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INTERVIEW: Opera on the Lake’s Anne Wieben and Redesigning Scandalous Stage Marriages

A 2022 file photo of Opera on the Lake’s summer operetta festival.

If you’re a fan of opera – or have been wanting to give it a try – you’ve probably heard of Opera on the Lake, the summer festival that brings Viennese operetta to St. Paul’s Como Park. This year, Opera on the Lake returns July 26-August 4 with Die Csárdásfürstin, an operetta (a genre of opera with spoken dialogue and generally comedic presentations) so popular that it has no fewer than 8 film adaptations. The Arts Reader spoke with Opera on the Lake founder and creative director Anne Wieben about the upcoming season.

This absolute gem of a piece tells the story of Sylva Varescu, a successful cabaret performer who falls in love with a nobleman. Can their love survive the pressures of society? Full of lush melodies, humor, emotion and wit, you’ll see and hear why Die Csárdásfürstin (The Csardas Princess) remains an enduring hit of the operetta genre.

You’re staging the Emmerich Kálmán operetta Die Csárdásfürstin (The Csardas Princess) – one of the most popular works from the Silver Age of Viennese operettas. How did you first encounter Kálmán’s work?

In Vienna, Kálmán is a fairly well known composer – as he should be. What beautiful music!

Die Csárdásfürstin as well as Gräfin Mariza and Die Zirkusprinzessin are performed regularly in theaters and festivals, so I’ve been familiar with his works for a few years now. What’s more, a few years back, I was given the big opening aria of Die Csárdásfürstin to sing in a gala concert and instantly fell in love with it. Such gorgeous music, not only to listen to, but to sing.

As I’ve dug deeper into this show, I’m also so impressed with the depth of the characters, the wit and expression in the music; Kálmán has become one of my personal favorite composers and I’m thrilled to give audiences here the chance to experience his genius.

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.

With Opera on the Lake, you don’t just translate an operetta – you adapt it and localize it to the new Minnesotan setting, invoking local humor and topical references – in the same spirit that Viennese operettas and operas were imported and adapted to Broadway a century ago. In the original version, there’s a framing plot element about a cabaret performer from Hungary embarking on a performance tour of the United States.

When Guy Bolton, P. G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves & Wooster fame), and Jerome Kern (of Showboat fame) reworked the operetta for Broadway in 1917, they decided to swap Hungary for the French Riviera and cabaret for vaudeville, which they thought would be more familiar to New York audiences. What are some of the ways that the story has been transformed and tweaked on its way to your production at Como Pavilion?

I do love to make my productions something the audience can relate to, and as your question states, it is in the true style of operetta to make it so.

In this version, Sylva is the leading lady at the fictional “Fledermaus Cabaret” in the Twin Cities, about to embark on a European tour. The music is sung in the original German, and I created a brand new English (or, shall I say, Minnesotan) dialogue so audiences will not only know what is going on, but have a few laughs along the way.

A promotional poster for a 1950 film adaptation of Die Csárdásfürstin, which moved the action to Sicily.

Your performing career spans both sides of the Atlantic – what’s the last show that you did in Vienna?
The last show I did was called Die Namenlosen (The Nameless), a world premiere piece of immersive theater I did with the Vienna-based ensemble Nesterval.

This piece dealt directly with the persecution and subsequent murder of thousands of queer and trans people during World War II, and was based on true stories. The amount of research, care, and thought put into this piece by our director and producers was amazing. We had 25 sold-out performances in May and June and a revival is planned for next spring. It was a tough, important, and extremely powerful piece, especially in today’s political climate. I was truly honored to be a part of it.

In addition to your work with Opera on the Lake, you have some additional performances on your calendar while you’re in the United States – what else can audiences look forward to?

This year we once again are performing with Minneapolis Music in the Parks (July 17), as well as with the University Club of Saint Paul (July 19th), and the Live! At Lincoln Center of the Block festival (July 20th). All of those performances are free and will feature not only music from this summer’s show, but a smattering of opera’s greatest hits sung by our fantastic cast.

What’s more, we are thrilled to be collaborating with Twin Cities Opera on Tap. Join us at the Germanic American Institute on July 22nd for an outdoor concert, complete with beer, gelato, pretzels, and a raffle! Tickets for that are on sale now:

Tell us about some of the performers who will be joining you on-stage this year.

What a cast! Since we have 6 performances this year, I decided to double-cast the leads, so be sure to check the website if you’re interested in seeing a particular performer (or better yet, come twice!).

Those who have been to one of our previous shows will recognize a few faces, including local favorites Justin Spenner and David Walton, as well as New York-based/Iowa-born mezzo soprano Melanie Long who sang “Valencienne” last summer in Die Lustige Witwe. New to the Opera on the Lake roster this year are the Iowa-based mezzo Michelle Monroe, the Chicago-based soprano Ariana Strahl, and the Twin Cities’ own Trevor Lemon-Todd. And of course, I will be performing as well!

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

We also have a small [locally cast] chorus this year. I am honestly so very impressed with these folks! Such fantastic singing and storytelling– plus we are genuinely having so much fun putting the show together.

We also have a brand-new chamber orchestra arrangement, done by our Musical Director Marco Real d’Arbelles. This summer is definitely Opera on the Lake’s biggest undertaking, and it is going to be amazing!

Besides performing, what are some things or places that you are enjoying while in the United States?

All the local food! No stay in the Twin Cities is complete for me without a few Juicy Lucys and cheesecake from Cafe Latte.

What’s next for you after this performance?


John Anderson