Shaking The Dustbins Of Neglected Operas, And Gathering Treasure

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Bard SummerScape at Annandale-in-Hudson’s production of Ernest Chausson’s ‘Le roi Arthus‘ in summer 2021. (Photo by Maria Baranova)

PERSPECTIVE — Right at the first of the year, the name Paul Abraham began surfacing in my opera-strewn inbox. The composer’s name headlined a broadcast from the Komische Oper Berlin of an operetta improbably titled Die Blume von Hawaii. Arias by Abraham were sung in a New Year’s Silvesterkonzert with Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden — with immense relish.

The obscure-opera squad in the front of my brain snapped into service. Were these arias and operettas unjustly forgotten gems or cultural roadkill salvaged from the wayside and finally given a proper funeral? Discoveries at both ends of the spectrum are surfacing constantly, and parsing a composer’s language, whether it represents more of the same or a dead end, requires some modified, expanded listening skills, often aided by the story behind the music.

Paul Abraham, composer of many operettas, including ‘Die Blume von Hawaii.’

Born in Hungary but based in Berlin, Abraham (1892-1960) wrote hit operettas in the 1930s, often utilizing jazz, this piece having an inter-racial romance. His works were made into films with A-list elegance. And then? The trail becomes less clear, and my obscure opera squad needs to know why. A story — both about the music and the life around it — seemed waiting to be told.

Many of us hunger for the operatic unknown. And thank goodness for that. The Mozart-Verdi-Wagner opera repertoire of the 1950s seems tiny compared to what we have now — Handel, Berlioz, late Richard Strauss, and Tchaikovsky. The right resurrection can do great at the box office. A few years ago at London’s Royal Opera, I remarked with amazement that Enescu’s Oedipe was sold out. One employee nonchalantly explained that there are far fewer tickets to sell (2,256) than at the Metropolitan Opera (3,800). That’s still remarkable.

Such resurrections are a niche industry, started by the Opera Orchestra of New York, continued by Washington Concert Opera, and the Wexford and Glimmerglass festivals. On recordings, operatic reclamation has been taken to particularly prolific heights by the Opera Rara and Bru Zane labels, which respectively record bel canto and French romantic works from the operatic thickets of the 19th century. Even the Berlin Philharmonic has been doing concert versions this season of the Tchaikovsky operas Iolanta and, more significantly, Mazeppa. Yes, Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre has championed these works in performance and recordings, but the Berlin standard and passionate commitment of Kirill Petrenko elucidates Tchaikovsky’s theatricality on an entirely new level.

Last summer, Bard SummerScape at Annandale-on-Hudson was at the top of the opera reclamation world when Le roi Arthus and its semi-known composer Ernest Chausson enjoyed a distinguished revival and extravagant response. Seldom heard since its 1903 premiere in Brussels, Le roi Arthus was more than a good night at the opera. The standard repertoire belongs to the world, but niche repertoire — especially in a well-staged and well-sung performance led by Norman Garrett, Matthew White, and Sasha Cooke — offers a more personal sense of ownership.

As a case history, Le roi Arthus represents a perfect storm for obscurity. Chausson’s 1899 death at age 44 in a freak bicycle accident is the starting point. He had finished the opera, but the fact that he wasn’t around to promote his mammoth creation made the 1903 premiere a minor miracle. But Wagner-infused French operas had been coming and going for a while. Lalo’s like-minded Le roi d’Ys was hugely successful, and maybe is a bit sturdier than Le roi Arthus. Chausson’s voice becomes more distinctive only in the last two thirds of the opera, climaxing with a triple apotheosis at the end that would leave any composer envious. However, the first act is basically Tristan und Isolde in a King Arthur disguise. It’s easy to stop listening there and ask, “Why not just listen to Tristan?” My answer: Because it’s not Tristan.

Ernest Chausson, composer of ‘Le roi Arthus,’ c. 1885.

Opera is such a multi-pronged medium that it offers cultural doorways to the world around it, whether musical or theatrical, that are hard to find through other means. They’re a key hole on the world they come from. Or a back road to history. Classic operas like Rigoletto often tell us more about our own hopes, desires, and aesthetics than they do in their own time. Obscure operas can more clearly tell us how things were done back then, even when done wrong, or done right but not understood.

To a certain extent, one must wait for obscure operas to come to you. Now-acclaimed works such as Cavalli’s Eliogabalo (1667) and Rameau’s Les Boréades (1763) were abandoned in their own time and never officially premiered. The Rameau opera was in rehearsal when the composer died, and with orchestral effects that looked forward to Debussy, it’s perhaps no surprise that the musicians gave up on it. Les Boréades was finally staged in 1982, and now has had multiple recordings and DVDs. After writing 40 operas, Cavalli’s portrait of the gender-fluid Roman emperor Eliogabalo was perhaps one amoral hero too many, and the nastiest and craziest of them all. It had to wait until 1999, and in this era of RuPaul’s drag races, even the opera’s New York debut in a haphazard, novelty staging in a strip club couldn’t stop it. Even there, it was apparent that the composer’s recitatives were at their most dramatically eloquent.

One key to appreciating obscure operas is listening past received wisdom. Some of the grandest flops of the 20th century can now be heard as crowning achievements by major composers. With its less-than-sympathetic portrayal of royalty, Britten’s 1953 Gloriana, written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, fell into a 25-year eclipse because its contemporary public was expecting something more respectful. Now, it rates among the composer’s best. Walton’s 1954 Troilus and Cressida was considered to be too much like what the composer had already written. My ears want all the Walton they can get. Barber’s 1966 Antony and Cleopatra was supposedly compromised by an overblown Franco Zeffirelli production to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. I think the world was expecting something like the Elizabeth Taylor film of Cleopatra, not Barber’s cooler portrayal of a savvy politician and rich panorama of the world around her. Now the opera is known in a slimmed-down, more conventional version with an added love duet.

So where do Paul Abraham’s operettas take us?

Poster for 1993 German film adapted from Paul Abraham’s opereatta.

“Aloha Berlin!” for starters. That’s the opening line in the Komische Oper production of Die Blume von Hawaii. What were the original authors and audience perceiving with this piquant incongruity? Since it’s popular entertainment, operetta isn’t a stationary object in history that is revisited by different generations. It changes colors constantly. The Hawaiian locale can be seen as part of a larger fascination with the New World, as manifested in Emmerich Kálmán’s Die Herzogin von Chicago and the gold-rush locales in Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Abraham’s operetta reflects as much influence from Weill as from Franz Lehár. Music that 1930s Europe heard as jazz is something we hear as a representation of jazz, with raucous rhythms and slide whistles without the inner substance. But that was enough to doom the opera when the Nazis came to power in 1933. The operetta’s breakdown of formality, with duets like “Du, du, du,” are far from the image of wholesome common folk that was promoted by the Nazis. Being a Jew, Abraham had to leave Europe at the height of his fame.

It’s here that we enter the back road of history. The 1940s are full of great immigrant stories, such as the pianist Grete Sultan, who shoved off from Lisbon minutes before her exit visa was about to expire. Or Weill, who was reduced to writing pageants for the 1939 World’s Fair with titles like Railroad on Parade when he already had the first of numerous Broadway hits. Somehow, Abraham washed up in Cuba and worked as a pianist. Nobody knows what happened to his wife Charlotte. They had no children. And Abraham wasn’t a reliable source of information, according to Klaus Waller, author of the biography Paul Abraham: Der tragische König der Operette. After arriving in New York City, Abraham was discovered in the middle of traffic, directing a symphony orchestra that wasn’t there.

Having had a nervous breakdown, Abraham was hospitalized in an institution that sends cold chills down the spines of mental-health professionals: Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. The building looms like some architectural monolith from a old Batman comic book. And though it has a variety of departments — some now lauded for their compassionate care — the post-war years were known to be hugely overpopulated, seriously understaffed, and later had scandals related to straightjacketed patients being physically abused. Abraham eventually returned to Europe. His Ball im Savoy operetta was made into a film in 1955. Hopefully, those royalties contributed to his continued care.

So what can his works mean to us now?

The televised Silvesterkonzert had soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller meticulously decked out in Art Deco party garb, looking and sounding beautiful indeed, and maybe a bit sad. Contrast that with the historic recordings I found of Hungarian soprano Marta Eggerth singing Abraham arias during his heyday: It’s a pure, from-the-heart expression devoid of any affectation, and with a sense of emotional release so immediate that the music never seems distant or foreign. But it is distant and foreign, which is why I am coming to love it as a genuine, sincere 1930s artifact from a world that had no idea what wartime horrors were ahead, or how those horrors would come to live inside the composer’s head. We can’t fathom what that pre-war world was like — until we hear this anything-but-obscure music refracted in one’s inner rearview mirror, cultivated by the many obscure operas that have come before it. Through this music, that relatively innocent sensibility still lives.