feelings and did so convincingly.  It was a much more sympathetic part than his part as the lover of the half-mad Giuditta in the opera of that name.

Norine Burgess as "Mary" did not have a sympathetic part but she came across well in the canoe scene. She has been much praised for her role in this show and I can see why.  She is a a very expressive lady with a very mellow voice who  gets all her notes with great ease.  Most of us like to greet life with a smile and I assume that she does too.  But the part required her to express a whole gamut of negative emotions -- anger, scorn, horror, hauteur etc. -- and her face did that well. Her face when dancing with the King was quite amazingly expressive -- mostly of horror!   She is one talented actress as well as a superb singer.  

She also seemed to be rather tall, which generally goes down well.  Many fashion models are over 6' tall.  I would like to be able to document her height precisely.  Sadly, however, if the age of operetta ladies is usually a State Secret their height is even more so.  Nobody mentions it

And I very much liked the performance of Renée Schüttengruber as "Rosemarie", the betrothed princess. Let me say that again: "I very much liked the performance of Renée Schüttengruber as "Rosemarie", the betrothed princess". She looked good and acted with charm. Her voice seemed to me to have something Chinese about it but it would need wiser people than me to pinpoint anything there. I think it is a pity that she did not keep the same hairstyle throughout, though.  The 1920s water wave she started out with looked a lot better than her later frizz.  Nobody should do that to blonde hair.

And I did not initially recognize Sándor Németh as "Perolin", the follicularly deprived politician. I last saw him as the manic dancer in my 1970s performance of Csardasfuerstin. Time has marched on.  I am delighted to see him still going well. He did at one stage burst into a short bit of fancy footwork, to the surprise of his fellow politician. He still had the spirit.

The royal guardsmen were a bit sad. They had no skill at drill at all. They were very obviously actors pretending to be soldiers. Montazeri had a good military bearing, though -- as befits the Hussar's uniform he wore for most of the show.  If you want to see what good drill looks like watch China's recent parade in celebration of victory over Japan.  The marching starts around the 11 minute mark.  Truly formidable. No-one in his right mind would take on the PLA.

Perhaps I should mention here that the uniform Montazeri wore for most of the show was a Hussar's uniform.  You can tell that by the decorative horizontal bands across front of the coat. Hussars were a form of light cavalry invented in Hungary but which subsequently spread throughout most of Europe.  Young men of the European nobility were expected to enlist in the armed forces  (the men of our Royal family still do) and most of them went into the Hussars.

The story

The story is filled with depictions of American crassness and penurious Europeans who are prepared to sell their souls for American money. Rich American ladies refreshing the fortunes of impoverished British and European aristocrats were, of course, long a frequent phenomenon. Winston Churchill was the product of one such union.

So a blase American heiress decides she wants to "buy" herself a European Prince with all the trimmings so goes to the mythical and impoverished land of Sylvaria to do so. Judging by the Cyrillic letters on the local newspaper briefly displayed at one point (some sort of Gazeta), the setting was probably somewhere in what was for a time Yugoslavia.  But they also seemed to speak Hungarian -- so that is pretty confusing.  Hungarian does not use Cyrillic.

She finds that she is genuinely attracted to the handsome and principled Prince of the country but they have a culture clash. She is a product of the "Roaring 20's" jazz age who likes to dance the Charleston while he is a traditional and conservative European devoted to the waltz and all things European. The waltz ALWAYS gets good press in operettas. But 1920 to 1933 was the Prohibition era in the USA so the usual glorification of champagne and drinking generally was absent.

The show was in fact cast as a contest between the Charleston and the walz.  As we now know, the walz won hands down and the Charleston is no more.  I am no dancer but as far as I can see, America's big contribution to dance was Rock 'n Roll. But Kalman was not to know that.

And, in good operetta style, there was a misdirected letter that threw the lovers into temporary disarray. It was actually a telegram. Does anybody remember what they were? I sent a few in my day, with one I wrote in Italian being still remembered.

There is also a second string story where "Bondy", the servant of the "Duchess", runs off with "Rosemarie", the betrothed European princess. The story there is so corny that it could almost be mealie pap, if I am allowed to break into Afrikaans. The servant convinces the princess that he is in the movies and wants to cast her in one. She loves it, of course. Ladies rather like being noticed (even little girls look to see who is watching them) and being in a movie is being noticed writ large. 

But even when he confesses that he is actually a nobody, she forgives him and encourages him to continue the fantasy. That scene -- where she says "We are still here" -- really was charmingly done. I felt a bit teary about it.  And she then runs off with him with marriage in mind. All Hollywood would understand that (or at least idealize that), I think. So operetta's usual two happy endings are delivered.  

The production

The production was a very modern one, which I could have done without. The bald ladies with thin legs dancing to an aborted Beethoven theme were particularly revolting IMHO. But I think they were meant to be. And I thought the device of "Bondy" ("Mary's" servant)  running around always holding a large film canister was simply tedious.  

The whole pretend filming in the show was a bit tedious but it did at least serve as a narration.  Having a narrator in a show is uncommon these days but has plenty of precedent. And "Bondy" (Wolfgang Gratschmaier) put a lot of energy into the part, which kept it alive

And the scenes of the Prince dancing with the young sister of his betrothed were pretty weird. But this is operetta, of course. I guess I just didn't get the point.  My bad!  Is it in praise of kid sisters?  Beats me!

The subtitles were very badly done, sometimes in very rough English -- English words in German word-order, for instance -- and they flipped off the screen far too quickly. But they sufficed. Some things were not translated at all so I was glad I have some knowledge of German. 

There were bits of gibberish, some of which appeared to be Hungarian and some of which were a jumble of schoolboy French (including L'Etat C'est Moi!) and bits of English (e.g. "bungalow").  It must have been there for some reason but again that passed me by. I think the production was a bit on the "too clever" side in a number of ways.
The Symbolism

I am not sure who is behind the prolific symbolism in the show but I suspect that most of it came from the  Intendant at the Volksoper rather than from Kalman.  Some of it was clear and some Delphic.  That Bondy wanted a medal with a star on it rather than a cross was clear enough.  It was a reminder that this show was the work of a Jew.  The star was the star of David.

And the unopenable locket was clearly a reference to a marriage which would  NOT take place.  And when Bondy gets the locket, he also gets the girl, of course. But beyond that it gets hairy.

I THINK I can guess what the cartoon scene was all about. Dancing and learning new dances is a central issue in the story and there are online various "how to dance" lessons, some of which are in cartoon form. The producers of this show were apparently amused enough by them to bring them more to life.

And I thought I got the scene where a man comes on stage in blackface and then has the blacking cleaned off him. I saw that as predicting the increasing acceptance by the Prince of "n*gger" music but the post-show notes on the disk tell me that it was more than that.  It was apparently a sort of tribute to the popular Weimar-style jazz opera Jonny spielt auf by Krenek. That opera also dwelt on the collision of American and European cultures.  There was apparently a performance of Jonny spielt auf in the late 20s where a black saxophonist had his sax grabbed off him by a Nazi sympathizer who then proceeded to play it himself. So the episode in Die Herzogin von Chicago is an allusion to that.  Complicated!

Political incorrectness

And I must admit that I did have to laugh at the political "incorrectness" of the show. For a start, the appearance of "Mary" in the canoe scene wearing a big "Indian" head-dress would not at all pass muster in America these days.  It would be "cultural appropriation".  Though why that is bad escapes me.

And jazz was repeatedly described as "n*gger music" for instance. I can't entirely fault that. American hysteria about whites using that word does seem absurd to me. Why can blacks use it but not whites?  Anyway, the terms were used in this 2005 performance from Austria 

I think it was about 2005 that the High Court of Australia ruled that "n*gger" was not offensive in Australia -- so perhaps we have some unexpected convergence between Australia and Austria there. 

The post-show notes were however, a bit apologetic about using now-deplored words in the show.  They said that the operetta was a work of its time and they wanted to be historically correct about it.  They actually called their staging of the show "archaeological" -- because the work been so long forgotten. They saw themselves as reviving for German audiences a work that was banned in the '30s and had subsequently been lost from sight.  I am very glad that they did revive it.  It is basically just Viennese froth and bubble but light entertainment can be good for the soul too.

The finale

In the end attraction overcomes culture clash. The Prince grabs "Mary" and plants a big kiss on her. Very decisive!  And his big smile portrays a happy ending to the show most convincingly.  And a compromise about the dancing is found. Mary dances a waltz and the Prince does a Charleston, which he persuades himself is really a sort of Csardas! Done accelerando, I suppose that could be (at a stretch).

He does at one stage sing well for a Csardas himself.  A pity the costume department did not put the "Hungarian" ladies into the traditional red skirts -- but maybe it had something to do with the lighting.  The same ladies were very fair-skinned "Indians" later on!

A singing Prince! No wonder "Mary" liked him! Burgess must have liked that kiss too. Montazeri is definitely "tall, dark and handsome". With his brilliant big smile, he even looked good in a cowboy outfit. Did Canada get its mezzo back after that show? Perhaps not immediately. She has three kids at home and a figure like a tree so I imagine that she doesn't get a lot of action normally.  Though she does have a pretty face.  She has split from her singer husband so who knows?

More detail of the plot here. There is a video of the second half of the show here.  The guy in the dressing gown is "Bondy", though why he wears that I am not sure. The lady is in the bath by that stage and he does attend her there so maybe it is some sort of bathrobe.

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