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PREVIEW: Opera on the Lake Returns with The Merry Widow

Opera singer, director, and arts visionary Anne Wieben (standing) performing with the Opera on the Lake company at an outdoor concert at the Lake Harriet Bandshell in July 2021.

COVID-19 has barely slowed Anne Wieben down. As theatres around the world shuttered, the Minnesota native and opera singer went about finding innovative problem-solving solutions. Stranded on the eastern side of the Atlantic? Make an award-winning, immersive virtual theatre piece. Opera singers classified as super-spreaders? Re-envision how to develop new opera in a safe, online format…that happens to also bypass traditional barriers to participation. Mixed public health guidance on indoor performance? Take it outdoors!

Of course, doing opera outdoors was already in Wieben’s toolbox. Having trained in both the American and Austrian opera traditions, she was intimately familiar with Europe’s many outdoor summer opera festivals. She’d even started a company to bring this sort of performance to the Twin Cities back in 2019.

And so it was that as live, in-person performances slowly – carefully – returned to Minnesota in 2021, Anne Wieben brought her acclaimed Opera on the Lake festival back to St. Paul’s Como Lakeside Pavilion and the Lake Harriet Bandshell. Then, this year, she starred in host of critically acclaimed opera and music-theatre productions in Vienna, sang in Paris, planned a return engagement at Como Lake, and – oh! – headlined a performance tour of Madagascar.

Anne Wieben (second from right) performing at the Fondation des États-Unis in Paris on January 13, 2022. Also pictured: (L-R): Lindsey Huff, Jason Nichols, Bree Nichols, Tess Altiveros, and Basil Considine. Huff Breichtschaedel also appears in this week’s Opera on the Lake performances.

For Wieben, who divides her time between Vienna, Austria and St. Paul, MN, showstopping performances flow like water over the St. Anthony Falls. Still, the last three years have overflowed with the personal and creative highs and lows that so many show business movies are built around. Cancellations. Awards! Lockdowns. Raving reviews! Deaths in the family. Pivoting yet again to shifting guidance on safe performance practices! It’s a lot for any one person to take, even without a performing career straddling both sides of the Atlantic (and four different countries this year).

Not that a consummate professional lets busy affect a performance. “When Anne ascended the stage, she commanded attention,” said Henri Cartier, who caught Wieben at a performance of new opera in Paris in January. “When she sang, I was rapt. Quelle voix! Quelle puissance!

Singer, director, and arts visionary Anne Wieben. Photo by Christoph Scheuermann.

Let’s rewind to the 2018/2019 performance season. That’s when Anne Wieben decided to bring operetta back to her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. A hundred years ago, the sounds of operetta filled the streets and cafes of the city; sometime after World War 2, however, producers decided that audiences needed things to be serious. Composers decided that music should be complicated. And so operetta gradually gave way to serious – and mostly grand – opera.

For most singers, doing operetta first means auditioning for whatever company is planning to produce an operetta. For Anne, however, there was just one problem: no company in town was staging the operetta repertoire that she had spent the last decade perfecting in Vienna. Sure, college programs did the occasional Die Fledermaus, but that was the tiniest of drops in a huge repertory bucket. To do justice to Viennese operetta in Minnesota, she would just have to start a company to do it, and do it right. And so Opera on the Lake was born.

For those unfamiliar with the term, operetta is a subgenre of opera. If grand opera tends to be large and very serious, with large orchestras and epic plots, operetta on the whole tends to be shorter, lighter, fillled with clear and gorgeous harmonies, and brimming with fun. Dialogue is spoken, rather than sung, and the music is filled with catchy melodies. After debuting in Paris around 1850, operetta spread throughout the capitals of Europe and spent more than half a century as the most-performed stage music in the world.

Operettas – and Viennese operettas in particular – are much more than a footnote in musical history. They directly inspired Broadway musicals – indeed, many early-20th-century Broadway shows were adaptations of the latest operettas in Vienna. Miss Springtime (1916), for example, was one of Broadway’s biggest hits at the time – and a direct adaptation of the Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s Zsuzsi kisasszony of the previous year. It also established some enduring tropes for Broadway musicals that came over from Vienna…like a near-obsession with marrying rich.

The 1905 operetta The Merry Widow has served as the basis of numerous screen, stage, and literary adaptations, including this 1925 silent film.

For hundreds of years, marrying rich has been a go-to plot for writers. Whether the writers are playwrights, novelists, screen writers, or opera librettists, this plot line has lots of potential for comedy and drama. It sets up social pretensions and class conflicts, gives an excuse for opulence bordering on the exorbitant, and resonates with many audience members’ social aspirations. Even if your protagonist has already married rich, there is no shortage of characters who will try and part them from some of that money.

These themes resonated across the class-conscious, cosmopolitan Vienna in the decade before World War 1. Here the old guard nobility was of split minds: alternately turning up their noses at and enthusiastically marrying the better-heeled nouveau riche. Rapid economic growth made Austria-Hungary’s nobility see their relatively fixed incomes from land ownership declining even as the up-and-comers made fortunes in trade, manufacturing, and the stock market. Reigning in spending was unconscionable, however, and trying to keep up with the Johannes and the Grubers – and a taste for the fancy new ways to gamble – sent many Austro-Hungarian nobles severely into debt.

There is a saying that money changes everything. For the old guard, not having money changed many a thing – like an openness to marrying for it. Many a noble family was saved from bankruptcy by a well-timed marriage to the very well-heeled social climbers they’d previously spurned.

With this context, it’s no surprise that an obsession with marrying for money is a key plot element in Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe (“The Merry Widow“), the centerpiece of Opera on the Lake’s 2022 season. The central thread is this: a small country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, and the Powers that Be scheme to save it by arranging a marriage between a key official and the wealthy widow Hanna Glawari…who is planning on leaving the country and has her own thoughts about who she wants to marry. Old flames, trying too hard, and attempted extramarital affairs ensue, with comedic results.

One of the reasons that operetta lost ground in the United States after the World Wars was a renewed interest in abstract forms of expression. Before long, an understanding of the stylized social practices embedded in many operettas was lost by performing communities; when they revived old works, the result was more caricature than vivid characterization. It’s like performing a piece with no understanding of performance practice and realizing that there’s something special that’s missing.

Not so with Opera on the Lake. As Minnesota’s foremost authority in performing Viennese operetta – and more than a decade of experience performing this repertoire in Vienna – Anne Wieben brings a wealth of insight into The Merry Widow‘s moods, rhythms, and humor, suffusing the production with a tug that pulls you in. Throw in the gorgeous score and catchy songs, and it’s The Merry Widow better than you’ve ever imagined it before. That’s not a bad homecoming.

A promotional photo of Anne Wieben. Photo by Gregor Hofbauer; dress by Tailors Unlimited.

Opera on the Lake’s production of The Merry Widow runs July 26, 27, and 29 at Como Lakeside Pavilion in St. Paul, MN. Tickets: $30 (general admission).

Amy Donahue