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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Operetta! Marszalck's Tenors: The Standard-Bearers of Operetta!

[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.



Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Seacliffe, for an excellent article! For many, including myself, this will be an eye-opener! The tenors of operetta, especially Anders and Groh, were in fact extraordinary singers, on a par with the best operatic tenors of whom we tend to know much more! Well done, and thank you again!

Anonymous said...

O yes, very nice! I love Peter Anders, Groh is good too. Not too excited about Fehringer--he sounds a little too much like a pop singer fo me, but Anders and Groh--the best!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Hello Martha--always nice to hear form you:-) Yes, Fehringer is perhaps the least vocally endowed of the three, but as Mr. Seacliffe points out, there are some stylistic issues in his favor. Thanks again for writing in!

Anonymous said...

I never cared a whole lot aboujt operetta because of he silly plots, but I agree that the voices are on a par with opera fact a lot of opera singers in Germany also sing operetta. And I guess if i'm going to be totally honest, some opera plots are pretty silly too:-)

Jess Volker

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha. Well....Actually, it's all kind of a silly business when you get down to the plot level, ha! Yours is a name I haven't seen before, welcome to Great Opera Singers! You're always welcome here, hope to hear from you again.

Anonymous said...

great! love it!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you!

JD Hobbes said...

It seems to me that the closest thing to the operetta that we have created in the USA is the Hollywood musical that became popular in the 1930's with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. They were not quite good enough to be singers of grand opera so they elected or settled for a kind of "in-between." Deanna Durbin is another one perhaps. The "real" singers like Melchoir, Tibbett, and Grace Moore who tried film didn't succeed as well because the public saw through their attempts. The voices were too trained,too exaggerated, too "gymnastic" for lack of a better word. Which brings me to Andrea Bocelli and other crossover singers. His voice isn't quite strong enough for grand opera and he cannot act on the stage for obvious reasons. But he has filled a gap, somewhat like Eddy and MacDonald, that the public likes. How does the crossover genre fit into the scheme that Darrin has laid out?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Mr. Hobbes! Welcome! My most loyal writer:-) This time with a GREAT question! I think we will have to wait until Mr. Seacliffe weighs in on that one, since it is his scheme you refer to. If it were me, I think I would probably answer "concert singer." He can stand by a piano, so that takes care of the blindness problem. He can sing plenty loud enough to fill a concert hall, he's good at languages and he can sing different kinds of music. Sounds to me like a perfect solution, but let's wait and see what Mr. Seacliffe has to say. Brilliant question, Mr. Hobbes; thank you very much!

JD Hobbes said...

I have heard both Tucker and Bocelli in person. Tucker's voice was amazing and carried throughout the entire large auditorium. Bocelli's was excellent but had the advantage of modern sound systems. Bocelli has outstanding pronunciation and diction that few others possess. But he, like Gigli, understands beautiful singing as opposed to athletic vocal prowess. So he has found the right category or genre for his type of crossosver singing. Others who have tried it (Pavarotti) just can't manage it effectively. The singing still came across like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you! Good comments!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Mr Hobbes, you do have a really good question, which I will try to answer below.

My stand is this: Operetta may be an early form of popular music but it has sufficient artistic value for it to be placed among the high art forms: drama, classical music etc. It deserves a part of the opera house's repertoire. However, as for crossover, I fervently believe it has no place in the opera house. It does have some artistic value, I have to admit, but its artistic value lies in its ability to give pop new life. However much leading players in the classical music and pop industries may claim, even if they are opera singers, crossover is NOT high art.

Crossover may seem to be the modern equivalent of what operetta was to its fans in that crossover, pop sung in the operatic style, can be described as an adaptation of opera (however watered down) to popular taste. That's where the similarities end.

Crossover, to the general public, seems to be a more modern form of opera. The music is modern but the way it is sung sounds like the way opera is sung. Its singers, in general, have more beautiful voices than average pop singers and these voices can be placed under vocal categories just like the voices of classically-trained singers. Crossover singers, like opera singers, do make an effort at interpretation. They do convey the feeling and sentiment latent in the numbers they sing.

However, in spite of all this, let's be honest with ourselves. Crossover isn't opera. It's also quite different from the Hollywood musicals and operettas.

Bocelli is not your typical crossover singer. This man can actually sing opera if he underwent sufficient vocal training. He doesn't have what it takes for the cabalettas in that he lacks vocal power but for the cavatinas, he's good enough for the first minute but he doesn't have what it takes to go on after that. Based on that, if Bocelli went for more extensive vocal training, I believe that he has what it takes to be another Kaufmann.

As for the other crossover singers like Sarah Brightman, Charlotte Church, Katherine Jenkins and so on, they have as much right to be called opera singers as Bing Crosby and Judy Garland did. Just as in the modern sense, Bing was a baritone and Garland was a mezzo or contralto, Brightman and Church are modern sopranos and Jenkins is a modern mezzo. They may not be able to perform the operatic numbers the same way classically trained singers do but at least you can hear that they have a voice type.

Darren Seacliffe said...

There is admittedly some artistic value in crossover. Brightman, Church and Jenkins do have good voices. Anyone can tell you that regardless of which genre he may usually listen to. They do sing with a conventional amount of beauty. It's been a long time since we've heard pop singers like that, maybe that's why crossover isn't seen as pop.

Nevertheless, the amount of skill crossover takes is as much as it takes to sing pop. The everyman on the street can give a number well if he has a good voice. For operetta, yes, there are several operetta numbers which have taken on lives of their own outside the works where they came from as oldies. However, many are difficult to perform. Great singers like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda and Anneliese Rothenberger are known to have said that they found operetta no less difficult than opera even though it may sound lighter. It takes a certain amount of charm, emotion and finesse on the part of the singers to be able to evoke the magic these numbers once had over their audiences.

Sure, like crossover concerts, operetta performances do have their big hits but there's another side to them which crossover doesn't. Crossover numbers are isolated but operetta numbers are inter-connected via a storyline. All of them shed light on the characters, their personalities, their relationships and their feelings in their own ways. Besides entertaining the audience with big numbers, operetta performers have to make sure that their audiences go back with something. Even if the big numbers are well-received, they won't make much of a difference if the other numbers aren't good or sung well.

Crossover may have been originally invented to reintroduce the public to opera in a way they can better accept and appreciate but now it's giving no small amount of the population the misconception that it's an alternative to opera. Sure, it did bring new listeners to opera but with it gaining vogue in its own right, it may be better for the leading players in the classical music industry to resort to another method. One alternative will be to revive later operettas in the opera houses, where there's a mix of the traditional 'operatic' style and the more modern 'pop' style. This way, the public will be better able to understand what real opera singing's all about. You can do that by mixing opera singers and pop singers in the productions just like the operetta performances did. This is an additional reason to argue for operetta's revival.

Darren Seacliffe said...

I'd like to extend my sincere heartfelt thanks to Prof. Edmund for giving me the opportunity to write this article. Several of these singers are in danger of being forgotten in spite of the rich artistic legacy they have bequeathed to us. I'm very grateful to my readers for taking an interest in their work I have shared in this article.

Dear Edmund, Anders is actually more an operatic tenor than an operetta tenor. He did do some operetta work but more of his work lies in opera, especially in lieder.

Dear Martha, thank you for your enthusiasm for Anders and Groh and your interest in reading the article. If you think Fehringer's a pop singer, wait till you see my next operetta article. That's where you'll find the real deal. Nevertheless, I get what you mean. That's the reason why I like him. He reaches out to me in a way few other singers have.

Dear Jess, personally I also find the operetta plots really stupid but I think opera has plots just as stupid. I think the biggest problem is that operettas have to have a happy ending so librettists have no alternative but to introduce those ludicrous twists. However, with the right singers, you'll have so much fun that you can somehow look past these twists with a blind eye. It's great to hear that opera singers are still performing operetta in Germany. They may not be as good as their predecessors but they do know how to do their job well.

Anonymous said...

Great article, very informative ,with interesting recordings. Honestly, I’m not too familiar with operetta ( and musical), so these names are new to me. All the singers are fine, Franz Fehringer ‘s performance is outstanding – I totally agree with Mr. Seacliffe.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Natalie. Always a pleasure to hear from you!
Oчень холодно в Москве,да?

Darren Seacliffe said...

Thank you, Natalie. Yes, I guessed that you'll like Franz Fehringer a lot. He's a non-Russsian singer with a soulfulness that's close to what the great Russians had like Lemeshev. Unfortunately, his best work was in operetta so his singing doesn't have the same amount of impact and or recognition. I wonder, did Lemeshev and or Kozlovsky make any operetta recordings. I heard operetta was and still has a fair amount of popularity. Nelepp has left us a few operetta performances in Russian like Csardasfurstin so I was wondering if more famous tenors did the same.

Stephen said...

I enjoyed reading Darren Seacliffe’s informative and well written contribution. Yes, his early start and insight into music history are commendable.

One minor addition: for about two centuries, opera was more than exclusively aristocratic. Opera was popular throughout most socio-economic classes (although supported primarily by the noble or aristocratic classes), depending, to some extent, upon which city or city-state. That is how both Venice and Rome, for example, were able to maintain five opera houses simultaneously during the Baroque era; they had enough enthusiasts to fill the halls. If there were empty seats in a Venetian opera house, they would let in the gondoliers for free; and those laborers would leave happily whistling or humming the melodies.

Admittedly, the popularity of opera partly was attributed, by default, to the relatively limited number of distractions or forms of entertainment, very much in contrast to today. Opera, as entertainment, had less competition.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your compliments. Sorry for not being explicit enough but when I was talking about opera, I was referring to opera in France and Germany, not in Italy. Opera in Italy was quite different, being its national music. That I do agree with you.