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The Merry Widow’s Fling With Hitler

The strange side story of the 1905 comic operetta, which is being presented by the Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Eve

Raphael Mostel
December 31, 2014
Mizzi Günther and Louis Treumann, the original Viennese stars of 'Die lustige Witwe.' (Operetta Research Center)
Mizzi Günther and Louis Treumann, the original Viennese stars of 'Die lustige Witwe.' (Operetta Research Center)

For its New Year’s Eve Gala, the Metropolitan Opera is presenting a new production of Franz Lehár’s much-loved comic operetta The Merry Widow. Adolf Hitler would be thrilled.

This is not post-Klinghoffer piling-on, but rather a statement of fact. Hitler’s love of The Merry Widow was so excessive and so widely known that when Dimitri Shostakovich composed his “Leningrad” symphony during the WWII siege of that city, he used a theme from the operetta to represent the German invasion. The symphony was famously used in dramatic wartime broadcasts during the siege as a morale-booster for the Allies. Upon hearing the piece, the virulently anti-fascist Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, at the time writing his “Concerto for Orchestra,” decided to pile on by mocking this same theme in the Concerto’s “Interrupted Intermezzo,” which he answers with a nostalgic love song to the Hungary that was no more.

In Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt similarly used a theme from The Merry Widow, but he went for the jugular. He had his composer Dimitri Tiomkin repeatedly cite and gradually distort the operetta’s eponymous waltz in connection with a psychopathic serial killer. The theme draws the audience into the slowly dawning awareness of the innocent young female lead, Charlie, that her charming uncle is in reality a mass murderer.

How did such a piece of sentimental fluff come to represent so much darkness?

Although the story was known before, some amazing details were uncovered by the late Jürgen Trimborn in his biography of the actor Johannes Heesters, Der Herr im Frack (The Man in Tails). Heesters’ career was launched when he appeared in Munich as Danilo, the male lead in The Merry Widow—when Hitler was in the audience. He went on to perform the role 1,600 times.

Although Goebbels had classified Lehár as a tainted artist because of his Jewish associates, he quickly reversed course in the face of Hitler’s mad love affair with The Merry Widow. Albert Speer recalled that the first thing Hitler did to celebrate the Anschluss was to ask Martin Bormann to play a recording of the operetta. Hitler’s housekeeper recounted seeing him preen in front of the mirror, asking “What do you say? Am I no Danilo?” And during the last two years of the war, Hitler drove everyone in his Wolf’s Lair crazy by listening to nothing but The Merry Widow over and over again.

In 1939, at the Nazis’ annual summer festival of German values (Deutsche Tage), the centerpiece was a command run of performances of The Merry Widow—which Hitler advised all good Nazis to attend. The piece was thus baptized as a prime example of “holy German art” and, as a result, productions of the operetta mushroomed all over the Third Reich, with ever more bloated production budgets thanks to generous state subsidies.

Lehár went out of his way to make the relationship reciprocal. He composed music in Hitler’s honor and courted his favor. He even tried to dedicate his last operetta to Mussolini. (Il Duce turned down the honor on the grounds he did not want his name associated with a work that did not adequately represent fascist ideals. He serenaded Lehár on the violin with some of the composer’s earlier melodies, however, as a way of softening the refusal.)

Hitler claimed his love affair with The Merry Widow started at the 1905 Vienna premiere, when he was an impoverished would-be artist. The plot, which involves trying to keep the Widow’s gold for the “fatherland,” combined with Lehár’s music, proved irresistible. Never mind that almost everyone connected with the work—Lehár excepted—was Jewish.

The composer acknowledged the work would not have gotten produced in the first place but for the backing (in every sense of the word) of the cabaret superstar Louis Treumann, who with Mizzi Günther originated the lead roles, Danilo and Hanna. (In the new Metropolitan Opera production, Nathan Gunn and Renée Fleming are alternating with Rod Gilfry and Susan Graham in these roles.) In a horrifying coincidence, Lehár presented Hitler with an autographed copy of the original 1905 program—the cover featured a full-page photo of Treumann as Danilo—as a birthday gift just as Treumann and his wife were being killed at Theresienstadt.

(Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Merry Widow. Credit: Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera)

No one was more responsible for burnishing Lehár’s reputation as a “legitimate” composer than the eminent Jewish opera tenor Richard Tauber. When Tauber was reproached for stooping to perform operetta, he famously retorted, “I’m not singing operetta, I’m singing Lehár.” The composer wrote six operettas with Tauber’s voice in mind and acknowledged that no one had more influence on his music. An international star, Tauber managed to escape Nazi territory, but foolishly returned when he learned of all of the productions of The Merry Widow, thinking his popularity and long partnership with Lehár might protect him. Fortunately, a Vienna café waiter who recognized the renowned Tauber quickly disabused him of any such notion.

Was Lehár anti-Semitic? Not really. His wife Sophie was Jewish, as were virtually all of his collaborators. Still, that didn’t prevent him from defending himself in 1938 lawsuit by denouncing the plaintiffs to the authorities as Jews.

The Merry Widow was based on an 1861 French comic play by Henri Meilhac (now best known as the librettist of Bizet’s Carmen). The libretto was written by Viktor Léon (né Viktor Hirschfeld) and Leo Stein. Stein died long before the war. But Léon starved to death in hiding in Vienna in 1940, just as the Vienna State Opera offered a gala production of The Land of Smiles, another of his collaborations with Lehár, mounted as a 70th birthday present to the composer by the Führer. Lehár reveled in the glory of his first production by that major prestigious opera company, but still did nothing that might have helped save the co-creator of the work. Béla Jenbach, another librettist of two of his operettas, similarly starved to death in hiding in Vienna shortly thereafter.

After the war, Lehár went to great lengths to deny his connections to Hitler and the Nazis, feigning innocence. “No politics, please…We don’t want to talk about politics. Politics is dirty, and I don’t want to talk about dirty things…. My conscience is clear. My Merry Widow was Hitler’s favorite operetta. That’s not my fault, right?” And all too often his fame and charm got him off the hook. Even the American soldiers charged with de-Nazification were more interested in getting autographs from and having photos taken with the famous composer than in finding out the truth.

Lehár insisted that his decision to remain in Austria was because he’d been too old to move anywhere else. The truth, though, is he had fabulous wealth coming in from all the international productions of The Merry Widow, which could have easily sustained him in any number of different countries. Instead, he deliberately chose to stay and benefit from his Hitler connections, and later lied about not knowing about Nazi terror. How could he not know at least as much as Tauber’s café waiter, given all of the Jews with whom he had associated?

The astonishing royalties he could earn in the Third Reich due to Hitler’s love of The Merry Widow is apparently what made Lehár decide to stay. He had his wife convert, but also had Hitler provide her with the extra protection of being officially declared an “Honorary Aryan.” Even Hitler treated it as a joke that she was safe as long as he (Hitler) lived. It’s no wonder she became a nervous wreck, keeping a cyanide capsule with her at all times. In fact, the Gestapo tried to arrest her at least twice. Lehár later recounted to the gullibly star-struck American soldiers about the Gestapo coming for his wife: “If I hadn’t happened to be at home, I would never have seen my wife again.” In fact, he telephoned the local Gauleiter, who arranged for Lehár to maintain his wife under “house arrest” on their estate.

They both died shortly after the war: Lehár in 1948, a year after his much-younger wife.

The new incarnation of The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera—which will be streamed live online—will no doubt once again be a sentimental, seductive favorite. Just imagine how Hitler would have loved it.

Raphael Mostel is a composer, writer, and lecturer based in New York. In the 2015-16 season, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra will give the five World Premiere performances of the new orchestral version of his “Travels of Babar: Part I, Babar’s Honeymoon” (based on the 1932 picturebook by Jean de Brunhoff).

Raphael Mostel is a composer, writer and lecturer based in New York. In the 2015-16 season, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra will give the five World Premiere performances of the new orchestral version of his “Travels of Babar: Part I, Babar’s Honeymoon” (based on the 1932 picturebook by Jean de Brunhoff).