By Sigurd Neubauer
The Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953) dominated the musical scene in Vienna, Austria, during the late 1910s and 1920s. We have covered his unmatched life and legacy in a multi-part series, including one about how The Ohio Light Opera (OLO) continues to celebrate his music in the United States by introducing it to new audiences every season.
OLO has also staged more operettas (13) of the Hungarian-Jewish composer than any company worldwide—past or present.
From 1915 to 1930, Kálmán turned out a mega hit every two years. While Die Csárdásfürstin (1915) and Gräfin Mariza (1924) remain his two most popular works today, Die Zirkusprinzessin (1926) is perhaps the quintessential Kálmán operetta.
The libretto is by Alfred Grünwald (1884-1951) and Julius Brammer (1888-1983).
The three operettas were also performed in New York where Die Csárdásfürstin was introduced as The Riviera Girl (1917), Gräfin Mariza as Countess Maritza (1926) and Die Zirkusprinzessin as The Circus Princess (1927).
Commenting on what cultural role Die Zirkusprinzessin played in Austria at the time of its premier, Stefan Frey, the author of Laughter under Tears: Emmerich Kálmán (2014), reveals that Russian themes had become popular subjects during the 1920s because of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
“During its aftermath, many of the Russian nobility sought refuge in Europe,” he adds, then quips: “The topic of a poor nobleman, which is one of Kálmán main favorite topics, is also at play here.”
Frey, who is the world’s leading authority on Kálmán and the author of three additional books on Franz Lehár (1870–1948), points out that in Countess Maritza – which predates The Circus Princess – the old military officer class is portrayed favorably. This is no longer the case in The Circus Princess where the hero, Mister X, used to be part of it but no longer is. In the operetta, the military officer class is ridiculed, and Mister X is in “a revolutionary spirit.”
Zwei Märchenaugen is arguably the piece’s most famous song. Photo credit: The Operetta Foundation
According to Folks Operetta: The story follows the mysterious Mr. X, a dashing circus performer, whose death-defying act is the talk of all Russia. Mr. X is hired by Grand Duke Sergius Wladimir, a jilted suitor of Princess Feodora Palinska, to pose as a Russian prince and marry her, in a ruse designed to entice the princess into marrying a 'lowly' circus performer. But of course, as in any good operetta that features mistaken identity and intrigue, 'Mister X' is, in fact, a prince who had been disinherited by his family years earlier
“The Circus Princess is frequently performed in Germany but ranks second in popularity after The Gipsy Princess,” Frey says, pointing out that The Circus Princess was performed last year “in a big production” at the Staatsoper Hannover.
From an artistic perspective, what makes The Circus Princess so unique, the scholar explains, is that it contains many modern dances, including the shimmy. Its songs are typical of the 1920s.
At the same time, “it doesn’t fit the time of the story as it purports to take place prior to World War I but the story is really about afterwards.”
The Russian Revolution took place during the final phase of World War I. “After the war, when the nobility lost their wealth and privileges, the old officer, Grand Duke Sergius Wladimir, goes after Mister X,” Frey says.
He points out that in some ways, it is similar to The Beggar Student by Joseph Millöcker (1842 -1899). Its storyline is straight forward: “After a Polish aristocrat refuses to marry a Colonel, he maneuvers to force her to marry a penniless student in revenge,” according to Wikipedia.
The Circus Princess is also a parody of the Russian Hussars. In the song, Der Hussar one is effectively warned against impending rape of daughters and young women, a topic that is not politically correct in Germany, Frey points out. “When the operetta premiered it was meant as a parody as Mister X is sensitive and not romantic.”
How the operetta came together
While Kálmán, Grünwald and Brammer enjoyed a close friendship and artistic collaboration, it is said that the idea for the operetta came about when the three were happily dining at a restaurant while vacationing in Switzerland. “Seated at the table next to them was a Russian circus artist, which is how the idea came to them,” Frey explains.
Responding to how Kálmán found musical inspiration, the scholar explains that he preferred to write the music first and then the lyrics came afterwards. The libretto for Countess Maritza had been completed, then Kálmán composed, and the lyrics were added.
In the case of The Circus Princess, the three of them developed it together.
“The excellent result was made possible because of their close collaboration. This was one of the most harmonious collaborations as they had no conflicts amongst themselves, including during the rehearsals.”
This wasn’t always the case, however. Frey points out that during the collaborations for Countess Maritza and Die Herzogin von Chicago (The Duchess of Chicago) conflict between the three of them erupted numerous times.
“The Circus Princess is a typical Kálmán operetta,” Frey explains while pointing out that the beloved song Liese komm mit mir auf die Wiese had initially been composed for Countess Maritza. So too had the Budapest song, – Wenn du mich sitzen läßt, fahr ich sofort nach Budapest – which also matches Let’s Go to the Varasdin. These two songs, the scholar says, “match perfectly to the Kálmán style.”
“But what sets this operetta apart is not only the waltz duets but its last song; Zwei Märchenaugen. This song is really outstanding; one cannot find a similar song in other operettas as it resembles that of an opera. It is not typical for an operetta at all.”
Another difference, he adds, is that the Third Act mostly resembles a comedy play where the mother of Toni Schlumberger, Madame Caroline, engages in a “typical Viennese style comedy. It is one of the best third act comedic roles, which is why it is so special.”
Frey points out that Kálmán was at the peak of his popularity and artistic creativity when the operetta premiered.
The Circus Pricess was Kálmán’s last big success. Photo credit: The Operetta Foundation
“After Countess Maritza – which was a huge success – librettist Grünwald had proposed to come up with a unique operetta of sorts, which the composer rejected. At the end, they collaborated on another Kálmán-style operetta, which became a big success,” Frey says in reference to how The Circus Princess was received.
In fact, it was Kálmán’s last big success as it was performed everywhere, he adds.
Responding to what the operetta’s legacy is, Frey argues that the story of Mister X, who lost his old identity but is looking for a new one – while being confronted by his past by Princess Fedora Palinska – is quite a modern concept.
“We are all looking for new identities,” the scholar notes. The other part of its legacy is the show business side of it as represented by Toni Schlumberger who insists that ‘the show must go on’ even if society and priorities change. The circus is also a place where one’s identity doesn’t matter.”
“The Circus Princess is, of course, also a backstage story; one does not see the circus performance but only the backstage, which makes it especially interesting where the plot plays out.”
Adds Frey: “In Russia, the operetta is the most popular one of all time where the production is combined with real circus shows featuring acrobats and so forth.”