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Celebrating Emmerich Kálmán’s life and legacy

By Sigurd Neubauer


Edwin Ronald, the son of Leopold Maria, the prince of Lippert-Weylersheim, famously tells his friend Count Boni Kánsciánu in Die Csárdásfürstin, “Boni, you’re bothering.” The tongue in-cheek reference is made when Edwin seeks to court the beautiful and untamable Gypsy Princess: Sylva Varescu, but Boni stands in his way.

The operetta, which premiered at the Johann Strauss-Theater in Vienna in 1915, is full of charm and humor, and the music is equally delightful.

In fact, Die Csárdásfürstin, or The Gypsy Princess, stands out as one of Emmerich Kálmán’s (1882-1953) most beloved operettas. It quickly became an international sensation, and by the time World War II erupted in 1939, it had reputedly been performed over 100,000 times around the world. On Broadway, it was known as The Riviera Girl. While to this day Die Csárdásfürstin remains his most popular work across the German speaking world, Central Europe, and Russia, Gräfin Mariza (1924), or Countess Maritza, is his most famous and celebrated operetta in the United States and the English-speaking world.

Although Kálmán was born in Siófok, Hungary, and died in Paris, his music is most closely associated with Vienna where he lived for nearly 30 years. 

In fact, “Grüß mir mein Wien (“Greet Me, My Vienna”), from Countess Maritza, remains one of Kálmán’s most beloved melodies and is almost always included in Viennese themed concerts whether they take place in the Austrian capital or elsewhere. 

Kálmán did not come from a musical family. From 1915 to 1930, he turned out a mega hit every two years

At the height of his career, Kálmán was prolific, explains Michael D. Miller, the president of the Los Angeles-based Operetta Foundation and board chairman of the Ohio Light Opera. “Every two years or so – from 1915 to 1930 – the Hungarian composer turned out a mega hit.”

His success, Miller says, placed him at the top of the operetta world in Vienna. He even overtook his fellow Hungarian composer – and rival – Franz Lehár in popularity during the late 1910s and 1920s, Miller adds. Many of Kálmán’s operettas premiered at Vienna’s most prestigious theater, the Theater an der Wien, which forced many of his competitors, including Lehár, to relocate their works, often times to Berlin, as Kálmán completely dominated the Vienna scene.

By the time World War II erupted in 1939, The Gypsy Girl had reputedly been performed over 100,000 times around the world
Countess Maritza is Kálmán’s most famous and celebrated operetta in the United States and the English-speaking world

Talent and composition 

“There’s no obvious source for his musical talents as Kálmán didn’t come from an accomplished musical family,” Miller says. 

What the Kálmán family did have was a piano in the house. When Kálmán was a youngster, he hid under the piano, and listened, when his sister, Vilma, was practicing. In his memoir, The Unadulterated Truth, published in 1932, Kálmán relates how an unlikely friendship with virtuoso violinist Ferenc Liedl had developed in 1887 when he was four years old. Liedl would come every summer to stay with the Kálmán family when he was performing at the Budapest Royal Opera and the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra. “The young Kálmán would stick around when Liedl was practicing, which the violinist initially found annoying, and complained to his parents about it. But when the youngster sang through the entire Liszt Second Hungarian Rhapsody, the violinist became so impressed that the initial annoyance turned into a ‘best friend’ situation,” Miller says. The two would go for long walks discussing music for hours, he adds.

Miller describes how Kálmán was enthralled with music from an early age. In 1896, the young Hungarian enrolled in a music conservatory, where he studied to become a concert pianist and was particularly inspired by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) whose career and compositions he wanted to emulate. 

Fate, however, wouldn’t have it that way.

After a couple of years, Kálmán sustained a nerve injury in his right arm and was never able to become a concert pianist. But he was eventually accepted by the Budapest Academy of Music to study theory under famed pedagogue Hans von Koessler. His students, Kálmán, along with Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), and Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) would eventually become Hungary’s most famous composers. 

During this period, Kálmán became a music critic for one of the most important Hungarian newspapers, Pesti Napló. There he met Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952), who was on his way to becoming Hungary’s most famous playwright. In 1909, Molnár wrote a play titled Liliom, which was later adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein as the 1945 musical Carousel.

Kálmán’s cabaret song “I’m the lady’s maid of Sári Fedák” became an instant success in 1908

During the years 1903-1908, Kálmán wrote a number of serious musical works, including tone poems, incidental music for plays, a piano sonata, and art songs, many of which were well received in Budapest. He was also introduced to Karl von Bakonyi, who would soon become his first operetta librettist . 

In 1908, at the age of 26, Kálmán composed a popular cabaret song called “I’m the lady’s maid of Sári Fedák,” which became the rage of Budapest. Fedak (1879-1955) was one of Budapest’s most popular singers at the time. “She got wind of it, and included the song in her own repertoire,” Miller explains. 

Despite this initial success, Kálmán, like many artists before and after him, struggled with finding a publisher for his music. “He was so frustrated,” Miller reveals, telling himself that if he couldn’t find one, “he would be forced to compose an operetta.”

The German version of Tatárjárás, which premiered in 1909 as Ein Herbstmanöver, became another success for Kálmán

Finding success

His first operetta, Tatárjárás (1908), or The Mongol Invasion, put him on the map as it became an instant success.

At that time, Miller explains, home-grown operetta was fairly new to Budapest. The art form, propelled most prominently by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), had initially taken hold in Paris, before coming to Vienna where Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) adopted it and composed Die Fledermaus (The Bat) in 1874. From there, it spread to London, New York, Berlin and beyond, before coming to Budapest at the turn of the century. Fellow Hungarian operetta composer Franz Lehár’s (1870-1948) The Merry Widow premiered in Vienna in 1905.

Tatárjárás was performed more than 100 times in Budapest. Celebrated Austrian operetta composer Leo Fall came to Budapest and was sufficiently impressed with the show that he invited Kálmán to Vienna to prepare a German version of Tatárjárás, which premiered in 1909 as Ein Herbstmanöver and enjoyed considerable success as well.

The show rapidly spread around the world. In the United States, where it premiered on Broadway in 1909, it was known as The Gay Hussars, in England (1912) and Australia (1913), as Autumn Manoeuvres. It was also well received in Czechoslovakia, Italy, Russia, Sweden, and Argentina, among many places, Miller explains.

‘Kálmán, along with fellow composers and for obvious financial reasons, loved nothing more than having his work performed in as many places as possible, especially in New York and London as they were potentially lucrative markets,” Miller says, adding that with the premiere of Ein Herbstmanöver, Kálmán’s musical career had finally taken off.

The composer had earned the respect of the Viennese operetta community, although he at times still felt like an outsider when socializing with the established composers at the time, Miller reveals.

Some time after the premiere of Tatárjárás, Kálmán met his first true love, Paula Dworczak, with whom he would spend the next twenty years of his life, but they apparently never married.

His second operetta, another Hungarian work, Az Obsitos (Soldier on Leave), premiered in 1910, and was revised for Vienna in 1911 as Der gute Kamerad (The Good Comrade).

Some time after the premiere of Tatárjárás in 1908, Kálmán met his first true love, Paula Dworczak

On October 11, 1912, Der Zigeunerprimás premiered at the Johann Strauss-Theater in Vienna. Its great success was another testimony to Kálmán’s reputation in Vienna as a composer of the highest order.

Der Zigeunerprimás became another major international success, including on New York’s Broadway where it was performed more than 150 times.“ With this work, as Miller explains, America embraced Kálmán and his music, and would continue doing so on stage, in concert, and on radio, during his entire lifetime.“ Kálmán’s operettas, in fact, have enjoyed more performances on Broadway than those of any other 20th-century operetta composer, including Lehár. Ten of his operettas played on Broadway, and three others enjoyed out-of-town American productions during his lifetime, Miller adds.

Kálmán lived in Vienna from 1908-1938, but the Jewish composer fled the city for Zurich, Switzerland, before eventually migrating with his family in 1940 to the United States via Paris and Mexico.

On Broadway, The Gypsy Princess became known as The Riviera Girl 


Kálmán became attached during his childhood to Hungarian folklore, history, and literature, which inspired his compositions. 

“He loved the Hungarian spirit, which he carried with him throughout his life,” Miller explains.

Despite his enormous success, Kálmán had a reputation of being shy and introverted. In contrast to his music, which is full of joie de vivre and humor, the public perception of the composer was generally that of a dour person. 

This was perhaps, Miller explains, “because the composer had experienced several hardships while growing up, including his father’s bankruptcy which resulted in the family losing their home and all their belongings. From that point on, he experienced what he perceived as continuing social and professional setbacks, which would haunt him for years. He was also careful with his money throughout his life as the painful memories of the family bankruptcy remained with him,” Miller adds.

Through his operettas, Kálmán was able to channel his internal warmth and romantic spirit as reflected through his musical portrayal of characters and dramatic development.“ In so doing, he was perhaps vicariously living the extroverted life that he himself could not experience,” according to Miller.

Despite a reputation of earnestness, Kálmán seemingly reveled in many aspects of his life, particularly those that connected him with his circle of dedicated friends, Miller explains. This becomes evident from Julius Bistron’s authorized biography, which was published in 1932 when the composer was around 50 years old.

Kálmán dominated the musical scene in Vienna during the late 1910s and 1920s 

“Kálmán contributed some 80 pages to Bistron’s biography about his life before moving to Vienna. This is the primary source for most everything that has been written about his early life ever since,” Miller explains.

On how Kálmán’s legacy endures nearly 70 years after his death, Miller says that “it is holding up very well.” He is currently the most performed operetta composer around the world, due to a large extent to the widespread popularity of his music in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as in Russia. 

“His operettas are played constantly in Russia, primarily Die Csárdásfürstin, Gräfin Mariza, and Die Zirkusprinzessin (The Circus Princess), among others.

In the United States, the Ohio Light Opera has performed more Kálmán operettas (14 by the end of next summer) than any other company in the world. Other U.S. companies that have performed Kálmán over the past three decades include: Chicago’s Folks Operetta as well as the Santa Fe, Los Angeles and Arizona opera companies, New York’s Village Light Opera Group, and Concert Operetta Theater in Philadelphia.

Kálmán’s operettas have enjoyed more performances on Broadway than those of any other 20th-century operetta composer, including Franz Lehár

“Kálmán’s popularity rests, in part, on his deft fusion of Viennese waltz rhythms and the fiery strains of the csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance. His most successful works invariably contain at least one musical number that incites fired-up audiences to spontaneously join in with rhythmic applause. His music, in supporting the drama, is also characterized by the constant ebb and flow between joy and tragedy.”

These dynamics, Miller explains, mirror the emotional ups and downs of Kálmán’s own life. For example, when the composer was working on Die Csárdásfürstin – an ultimately upbeat story – he was facing the realities of war and learned, two months before the show’s premiere, that his brother had died.

“Conventional wisdom has it that an operetta’s initial success is tied to its script, but that its lasting success rests with its music. As engaging as Kálmán’s operetta scripts are, it is, without question, his genius for melody and musico-dramatic flair that has endeared him to audiences for well over a century,” Miller concludes. 

All historic photo images are credited to the Operetta Foundation. 

Kálmán's music is inspired by Hungarian folklore, history, and literature: Miller
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