Big-top operetta that time forgot will receive its Chicago premiere

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John von Rhein Classical music critic

10:40 a.m. CDT, June 5, 2012

As the young daughter of an internationally celebrated composer, Yvonne Kalman delighted in eavesdropping on conversations her father, Emmerich Kalman, had with other famed European emigres as they gathered around plates of freshly prepared Hungarian delicacies in the kitchen of the Kalmans' New York home, before the platters of food were brought out to the other party guests.

"I recall my mother dragging him away from Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Erich Maria Remarque to meet the other guests," Kalman says today. "My father would sneak back to the kitchen as soon as he could to rejoin his illustrious cohorts and his little girl."

Much of the cosmopolitan sophistication the Hungarian-born Emmerich Kalman and his colleagues brought with them to America during the 1930s and '40s permeates his more than 15 operettas. These tuneful confections sealed his reputation as the leading composer of Viennese operetta – rivaling that of Franz Lehar – in the period following World War I.

John von Rhein
John von Rhein
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Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division St, Chicago, IL 60642, USA

Alas, Kalman's celebrity was not to last: Almost all of his once wildly popular light operas fell out of the repertory, except in German-speaking countries, following his death, in Paris, in 1953. Undaunted, Yvonne Kalman has been actively promoting her father's works throughout the world. Once again, her crusade has taken her to Chicago.

Beginning this weekend, Chicago Folks Operetta is presenting the local premiere of Kalman's 1926 operetta, "The Circus Princess" ("Die Zirkusprinzessin"), a work not staged in the U.S. for more than 80 years. The show will run in repertory with another rarity, also a Chicago premiere – Eduard Kunneke's 1921 "The Cousin from Nowhere" ("Der Vetter aus dingsda"). Both works play through June at the Chopin Theatre.

"The Circus Princess" is the second Kalman operetta Chicago Folks Operetta has ventured, following "Arizona Lady" in 2010. Although not as well known as the composer's "The Gypsy Princess" and "Countess Maritza," "Zirkusprinzessin" is awash with the Hungarian melodies, Viennese waltz rhythms and romantic intrigues that are hallmarks of the Kalman style. There's even a circus act or two thrown in.

The Folks Operetta performances will employ a 19-piece orchestra under Anthony Barrese's direction, stage direction by Bill Walters and a new English translation by artistic director Gerald Frantzen and dramaturge Hersh Glagov.

This year marks Emmerich Kalman's 130th birthday anniversary, a milestone that is being honored in such unlikely places as Russia, where his music is rivaled in popularity only by Tchaikovsky's, his daughter says.

She remembers Kalman as "the sweetest, kindest of men" and "a very loving husband and father." She recalls walking the family dachshund with her father, who often would stop abruptly and exclaim, 'Yvonneka [his nickname for her], I have a melody in my head and I must go back home and write it down!"

Emmerich Kalman was born in a provincial town in Hungary in 1882, studied music at the Budapest Conservatory alongside Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, and turned to composition after painful neuritis forced him to abandon all hope of a career as a concert pianist.

Although his most successful operettas made him the toast of Vienna and were produced to great acclaim in London and New York during the first decades of the 20th century, Kalman really wanted to be known as a serious composer of operas and orchestral works. "But he just had those great melodies getting in the way," Yvonne observes.

His cheerful demeanor masked a deep depression that resulted from the terror and privations the Jewish composer and his family suffered following Adolf Hitler'sannexation of Austria in 1938. Soon after Yvonne's birth that same year they fled to Switzerland, later Paris. So popular were Kalman's works in Germany that Hitler, a great admirer of his music, sent an agent to Paris promising to make the composer "an honorary Aryan" if he would return to the fatherland.

Kalman not only adamantly refused but moved his family to America on one of the last ships to leave Europe before World War II escalated. His relatives were not so fortunate: All perished in Nazi concentration camps. Their fate would haunt him the rest of his life.

Life in the U.S. was no easier for Kalman and his family than some other European emigres. Hollywood fame beckoned briefly after Louis B. Mayer, the studio chief of MGM, bought the movie rights to several of his operettas. But after America declared war on Germany, the studios shied away from films with Hungarian and European subjects, and plans were dropped.

Deeply disappointed, Kalman uprooted the family once again, settling in New York. Their home became a meeting place for numerous war-displaced European cultural and literary figures.

Yvonne was all of 3 when she first became aware of her father's fame. Emmerich Kalman had been invited to conduct Arturo Toscanini's orchestra, the NBC Symphony, and the music wafting from the radio in the Kalman living room sounded strangely familiar. Her older brother, Charles, told her it was composed by their father.

"I was far too young at the time to understand even what conducting meant," she recalls. "I only knew this music touched my heart and put me on cloud nine. It has had the same effect on me to this day."

No surprise, then, that Yvonne Kalman will be sitting in the first row for the opening performances of "Circus Princess" here this weekend.

She takes heart in the fact that such marquee singers as Renee Fleming have expressed a desire to investigate the many musical gems by her father that remain largely unknown.

"It will take an artist of stature to put them back on the map – that's the only way," she says. "With such a huge repertory of standard works opera companies are committed to doing, they are not necessarily going to do anything Viennese that isn't 'Die Fledermaus' or "The Merry Widow.' ''

Chicago Folks Operetta's production of "The Circus Princess" opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday and runs through July 1 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Kunneke's "The Cousin from Nowhere" runs June 15-30. $35-$40 adults, $30 seniors and students; 708-383-2742,

Met 'Ring' on PBS

The Metropolitan Opera's controversial new Robert Lepage production of Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" is coming to public television this fall. PBS stations, including WTTW-Ch. 11 in Chicago, will air the four music dramas on successive nights in primetime on Sept. 11-14 as part of the "Great Performances at the Met" series. "Wagner's Dream," a companion documentary chronicling the challenges of creating the high-tech production, will be broadcast on Sept. 10. This will mark only the third time a complete "Ring" cycle will have aired on PBS.

The operas and documentary will be screened in movie theaters throughout the U.S. this spring and summer.