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Dark times in light opera

Chicago Folks Operetta celebrates composers and librettists whose livelihoods—and lives—were threatened by Nazism.

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In the first two decades of the 20th century, operetta was a popular musical theater form in Germany and Austria. Audiences in the early years of modernism, nostalgic for the imagined well-ordered world of the 1880s and '90s, embraced its schmaltzy romantic plots, retro sentimentality, and lyrical, often ravishing music. But as economic and political instability meshed with right-wing nationalism after World War I, many major operetta composers and librettists found their livelihoods—and their lives—threatened by the rise of Nazism. The best-remembered is probably Franz Lehar (The Merry Widow), a Catholic who was one of Hitler's favorite composers; he received the Goethe Medal for Art and Science, but still was unable to keep his Jewish collaborator Fritz Lohner-Beda from death in Poland's Auschwitz III death camp. Lehar's other Jewish colleagues in the "silver age" of Viennese operetta included Fritz Grunbaum, who was killed in Dachau; Julius Brammer, remembered for his song "Just a Gigolo," who took refuge in free southern France; Leon Jessel, who died after being tortured by the Gestapo; Hungarian composer Emmerich Kalman (The Duchess of Chicago), another fuhrer fave, who rejected his admirer's offer to make him an honorary Aryan and came to the U.S; and Alfred Grunwald, who also emigrated to America, where his son Henry became editor of Time magazine. These men's careers were cut short, their work blacklisted; thus, they're now often unknown even to fans of light opera.

This weekend, Chicago Folks Operetta, which earlier this year mounted a rare revival of Lehar's The Land of Smiles and last year staged Kalman's The Circus Princess, celebrates the musical legacy of these banned or banished artists in "Operetta in Exile: Their Words, Their Music, Their Story." Five fine vocalists—Erich Buchholz, Chelsea Morris, Ron Watkins, and CFO cofounders Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly—will perform in both German and English to the accompaniment of a chamber ensemble. CFO's productions are reliably well sung and played, and this concert promises to meld ravishing music with fascinating history.

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