Book Review: A forgotten theatrical treasure

The fame of ‘Die Fledermaus’ is universal. With ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’, ‘The Merry Widow’, and ‘Countess Maritza’, it defines the nature and progress of the operetta genre, representing as it does, the essence of the Golden Age of Viennese Operetta. The melodies of Strauss are famous, but endemic to the success of this work are the brilliant theatrical situations and the skillfully crafted text. These were pre-eminently the work of Richard Genée.

Genée was born in East Prussia, in Danzig, on 7 February 1823 the son of a theatre director, and initially studied medicine in Berlin, but then turned to music. He studied in Berlin with A. Stahlknecht, and became a theatre director and composer himself. In the 20 years between 1847 and 1867, he served as Kapellmeister at theatres in Danzig, Reval (Tallinn), Riga, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Schwerin and Prague. His first operetta appeared in 1857. He then supplied the text for a work by Friedrich von Flotow (the composer of the famous Martha, 1847), and subsequently found himself in demand as a skilled operetta librettist.

9781527500273This aspect of his artistic talents was developed especially through his association with Johann Strauss. Strauss turned to writing operettas in 1871. Genée was asked to rewrite Carl Haffner’s translation of a French play by Meilhac & Halévy, Le Réveillon (1872). He discarded the translation in favour of his own text, and the result was Die Fledermaus. As Strauss was not familiar with writing for the theatre, he found invaluable help from Genée, not only as a lyricist, but in the working out of his melodic ideas. Genée’s handwriting is in fact extensively evident in the score of Die Fledermaus, This was Strauss’s second stage work and became the enduringly definitive work of its genre.

Genée’s fame as a librettist was developed through his association with Camillo Walzel (who used the pseudonym Friedrich Zell) (1829-1895).

Zell, like Genée, was a Prussian. He was born in Magdeburg, but his family moved to Austria when he was young, and Zell, after working as a captain in a Danube steamboat, joined the Austrian War Ministry. He retired from this position in 1873 to establish a working relationship with Richard Genée. They became a celebrated literary partnership, the Viennese equivalent of the playwrights and doyens of the Parisian operetta, Henri Meilhac & Ludovic Halévy. They also wrote the texts for Genée’s own compositions, and especially favoured sources from the French theatre. Together they also made fine German translations of French and British operetta classics, including works by Offenbach, Lecocq and Sullivan.

Genée, as a highly professional musician, also composed two works that achieved remarkable popularity, even reaching the New York stage.

These were Der Seekadet (1876) and Nanon, die Wirtin vom goldenen Lamm (1877). Zell is attributed as librettist, but Genée almost certainly wrote the lyrics as he usually did. The story, showing the typical operetta characteristics of romance and satire, with its search for identity, social preferment and sexual fulfilment, hinges on the dominant motif of disguise. Gender shifts become a metaphor for personal and social situations, aspirations and challenges, and reveal a submerged theme of sexual ambiguity. The work also became famous for its central enactment of a chess game, and even became innovative in inventing a new move in the rules. This is beautifully illustrated on the bright laminated cover.

This book is a sequel to the author’s admirable study of Suppe’s Die Afrikareise, and forms part of the Cambridge Scholars Publishing Operetta Series. The book presents the same wealth of detail about the history and nature of Genée’s most famous work in his own right as both librettist and composer. The situation whereby a work of the energy and melodic wealth of Der Seekadet has largely been for gotten remains one of those perplexing puzzles of musical history.

The content of this book provides adequate illustration of the once widespread appeal of Genée’s work. There is an account of his life and oeuvre, a listing of performances of his two most famous operettas throughout the world in the late 19th century. One can savour this popularity vicariously in the reproduced libretti presented in German (two), in English (three), in French and in Italian. All have been meticulously collated and are now presented in a sequence in this casebook.

The variety and charm of entry into a forgotten world of vibrant dramatic production are intensified by the vivid iconography—with prints of playbills, programmes, portraits and photos of productions (26 figures in all) that at all times illuminate the unfolding of the once widespread fame of Der Seekadet—and a real testimony to Genée, one of the great stars in this history of theatre generally, and operetta in particular.

This substantial volume is attractively produced, easy to use, and contains all the apparatus needed for further research and study—with tables and bibliography.

ROBERT IGNATIUS LETELLIER is a member of the Salzburg Centre for Research in the Early English Novel at the University of Salzburg. He is also a member of Trinity College and the Board of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall, the University of Cambridge.


For more information about Richard Genée’s The Royal Middy (Der Seekadett) and to buy a copy, click here.

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