There’s a certain perception of opera that lends itself to certain adjectives: long, slow, somber, inaccessible. But you can be certain, The Merry Widow is none of these things. In a “co-opera” production, both the Cal Poly Student Opera Theatre and Opera San Luis Obispo are staging Franz Lehar’s timeless tale of romantic and political mishap.
“It’s just a delightful show,” director Ross Halper told New Times. “It’s a little bit naughty, funny, with the glamour of the old world but with a lot of racy humor. It’s got everything.”
- PHOTO COURTESY OF CSPOT AND OPERASLO
- KISS THE GIRL : Cal Poly students Corey Hable (left) and Alexis Rubell (right) play lovers Hanna Glawari and Count Danilo in Franz Lehar’s popular operetta.
Halper, a director and performer from the Bay Area, would know. Not only has he translated the show himself from the original German, but this is his second time directing and fifth time starring in it.
In this production, Halper plays Baron Zeta, an ambassador from the fictional country of Pontevedro who lives in Belle Epoque-era Paris. The show begins at a grand ball that’s intended to celebrate the birthday of the Grand Duke. In reality however, the elite have all gathered to further their own social politics, including the fate of one Hanna Glawari, who has become one of the wealthiest in the country after inheriting her late husband’s fortune. With Pontevedro on the brink of poverty, Zeta intends to keep the money within the borders by marrying her to fellow countryman, Count Danilo Danilovitsch.
But of course, in a twist that Shakespeare would heartily approve of, Hanna already knows Danilo. Once upon a time, they loved one another, only to be ripped apart by his unapproving uncle. But now, Hanna wants to make sure Danilo is interested because he truly loves her, not because she’s literally worth the same as a small European nation. Naturally, as Hanna and Danilo chart their star-crossed course, hijinks ensue and identities are mistaken. There’re can-can girls, secret messages, and all manner of frivolity that makes The Merry Widow more My Fair Lady than Madame Butterfly (no disrespect, Puccini!).
“It’s as much fun as a musical,” Halper said. “It’s not going to be a boring show.”
All this gaiety and glamour derives from more than just the love-and-money plot. The show’s genre lends itself to light-hearted fare. Technically, The Merry Widow falls under the classification of operetta, otherwise known as a light opera.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF CSPOT AND OPERASLO
- LOVE TRIANGLE: This production of The Merry Widow combines the forces of both Cal Poly music students and local professionals like Phill Edwards (left), Kristina Horacek (center), and Paul Osborne (right).
“It falls halfway between opera and musical theater,” Jacalyn Kreitzer, founder and producer of Cal Poly Student Opera Theatre, explained. “So, one doesn’t always have to sing in an opera way. You can add a lot of mild theater belts (half singing and talking), with more emphasis on acting.”
Alongside colonialism and cholera, operettas proved supremely fashionable at the turn of the century. Franz Lehar premiered The Merry Widow in 1905, and since, it’s continued to be a resoundingly popular production. In 1952, it was adapted for the screen with Lana Turner as the titular widow. For conductor David Arrivée, part of that success is due to the show’s indelible music.
“I can’t get it out of my head,” he said over the phone. “It’s very, very catchy. I find myself singing the music, especially the song ‘Girls, Girls, Girls.’ I’m conducting another piece, working on Tchaikovsky, and it’s weird to find myself singing ‘Girls, Girls, Girls.’ It’s just really funny. Even in the original German, it’s funny. Ross has put in some really great humor to make it more understandable.”
Unlike many operas, The Merry Widow offers a broad assortment of music, from can-can numbers rich with the kind of sultry plumage found at clubs like the Moulin Rouge to broad group spectacles and intimate waltzes. But it’s more than the music that’s kept audiences coming back to this show. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you one thing: It’s just plain funny.
“The melodies are light, not heavy,” Kreitzer said. “The messages sent are light and funny. The problems are romance. It’s easy to enjoy this. People will really enjoy the fact that on stage they’re also having fun.”
Jessica Peña can can-can. Can you? Tell her at firstname.lastname@example.org.