Study Day 1

  • Date:
  • Location: School of Music, University of Leeds
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Derek Scott described how the project came about and what it was designed to achieve:

In 2012, I was invited to contribute to an AHRC funded project “West End and Friedrichstraße: Cross-cultural Exchange” hosted by Goldsmiths, London, and the Freie Universität, Berlin. I spoke at a conference in Berlin, and was later contracted to write a chapter for the book of essays that formed part of the research dissemination of the findings of the project (the publisher was Cambridge University Press). This initial work spurred me on to apply for an ERC Advanced Grant in order to do justice to the neglected area of the cultural transfer of twentieth-century operetta from the German stage—often called Silver-Age operetta—to London and New York. I have been researching operetta, and writing on this form of urban entertainment for many years (with publications in 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011). I was, therefore, very conscious that operetta of the nineteenth century was under-researched, and operetta of the twentieth century almost completely ignored by musicologists (although this is beginning to change). When it came to the question of cultural transmission, there was no musicological study whatsoever of the cultural transfer of German operetta to London and New York and the transformation that took place in the creation of English adaptations. This is even more remarkable when the number of new productions during 1907–37 is considered, and that many of these operettas were performed night after night on stages in the West End and Broadway for a year or more.

Operetta production began to decline after 1933; from late in that year it had to conform to the Goebbels regime. Emmerich Kálmán, Oscar Straus, Jean Gilbert, and Paul Abraham all left Germany to avoid Nazi persecution. Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz, neither of whom were Jewish, left of their own accord. Others were not unaffected: Eduard Künneke was to discover that the producer of his operetta Liselott (1932) had been murdered in 1933. The most successful operetta of the Third Reich era was perhaps Fred Raymond’s Maske in Blau (1937).

In London and New York, musical revues, the newer Broadway musicals, sound film (and film musicals), social dancing and dance bands, radio and records were all contributing to the demise of operetta in the 1930s. Also eating away at the German style were the syncopated African-American rhythms from the USA (the cultural threat of which surfaces in some operettas, for instance, Kálmán’s Die Herzogin von Chicago). Some composers of German operetta were adopting American elements (Künneke, Abraham), but at other times the influence from Broadway crept into the music in a less conscious way. It seems unlikely that Azuri’s Dance, “Soft as a Pigeon Lights upon the Sand,” from Act 1 of The Desert Song, was not lurking somewhere in Lehár’s mind when he wrote the final scene of Giuditta. A final blow for operetta in London came with the closure of Daly’s in 1937 and the Gaiety in 1938.

The project GOLNY is ground breaking because there exists very little academic work that subjects German operettas of this period to criticism, or that analyzes their music in any detail, and no study exists of their West End or Broadway transformations. There are a few sociological and historical studies of British and American musical comedy (Bailey 1996, Mates 1985, Platt 2004), a few German studies touching on operette of this period (Clarke 2011, Dömeland 2004, Linhardt 2009), and Stefan Frey’s important biographies of Lehár, Kálmán, and Fall (1995, 2003, 2010). There are also some general studies, mainly of a cataloguing nature, of American musicals and European light opera. Academic attention has focused, instead, on America’s influence on European stage works and there has been no rigorous scholarly study of the cultural transfer of German operetta to Britain and the USA. Yet, dozens of these operettas were produced in the West End and on Broadway, and their significance to musical life of the period 1907–37 is undeniable. Nobody has examined the musical adaptations and transformations, which provide significant insight into the similarities and differences of cultural concerns, values and priorities that existed in Austria, Germany, Britain and the USA during this period. The changes made for British and American productions not only involved textual and dramatic changes (e.g. of character, or of scene), but also musical changes (e.g. a duet becomes a solo, or new numbers are interpolated). All this can lead to perplexing complications, and a clear sign of scholarly neglect of this musical field is the confusion that reigns in books and web sites over the various British and American versions of Berthé’s Das Dreimäderlhaus.

Because operetta has been a research interest of mine for so long (I have even composed an operetta, Wilberforce), I have acquired a number of period vocal scores. One of the most important among these is the personal copy of Das Dreimäderlhaus owned by the English composer George Clutsam, who arranged Berté’s original work for the London stage. The German vocal score contains his pencilled annotations and comments, and these provide insight into the way Clutsam adapted certain numbers (sometimes even changing the original metre).

As part of the project, digitized copies of vocal scores that are now in the public domain will be made available on the project web site. The web site will also contain some twenty digitized vocal scores of London and/or New York adaptations of German operettas with information about the various transformations these works have undergone. This will be useful to both German and Anglo-American opera companies, because the original composer often added extra numbers for productions in London or New York.

The key points that made this project feasible were as follows. There are good arguments historical period 1907–38 (from the sensational success of The Merry Widow in London and New York to the decline of operetta following the Goebbels regime, the emigration of important Jewish composers of operetta, and the closure of two important operetta theatres in the London). There has been past neglect of this aspect of mainstream culture, but there is now growing interest because of lapsed copyright, which has encouraged releases of period recordings and radio broadcasts, and reprinting of old vocal scores.

The project is also expected to have social impact. Research could stimulate this market academically and economically. Some opera companies are already adding operetta to their repertoire (Opera North, Leeds, Canadian Opera, Toronto), while others have continuity in performing them (Volksoper, Vienna, the Komische Oper, Berlin). New operas struggle, but new musicals have a thriving environment in Europe. Operetta may be thought to fall somewhere between the two. The project is intended to preserve and emphasize the value of a neglected area of European culture. The resources generated by the project are intended for scholars, professional practitioners and, in the case of the web site, are also intended to offer an educational and information resource for the general public.

A presentation was then given by Anastasia Belina, who holds to position of Senior Research Fellow on the project. Her field of research is Silver-Age operetta in Warsaw.

There followed a presentation by Corey Benson on the design of the project web site. This site will contain information about the project and its findings, but one of its main purposes is to make available public domain images (e.g. photographs) and music (e.g. vocal scores) available to students and researchers. This material will be downloadable for reproduction in academic publications, and thus help scholars to avoid a problem that currently creates a great deal of difficulty, the imposition of expensive permissions costs for figures and musical examples by many libraries (e.g. the British Library, Pierpont Morgan, NY). A Digitization Officer, Melissa Gallimore, has been appointed to work on the project. She has experience in handling fragile documents, and this skill is necessary given the condition of some of the vocal scores and flimsy items such as programmes.

The web pages are hosted on a University of Leeds WordPress site, which can be edited and added to easily. This will allow the Research Assistant to take responsibility for its maintenance and updating, until a web design specialist is again brought in towards the end of the project to ensure it functions with maximum efficiency.

The Study Day included the showing of excerpts of early operetta films, and there was an exhibition of vocal scores, programmes and other material in three display cabinets for visitors to peruse. All items were accompanied by descriptive information. Of particular interest to visitors from Leeds was a display of old posters advertising productions of silver-age operettas at the Grand Theatre.