Music ReviewsMUST SEEOperaREVIEWSTom Williams

Operetta In Exile 2016

The music silenced by the Third Reichexile

Chicago FolksOperetta in Concert

Last performance: Thursday, July 14 at Stage 773 at 7:30

As Jacob Davis reported in 2014 and I experienced tonight. “The ninety minute Chicago Folks Operetta in Concert was a tribute to the Jewish composers and lyricists of the Berlin and Vienna operetta genre who remain largely unknown in English. Part revue and part history lesson, the piece is an example of CFO’s dedication to spreading appreciation for central European culture in North America.

CFO’s productions feature classically trained opera singers who work with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Symphony Chorus. The group is run by a husband-wife team, Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly, who also perform. They are accompanied by a chamber orchestra, and use original translations by the group’s dramaturge, Hersh Glagov. The group is a labor of love by a small number of people dedicated to the art; in place of projected supertitles, the German songs are translated in the program.

Operetta in Exile begins with six songs from Die Blume von Hawaii, a 1931 collaboration between three Jewish artists, Paul Abraham, Alfred Grunwald, and Fritz Lohner-Beda. The story is typical of what defines an operetta: it is light-hearted, uses stock characters, and a formulaic plot. However, between the songs we learn about Abraham’s persecution at the hands of the Nazis. He fled Germany in 1933, struggled as a piano player in Havana and then New York City, went insane, and spent the rest of his life confined to mental hospitals without understanding where he was. Later on in the show, CFO’s songs were in English, but these first songs were in German to pay homage to the originals. CFO’s interpretation of these songs emphasizes their minor-key and mournful sound more than served Abraham’s original purpose, but I was impressed by his ability to make a zither sound so tragic.

Other featured composers got about one song each, coupled with a brief biography explaining their fates. There was Leon Jessel, a convert to Catholicism whose nationalistic music Hitler loved and who tried collaborating with the Nazis, but was caught sending a letter critical of them. He was tortured to death. Leo Ascher and Jean Gilbert died in exile during the war. Robert Stolz wasn’t Jewish, but his librettists were, so he was forced to flee. Emmerich Kalman gave up the chance to be an “honorary Aryan.” The composers often had difficulty finding new audiences in the Americas because they were regarded as too German. CFO features a wide variety of their work, but the trend in operetta is toward raucous silliness.

Interestingly, when the show reached the tribute to the librettists, they switched to mostly singing in English translation. They must have felt it was the best way to bring the librettists work to a non-German speaking audience. This particular group seems to have fared worse than the composers. Alfred Grunwald fled and Hermann Leopoldi survived Buchenwald, but Fritz Grunbaum was murdered in Dachau, and Fritz Lohner-Beda in Auschwitz.” – Jacob Davis

Tonight’s performers: Chelsea Morris, Michele Brache-Agpalo, Matt Carroll, James Judd and Geoff Agpalo

Written by: Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov. Musical aeeangements byAnthony Barrese

Narrator: Matt Dyson (July 13) and Alisom Kelly (july 14)

Be sure to attend the July 14 at 7:30 performance…imporant story with tuneful singing

Also see our review of The Cousin from Nowhere running through July 24

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams