Selections from Operettas

By Steven Ledbetter

Written for the concert Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930, performed on Oct 22, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Victor Herbert was born to Irish parents in Dublin. His grandfather was also a celebrated Irish artist, the multi-talented Samuel Lover, who was active as a poet, painter, novelist, and composer. It was in his grandfather’s home that Herbert first heard a great cellist, Alfredo Carlo Piatti, whose playing later inspired the boy to take up that instrument as his own. When his widowed mother married a German physician, the family moved to Stuttgart, and Herbert grew up there, intending at first to follow his stepfather’s profession. But the call of music was too strong. By the age of seventeen he was already earning his living as a cellist. He spend one year as a member of the private orchestra of an immensely rich Russian baron, Paul von Derwies, and a second year in the orchestra of Eduard Strauss, a young brother of the famous waltz king, Johann, in Vienna. There he absorbed completely the Viennese musical style that so imbued the many waltz songs that he was to write in his future operettas. (This is particularly clear if one listened to Herbert’s own Edison recordings of the waltz numbers from his operettas, where he imbues the dance with that particular Viennese lilt that one rarely hears from orchestras in other places.) At the age of twenty-two, Herbert decided to return to the Stuttgart Conservatory to study composition. His earlier surviving work (identified by its composer as “Opus 3”) is a suite in five movements for cello and orchestra that established him at once as a composer of concertos for the cello and of music that could appeal to a popular audiences for its sheer tunefulness.

It was the merest accident that brought Victor Herbert to America, an accident in which Cupid played no small part. The young composer had become engaged to a soprano, Therese Foerster, at the Stuttgart Opera. When she was approached by envoys from the Metropolitan Opera to sing the first Aida in the United States (in German!), she agreed, on the condition that her husband-to-be also be given employment. Herbert was hired as the principal cellist in the Met Orchestra. When the newlyweds arrived in New York on October 24, 1886, the press made much of the Metropolitan’s new star. No one could have predicted that, within a decade, she would have retired from the stage and her modest and unknown husband would be one of the most famous musicians in America.

Mademoiselle Modiste (1905) is set in Paris and tells the story of Fifi, a charming young French girl working in a hat shop, but dreaming of a career on the stage. One day, when she is alone in the ship, a rich and eccentric American bumbles in. He finds Fifi pert and charming, and when she tells him of her lifelong ambition, she does so in a wonderful number that serves as a kind of “audition” piece, because she shows him exactly how she would play three very different kinds of roles, if given the opportunity. the last of these has become one of the most famous of all of Herbert’s melodies under the title “Kiss Me Again,” and it is often performed by itself as a love song. But that denies the listener the opportunity to hear the entire charming scene. Fritzi Scheff objected that “Kiss Me Again” was too low for her soprano voice, but Herbert persuaded her that she need barely whisper the opening lines to achieve the kind of intoxicating effect that the song demanded.

The first Herbert show that could justifiably be called a sensational success was The Fortune Teller of 1898. Set in Hungary and telling the tale of two women who look very much alike (they were played by the same actress, Alice Nielsen, the first star to be made by Herbert’s music), one a ballerina in Budapest, the other a gypsy fortune teller. Naturally there are all kinds of mix-ups between the two look-alikes, and they eventually use their physical similarity to extricated themselves from unwanted imbroglios and to find true love. The overture to the operetta is a medley with three of the principal tunes of the operetta (though it by no means exhausts them): the waltz song “The Nightingale and the Star,” “The Gypsy Love Song,” sung in the show by the baritone lead, Sandor, and Victor Herbert’s successful attempt to match Johann Strauss’s famous csárdás in Die Fledermaus with an equal Hungarian verve.

Musically, the richest of all Victor Herbert operettas, Naughty Marietta (1910) has been successfully revived in recent years (by the New York City Opera, though with a somewhat rewritten book). Its performance by an opera company is entirely appropriate, because it was originally mounted by such a company. In April 1910 the Metropolitan Opera had paid Oscar Hammerstein $1,250,000, to close his Manhattan Opera Company, which was providing too much competition. Hammerstein had to agree to refrain from producing grand opera for ten years. Having on his payroll an entire cast of first-rate singers, a large chorus, and a full orchestra, Hammerstein chose instead to produce a lavish operetta with a score by Victor Herbert. The quality of the available forces (including a tenor who had sung the title role in Parsifal the year before, and a brilliant Italian coloratura soprano, Emma Trentini), gave the composer the freedom to write far more difficult solos and more complex ensembles than he might have dared otherwise. And he let himself go! The plot is set in old New Orleans about 1780, when the city was still ruled by France. The title character is an aristocratic young lady, charming and willfully capricious. In order to avoid an unwanted marriage she has run away to the New World under the name Marietta, disguising herself as one of a group of penniless young “casquet girls” whom the government has shipped to New Orleans with a small box representing their total dowry, in order to provide wives for the settlers of New France.

When a reward is offered for the missing French countess, Marietta joins the troupe of an Italian puppeteer, pretending to be his son (an unlikely masquerade at best!). At the end of the first act, she entices the audience to the puppet show by singing the “Italian Street Song,” one of the most brilliant and best-loved soprano showpieces from the entire history of American operetta. (The arrangement to be heard here was made by Herbert’s associate George Trinkhaus, who was, with Herbert, one of the original members of ASCAP in 1914.)