|Great Performances: The Merry Widow: Press Release|
A Very Merry Widow Waltzes Through PBS' Great Performances
San Francisco Opera Presents New Wendy Wasserstein Adaptation
KQED Co-Produces National Program with Thirteen/WNET
San Francisco, California--Next to Jackie O, she's the most famous widow of the 20th century. She inspired hats, an agonizingly chic corset, perfumes, cigarettes, cocktails. She was immortalized in three Hollywood films, and no less than Ingmar Bergman wanted to make it four -- with Barbra Streisand (!). Most importantly -- thanks to Franz Lehár's voluptuous, insinuating melodies -- she transformed the simple waltz into sheer musical seduction.
She is, of course, The Merry Widow, the glamorous and very rich Anna Glawari, who bewitches anew in Wendy Wasserstein's new San Francisco Opera adaptation of the operetta, Wednesday, December 25 at 9 p.m. (ET) on Thirteen/WNET New York's Great Performances (check local PBS listings). Yvonne Kenny sings the title role, with Bo Skovhus as her dashing -- if initially uncooperative -- Count Danilo. Erich Kunzel conducts the San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra.
Recorded in performance at SFO's War Memorial Opera House, the telecast, a Great Performances 30th anniversary season special, airs in stereo simulcast where available. The English lyrics are by Christopher Hassall, and Ted and Deena Puffer. But the music -- particularly in three-quarter time -- remains pure Lehár.
"You should not speak so casually of the waltz," playfully warns Wasserstein's Anna. "Because it swirls around you, intoxicating every part of you. It gently takes your hand, and then envelops you. And suddenly, it carries you away."
Indeed, The Merry Widow is a study in flirtation, thanks to its composer's gift for seductive melodies -- "The Merry Widow Waltz" is arguably the second most famous waltz ever written ("The Blue Danube" takes top honors) -- and for a rich orchestral palette. Employing a full-size orchestra -- an operetta first and a long way from the standard pit band -- Lehár brings in harp, glockenspiel, even tambourine to complement quadruple woodwinds and shimmering strings. No surprise here that one hears echoes of Debussy and Richard Strauss.
Proclaimed eminent critic Ernest Newman: "Lehár, in his own genre, is indisputably a master. The man in the street may love The Merry Widow, but the musician, in addition to loving it, admires and wonders at it, so fresh and varied is the melodic invention in it, so deft, for all their economy, the harmonization and the scoring."
The work's plot is as sheer as a Parisian silk stocking. Set in the City of Light in 1905, it was adapted by Victor Leon and Leo Stein from Henry Meilhac's L'Attaché d'Ambassade. Like most glamorous tales it revolves around money -- Anna’s 50 million, in this case. Count Danilo, of the mythical Balkan state of Pontevedro, is ordered to court the rich widow, lest her millions be lost to the national bank. Reluctant at first, he soon finds he is wooing the lady for herself and not her money.
It is amidst such silliness that Lehár gave the world some of its most transcendent melodies: the rapturous "Vilia," the bubbling "I'm Off to Chez Maxim's," and, of course, "The Merry Widow Waltz."
The Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, writing popular music theater for a wide audience and making millions in the bargain, Franz Lehár was a true product of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the son of a military bandmaster. Born in Komárom, Hungary, in 1870, he was one of the most famous composers of his time, and if his later works never reached the popularity of The Widow -- versions in at least 25 languages followed the Vienna premiere -- they were still performed all round the world. These included The Count of Luxemberg (1909), The Land of Smiles (1929) and his last major work, Giuditta (1934), which premiered at the Vienna State Opera.
A production of Thirteen/WNET New York; KQED Public Television, San Francisco; San Francisco Opera; BBC Worldwide, and Opus Arte BV, "The Merry Widow from San Francisco Opera" was recorded in performance at the War Memorial Opera House December 5 and 8, 2001. It was directed for the stage by then -- SFO general director Lotfi Mansouri and for television by Gary Halvorson. John Walker and Judy Flannery produced for television.
Completing the large cast are Angelika Kirchschlager as Valencienne and Gregory Turay as Camille de Rosillon, with Carlo Hartmann as Baron Zeta. Michael Yeargan designed the new production, with costumes by Thierry Bosquet.
Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny made her SFO debut in 2000 in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. She appears regularly in concerts in Europe and the U.S., and has won great international acclaim for her Handel and Strauss heroines. Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, last heard at the Met as the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, has virtually made the role of Danilo his own, thanks to John Eliot Gardiner’s definitive 1994 Merry Widow recording with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Pulitzer Prize--winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) began her association with Great Performances in 1978 when executive producer Jac Venza brought her play Uncommon Women and Others -- with Jill Eikenberry, Swoozie Kurtz and Meryl Streep -- to public television. The following year she adapted John Cheever's The Sorrows of Gin for the series, then returned in 1992 with an original playlet, Kiss, Kiss Dahlings, for the Great Performances 20th Anniversary Special. She created special material for Dance in America's Le Corsaire with American Ballet Theatre (1999) and wrote the libretto for the one-act Festival of Regrets section of Great Performances' Central Park (2000). She is currently adapting An American in Paris for Broadway.
The telecast marks the eighth co-production with San Francisco Opera and Great Performances. The company's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," with Renée Fleming as Blanche, aired in 1998, following "San Francisco Opera's 75th Anniversary Gala" (1997), "The Dangerous Liaisons" (1994), "Turandot" (1993), "Mefistofele" (1990), "L’Africaine" (1989), and "Samson et Dalila" (1982).
Great Performances is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, public television viewers and PBS. Major corporate support is provided by Ernst & Young LLP, a global leader in professional services. Special funding for "The Merry Widow from San Francisco Opera" was provided by the Koret Foundation, a catalyst for positive change since 1978; the KQED Campaign for the Future Program Venture Fund; and Vivian Milstein.
Visit Great Performances Online at thirteen.org and pbs.org for additional information about this and other Great Performances programs.
David Horn is series producer for Great Performances; John Walker is senior producer. Jac Venza is executive producer.
Thirteen/WNET New York is one of the key program providers for public television, bringing such acclaimed series as Great Performances, Nature, American Masters, Charlie Rose, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Stage on Screen, and EGG the Arts Show -- as well as the work of Bill Moyers -- to audiences nationwide. As the flagship public broadcaster in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut metro area, Thirteen reaches millions of viewers each week, airing the best of American public television along with its own local productions such as The Ethnic Heritage Specials, The New York Walking Tours, and Reel New York -- and reaching vast new audiences through its MetroArts/Thirteen cable arts programming. With educational and community outreach projects that enhance the value of its productions, Thirteen takes television "out of the box." And as broadcast and digital media converge, Thirteen is blazing trails in the creation of Web sites, CD-ROMs, educational software and other cutting-edge media products. More isnformation about Thirteen can be found at: thirteen.org.
KQED operates KQED Public Television 9, the nation's most-watched public television station (in prime-time), and Digital Television 9, Northern California's only public television digital signal; KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM, the most-listened-to public radio station in the nation; the KQED Education Network, which brings the impact of KQED to thousands of teachers, students, parents and media professionals through workshops, seminars and resources; and kqed.org, which harnesses the power of the Internet to bring KQED to communities across the Web.