A San Francisco Review of Books original by Michael Acree
Kálmán, E. (2016). The little king. Ohio Light Opera, Steven Byess, cond., Steven A. Daigle, dir. http://operettafoundation.org/products/oa1025-the-little-king, DVD OA1025, $25.00.
In 1908 the king of Portugal, Carlos I, was assassinated, and along with him his oldest son, who had been groomed to be his successor. The throne then fell to the younger son, Manuel, who was only 19. He, somewhat like Jimmy Carter, cared not at all for the formalities and pretensions of the court; he went so far as to declare that he would “reign but not govern.” His much greater attention to matters of the heart was of urgent concern to his ministers, especially as the monarchy was hardly secure as yet from Republican assault. Manuel was particularly smitten by an opera singer, Anetta Montarini, whose stage name was Gaby Deslys. When she came to perform in Lisbon, he invited her to the palace. Unbeknownst to Manuel, his father had killed her father in battle, and she was a heroine of the Republican Army. She accepted the invitation—in order to kill the king. She brought a large bouquet of roses in which she had hidden a bomb. When she meets the king, however, she is completely taken aback by his disdain for royalty, and his offering her a dinner of “the food of the people”—bacalao and scrambled eggs (wieners and pilsener, in the original). She is so taken by his personableness and humanity, in fact, that at the last minute she defuses the bomb. Before long, the palace is surrounded by the Republican Army, who have control of the city, and Manuel and his palace guard prepare to fight, hopelessly but gallantly, to their deaths. Anetta, now in love with Manuel, pleads with the field marshal general to lay down their arms and open the palace gates. In return, the revolutionaries guarantee safe passage for the king to exile in England. (Manuel died there at the age of 39; Republicans were suspected of poisoning him.)
This story—a real live operetta plot—was used by Emmerich Kálmán as the basis for his operetta “The Little King” in 1912. Although in Europe Kálmán’s popularity rivals that of Franz Lehár, in the U.S. he is not nearly so well known. Lehár is known in the U.S. for “The Merry Widow” of 1905. Kálmán, 12 years younger, didn’t publish his first operetta until 1908, and didn’t have his first big hit, “The Gypsy Princess,” until 1915. By that time, World War I was underway, and nothing German, Austrian, or Hungarian was going to be a success in the U.S. (Lehár’s later works never became known here, either.) “The Little King” opened auspiciously at the Theater an der Wien with the same lead couple who had premiered “The Merry Widow,” Mizzi Günther and Louis Treumann. Unfortunately, on the second night, Günther fell ill and was unable to perform, and Treumann refused to perform with anyone else. Inexperienced understudies were brought in, and the show closed after only 75 performances. Then World War I broke out, and by the time theaters reopened the Portuguese revolution was no longer topical. There was a single performance, in Hungarian, at the Yorkville Casino in Manhattan in 1921.
The Ohio Light Opera, at the College of Wooster, has embarked on a program of producing all of Kálmán’s works, in English translation. Many modern producers, especially in Europe, feel obliged to put their own distinctive stamp on an operetta, recasting it as a celebration of socialism or sexual liberation or some other theme rather far from the composer’s intentions. At OLO, historical accuracy is the standard. (The only hint of an editorial bias I have discerned is antiwar, a theme which is emphasized not only in “The Little King,” but in Kálmán’s very early work “A Soldier’s Promise,” produced in 2005 and also available on DVD from the Operetta Foundation.) And “The Little King” hardly needs any tweaks to make it topical. The librettist, Robert Bodansky, was himself an anarchist, and some of the lines sound as though they could have come from a Ron Paul campaign. Manuel, despairing of reconciling the demands of monarchy and romance, exclaims: “Love and government—two things that don’t go together.” Anetta declares that “freedom and love are the only things worth fighting for.” The reflexive militarism of the palace guard, eagerly looking forward to dying gloriously for the monarchy, is made to look silly; the negotiated peace with the revolutionaries looks noble and sensible. This is a message that could use a wider distribution in today’s world; and this production—the first anywhere in the world in over 90 years—is a pleasant package for the message.
The score to “The Little King,” I would have to say, is not one of Kálmán’s half-dozen best. But Anetta’s entreaty to the field marshal general—“Please Don’t Forget, This Man Is More Than a King”—is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs Kálmán ever wrote. The performance by Natalie Ballenger as Anetta is outstanding, with respect to both acting and singing. Special mention should be made of Anthony Maida, a superb comic artist, in the buffo role of Huck. The support of the entire company is excellent: the chorus, the orchestra, the costumes, the settings. OLO is exceptional in its emphasis on clarity of diction; the DVD also includes subtitles for the songs, so you get more of the words than in a live performance.