The Csárdas Princess

Sylva and Edwin ( Jonathan Zeng and Katherine Petersen)

As part of our Reclaimed Voices Series, we are thrilled to be present Emmerich Kálmán’s The Csárdás Princess. Despite its popularity in Europe and Russia, this stunning work has been largely ignored in this country. Why the neglect? One cannot ignore the politics surrounding the two world wars, as well as the trend away from anything that reminded the public of  old-fashioned Viennese romanticism.

Written in 1915, the show played on Broadway under the title The Riviera Girl in 1917 – just as the U.S. was entering “The War to End All Wars.” Broadway would not prove to be the boon that Kálmán had been seeking. It ran for only 78 performances. P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, who were responsible for The Riviera Girl’s book and lyrics, admitted that the fault lay with them, not with Kálmán. Wodehouse later wrote that “the Kálmán score was not only the best that gifted Hungarian ever wrote, but about the best anybody ever wrote.” With America’s entry into the War, anti-German sentiment was high, precluding more performances of the show. It would not be performed again in this country until 1932, when it was given at the St. Louis Municipal Opera and warmly received.

The lesson of The Riviera Girl was that the libretto of The Csardas Princess did not require much revision. In its original form, the show remained popular in Europe until the advent of the Third Reich. Kálmán’s music was so popular that Hitler, himself a fan, offered Kálmán the designation of “honorary Aryan.” Kálmán refused and was compelled to leave Vienna.

The Second World War would take a tremendous toll on Kálmán. Although he managed to escape, first to France and then to America, many of his relatives died at the hands of the Nazis. Settling in California, Kálmán suffered the indignity of having his music declared “degenerate” by the Nazis while finding himself in a strange country with no prospect of work. He tried writing film scores, but the industry proved to be a hard fit.  He died in 1953, leaving his last show, Arizona Lady, an homage to his adopted country, unfinished. (We gave the U.S. premiere in 2010.)

Critics consider The Csardas Princess to be Kálmán’s masterpiece. What better piece for our company to bring to Chicago than this one, which includes some of the most captivating music ever written? What better way to honor Kálmán and his sacrifices than to perform his work? Kálmán’s mastery of the Viennese waltz and of the music of his native Hungary have made this show an enduring favorite in Europe.

The Csárdás Princess, which takes aim at the rigid class divisions of Kálmán’s time, resonates in our own. Kálmán, as an assimilated Hungarian Jew living in Vienna, would have been well aware of the pitfalls of navigating the upper echelons of Viennese society. 

The story follows the ups and downs of the unlikely love affair between an aspiring young singer from the provinces and the scion of a wealthy Viennese family. 

Don’t miss this Viennese masterpiece.