05 Jan 2016

The Merry Widow Lesson: “High” vs “Low,” “Serious” vs “Light”

For listeners and music lovers today, the fact that Lehár’s music sometimes blurs the lines between opera and operetta may seem like an advantage rather than a problem, and the idea of rigid demarcations between such similar musical genres can seem like unnecessary hair-splitting. However, there is often more at stake. In particular, music fans over the 20th century often cultivated a division between music and art meant for “high” and “serious” artistic appreciation and “low” and “light” popular entertainment meant for mass consumption. Even the most musically omnivorous and democratic listener likely still recognizes and utilizes the currency of this particular aesthetic line in the sand, if only to deride some music as “too commercialized.” Yet these categories are not neutral. For example, the terms “high” and “low” culture betray their origins in social class hierarchies (along with the seemingly more generalized adjective “classy”). Similarly, the terms “highbrow,” “lowbrow,” and “middlebrow” trace their lineage to phrenology, a frequently racist pseudoscience that used cranial shape to determine intelligence and character. Histories of operetta and other “light” musical styles of the 19th and 20th centuries illuminate the creation of these kinds of categories, if only because artistic and cultural tastes have always been one of the most efficient ways for distinguishing ourselves both as individuals and as members of broader social groups.
Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow (1988) provides a fascinating account of how these categories and their associated tastes came to be, at least in the USA. Americans of the early-to-mid 19th century enjoyed many supposedly “elite” entertainments like Shakespeare and opera alongside vaudeville, magic shows, and so forth. Even though social and economic elites consumed opera for pleasure and social confirmation, many ordinary people experienced opera as just another part of their everyday culture. (86) As Levine notes, the popularity of opera parodies and burlesques (including operetta) testifies to the diversity of opera’s audience, just as the humor of the collaged “Hamlet” soliloquy in Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn depends on that same audience’s familiarity with Shakespeare. However, the conventions around the consumption and performance of opera in 19th-century America were also rather different than what we are accustomed to in the 21st century. While opera was a fantastically popular genre of entertainment, it was usually adapted to meet the 19th-century American audience on their terms.  Operas were typically presented with between-act entertainment like acrobats, jugglers, or other music, and there would often be a short farce presented after the conclusion of the main opera. The music and text of the opera were often treated with a significant amount of flexibility, as singers regularly inserted crowd-pleasing popular songs into their performances, sometimes with forethought and sometimes in response to spontaneous demands from the audience. Many Italian operas also found their greatest success in English translations. Indeed, for many American opera-goers the use of the original foreign language reeked of anti-democratic Old World snobbery. European stars like the Swedish singer Jenny Lind and Norwegian violinist Ole Bull also embarked on very successful American tours in which they readily mixed in popular songs like “Home Sweet Home” and “Yankee Doodle” with their feats of classical virtuosity. Concert programs of instrumental and symphonic music were similarly eclectic.
Over the latter half of the 19th century, however, there was a fairly concerted effort to “rescue” opera and classical music from their own popularity. (Levine 83-146) Cultural winds shifted towards treating opera and classical music less as “entertainment” and more as refined and sacralized sources of cultural enlightenment, reserved only for those who had the education to truly understand it. (For my part, I suppose I should be thankful for all of this on some level because the “Music Appreciation” classes that pay my mortgage are remnants of this cultural trajectory.) Much of this trend was due to the fact that the financial backing for the first American professional symphonic orchestras and opera companies came from wealthy financial elites like the investment banker Henry Lee Higginson, founder (and initially sole financier) of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. These men then molded the new American orchestral institutions according to their tastes, which tended to be Eurocentric and aristocratic. They definitely favored “serious” symphonies and operas over light music or crowd-pleasing feats of solo virtuosity. Although the funding provided by men like Higginson insulated these orchestras from the forces and demands of music commerce, the situation also hastened classical music’s recession from the vernacular of American culture. The repertoires of American orchestras were likewise purged of lighter genres like parlor songs, waltzes, and marches. These styles became typically reserved for the summer “pops” concert series, a sort of musical kids’ table where people could enjoy Sousa marches, Strauss waltzes, and other crowd-pleasers in a more casual atmosphere. Meanwhile the grown-ups could keep to their more austere menu of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler without having to suffer any plebeians…who were themselves also probably rather glad to not be expected to sit through prolonged orchestral explorations of sublime Germanic pathos.
Operetta fit uneasily into these “high” and “low” social and artistic hierarchies, as its mixture of the singing style and lush music of opera with waltz rhythms and predictable romantic plots left it without solid footing in either “high” culture or “low” culture. In America at least, operetta was maybe simultaneously too pretentious and too popular to maintain a significant presence. Additionally, audiences who are less familiar with opera or operatic traditions would necessarily miss some of the satire in many operettas. Many lovers of “serious” opera began to find operetta too frivolous, while the wider audience for popular theatrical entertainment gravitated to Broadway and new styles of popular music. Most of the new vernacular American styles in the 20th century were also drawn from the music of African-Americans, and as a result demanded a different set of skills and techniques from both vocalists and instrumentalists. The eclecticism of Jenny Lind’s 19th century tours would have been a very tall order by the 1930s, if only because it would have been a rarity indeed to find a singer who could manage, say, “Sempre Libera” from La Traviata and also deliver a convincingly bluesy rendition of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”
This type of artistic segregation is also reflected in the trend towards specialization that took hold in the 19th century, in which composers tended to focus on a specific genre, such as opera, symphonic music, or piano music (as opposed to the compositional versatility of 18th century composers like Mozart and Haydn). The mere fact that some composers managed to cultivate careers almost entirely focused on operetta is a testament to this increasing specialization. Yet the existence of these “high” and “low” taste hierarchies also proves tantalizing for the composer of light music. As we have seen, Franz Lehár increasingly aspired to imbue his operettas with more serious subject matter and ambitious musical settings, culminating in 1934’s Giuditta. Offenbach, Strauss, and Sullivan all also set their sights on “serious” music of higher artistic and social status, with mixed results. Offenbach’s five-act opera Les contes d’Hoffmann became fairly popular (even though it had to be finished posthumously), while Sullivan’s 1891 grand opera Ivanhoe was savaged by the very elite tastemakers it was meant to appease (Taruskin 657-58). More recently, one might look to the symphonic and operatic ambitions of Hollywood film composers like Danny Elfman and Howard Shore, who perhaps will also have to fight to be taken seriously as composers of non-cinematic music. Indeed, Danny Elfman has already experienced some of this struggle, as he had to prove himself as a film composer following his years as the leader of the awesomely weird rock band Oingo Boingo.
For audiences today, an operetta like The Merry Widow perhaps provides simply opera of a different flavor, a fresh fruit salad amidst the heavy starchiness of meat-and-potatoes “serious” opera. There is no doubt that snobs will always be with us in one way or another, and such folks might still find the madcap satires and relatively simplistic music of operetta artistically inadequate next to the works of Wagner and Verdi. They may even decide to tell you so, because after all what is the point of having “good” taste if nobody else knows you possess it? While some may consider operetta to be a “guilty pleasure,” hopefully they will one day stop worrying about their social status long enough to waltz along.
© Ross Hagen
Sources & Further Reading
Gänzl, Kurt. “Die Lustige Witwe Operette in 3 acts.” Operetta Research Center, January 1, 2001, http://operetta-research-center.org/die-lustige-witwe-operette-3-acts/
Gänzl, Kurt. “Exporting Operette: The World Is Not Enough.” Operetta Research Center, February 2, 2012, http://operetta-research-center.org/export-operetta-paris-vienna-rest-world/
Kenrick, John. “The Merry Widow 101: History of a Hit,” http://www.musicals101.com/widowhist.htm
Lamb, Andrew. “Lehár, Franz.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 9, 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/16318
Lamb, Andrew and Robert J. Dennis. “Lustige Witwe, Die.” The New Grove Dictionary of Opera.Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 9, 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O003026.
Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Traubner, Richard. Operetta: A Theatrical History. London: Routledge, 2003. First published 1983 by Doubleday & Co.