[Today I am pleased to offer to readers another guest commentary by Mr. Darren Seacliffe, from Singapore. Darren is an undergraduate student in his early 20's pursuing a degree in a private university in Singapore. His interest in both opera and operetta spans a wide variety of genres, from Rossini to German operetta. I will only add that Mr. Seacliffe's knowledge of opera and operetta history—especially for one so young, is truly extraordinary! Here is a blossoming music critic if ever I saw one, and that is a happy sign indeed, for all kinds of reasons! Edmund StAustell]
There are currently two forms of musical theater which we commonly encounter. One is the musical that is either produced as a movie—in Hollywood—or presented in theaters on Broadway and in New York's West End. The other is the opera. Both are celebrated as a combination of the arts, with singing, acting, dance, drama, orchestral music, and often, lavish sets and costumes. In fact, the word "opera" itself is a plural word—the plural of "opus," and translates as "works." These two forms of musical theater may sound different but the similarities they share suggest a strong relationship. Musicals, as we recognize them today, are essentially—but not exclusively—a 20th century form, while opera has been performed for centuries.
There is, however, a third form that bridges these two forms of musical theater, and that is operetta, the relatively more obscure and less regarded ‘half-brother’ of opera. Where opera's audience, historically speaking, was aristocratic, the audience for operetta was not, at least as a rule. Even when its plots involved a fanciful notion of high society manners, they were just that—a middle-class fantasy. Just like opera, operetta requires orchestral accompaniment, but unlike opera, the musical numbers in operettas were not always performed by trained singers. Each country had its own forms of operetta. Spain had the zarzuela, France had the operettas of Offenbach, Messager, Lecocq, Audran, and others, while England had the Savoy operas by Gilbert and Sullivan, and America enjoyed operettas by Friml, Herbert and Kern. Germany, which will be the focus of this article, had Viennese and Berlin operetta.
At the moment, Berlin operetta is rarely performed and even Viennese operetta performances are limited to the traditional New Year’s Eve performances of Die Fledermaus in opera houses worldwide, the occasional Merry Widow and rare performances of The Land of Smiles, The Gypsy Princess and Countess Mariza. Besides these, every now and then, we hear singers like Anna Netrebko singing some of the musical numbers in their recitals as though they were opera arias, or Andre Rieu performing extracts of the dance music in his concerts and recitals. As recently as seven years ago, if anyone wanted any operetta performances on CD, the best one could find were the competent operetta performances on EMI helmed by opera singers who were past their prime; singers such as Anneliese Rothenberger or Nicolai Gedda. Unlike today’s singers, such as Netrebko, these singers either had a history of giving complete operetta performances (Anneliese Rothenberger) or could identify with the operetta tradition (Nicolai Gedda) because they had grown up at a time when it was the popular music of the day. Things have changed recently, with new German and/or Austrian labels like Membran, Cantus Classics and HAFG releasing recordings of radio broadcasts of operetta performances from the 50s and 60s by conductors like Wilhelm Stephan, Werner Schmidt-Boelcke, Max Schonherr and the most important of them all, Franz Marszalek.
Franz Marszalek was an operetta conductor whom several German and Austrian connoisseurs felt was the best of them all. Having worked with several operetta composers like Eduard Kunneke before the War, he was considered to be a ‘walking encyclopedia of operetta’, with no rivals in terms of understanding and mastery, and whose performances of the works of Kunneke and Leo Fall were felt to be the most authoritative. (Kunneke was a good personal friend of Marszalek) After the War, having taken over as the conductor of the West German Radio Orchestra based in Cologne, he got together a group of opera and operetta singers from the neighboring provincial opera houses and musical theaters. He also engaged several pop and folk music singers, both past and present, and both broadcast and recorded several operetta performances that set standards which remain unsurpassed.
For the lead tenor roles in each of these operetta broadcasts, Marszalek cast reputed tenors who would go on to have successful domestic and international careers; tenors such as Fritz Wunderlich and Sandor Konya. In addition, he added lyric tenors based in smaller German opera houses in the provinces, tenors like Franz Fehringer and Reinhold Bartel and, additionally, tenors who once had or continued to have flourishing radio careers like Herbert Ernst Groh and Peter Anders. For the comic tenor roles, most were performed by the buffo tenor Willy Hofmann, lauded by some as the greatest buffo tenor Germany ever had. In the next paragraphs.
Of all these tenors, Marszalek considered Peter Anders to be the best of them all, the ‘ideal’ operetta tenor. Here is Anders singing ‘’Ich bin dein Untertan,’’ in a duet with Liselotte Losch, from Leo Fall’s Madame Pompadour:
As you can see, a fine singer with a beautiful voice and a secure singing technique. He sang a great number of roles in his operatic repertory, from the lyric Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote to the dramatic Otello in Verdi’s opera of the same name; all with equal success. At the same time, Anders was considerably successful in oratorio and lieder. Building on this background, he always took his operetta performances very seriously, displaying the same amount of artistry and musicality as he did in his operatic, oratorio and lieder performances. In simpler terms, he dedicated some thought to his operetta performances, to be sure he provided them with the same elegance and emotional nuance which his operatic performances enjoyed.
Though I may find the young Anders’ voice lighter and sweeter, his singing was always beautiful and elegant even when he started taking on heavier and more dramatic roles later on in life. In his operetta performances, I found him an expressive singer who displays a tasteful amount of emotion. Listening to Peter Anders’ performances, (and I know this will seem an adventurous thing for me to say) I actually feel that he may have a stronger claim on the title "Germany’s greatest tenor than his successor Fritz Wunderlich did, based on the larger number of roles he sang throughout his career and his considerably richer artistic legacy. Here he is singing "Sei nicht bos," an aria from Zeller's Der Obersteiger:
Unfortunately, just as Peter Anders was about to move into Heldentenor roles, he would die in an untimely car accident in 1954. Of the few recordings he managed to make for Marszalek before his sudden passing, there are complete performances of Strauss’ Der Zigeunerbaron and Karneval im Rom, Lehar’s Paganini and The Land of Smiles, Goetze’s Liebe im Drieklang and considerable extracts of several other operettas.
In his quest to find Peter Anders’ successor in operetta, Franz Marszalek would cast several tenors in subsequent broadcasts and recordings. In the 50s, the first of the singers he would turn to was Herbert Ernst Groh, a tenor with a successful radio career behind him. Groh was a fellow student of Richard Tauber, whom he would eventually replace as the leading operetta tenor of the radio stations when Tauber fled from Nazi Germany. I found Groh’s voice warmer and larger than Tauber, probably because Groh’s voice was captured better on record. He had an all-encompassing voice which would literally envelop you with warmth and emotion that was just as beautiful and sweet as Tauber’s. Of Groh’s performances, these are two that I’ve selected for sampling. Here is Herbert Ernst Groh singing "Ich hab mit freuden Angehort," Lieutenant Niki’s entrance aria in Oscar Straus’ Ein Walzertraum or as it is known in English, A Waltz Dream. Then, we hear him sing a spectacular version of "Am Rio Negro," from Maske in Blau:
Another tenor Marszalek also turned to was the German lyric tenor Franz Fehringer. Fehringer was a lyric tenor who sang roles such as Rodolfo, Don Ottavio, Fernando (Così), and Almaviva in provincial opera houses early in his career during the 40's. During the late 40's, he moved to radio, where he performed several operas in German and many operettas under several reputable conductors, including Hans-Muller Kray, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Kurt Schroeder, Werner Schmidt-Boelcke and the most important of them all, Franz Marszalek. In my honest opinion, Fehringer was a typical lyric tenor. His voice was small and pleasant but dry. The dryness in his voice made it seem neither sweet nor beautiful. Technically, he was good, but not great. Nevertheless, in spite of these attributes, Fehringer was a great operetta singer. Personally, I consider him my favorite. Here he sings a waltz song form Leo Fall's Der Liebe Augustin:
On first hearing, Fehringer may sound just like any other second-string lyric tenor, but there’s an attribute to his singing which vaults him into greatness. It’s the same attribute which makes Giuseppe di Stefano special: the fact that he literally gave his all when he sang, infusing a great deal of emotion and passion in the breath of life which he gave to his stage and record characters. In Fehringer’s case, it was that heartfelt earnestness. From his performances, you can feel that he literally means what he sings. This earnestness makes his small, pleasant voice a charming and poignant one which can reach deep into the soul. It is something that imparts an inner warmth to the listener. Every one of the characters he plays, in each of the operettas he recorded, is a thoughtful, sensitive and melancholy character that is often head over heels in love head over heels with the heroine. The plots of many of these operettas, with all the bizarre twists, silly turns and incredulous coincidences, may seem paper-thin, but such portrayals as Fehringer's make them credible.