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Music Notes: a composer's fatal exile

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It could be a scene from an Emmerich Kalman operetta: the year is 1928; the place, Vienna, where music is king. The characters: a famous Hungarian composer with a new show in production and a ravishing Russian starlet half his age. They meet at the checkroom of a cafe he's known to frequent. He helps her with her coat; she thanks him by name. "You know me?" he asks. "Oh yes," she replies. "I'm so anxious to get a part in The Duchess of Chicago."

He offers his card and invites her to audition; the leads have already been cast, but the starlet finds a home in the chorus and is soon sharing rehearsal lunches with the maestro. Assuming she'll be his date for the opening-night party, she dresses for the event, only to see him sweep off with the leading lady. Crushed, the ingenue retrieves the composer's cigar band from an ashtray, slips it on her finger, and goes home to cry herself to sleep. The next morning he appears at her door. "You're a young woman and should be going out with young men," he explains. "I care for you very much, but I've been trying hard to fight it." She replies, "Please don't fight it, because I love you."

The operetta would end there, with a grand wedding: a tale of love sparked, stymied, and victorious in a happily schmaltzy world. In real life Vera Makinska and Emmerich Kalman married, had three children, and lived in Vienna, where Kalman was among the most beloved of contemporary composers. Then in 1939 the Nazis banned the work of Jewish composers, and the Kalmans took refuge in Paris. Hitler sent word that he admired Kalman's music and was willing to overlook his Jewish heritage; he offered to make Kalman an "honorary Aryan" if he would return to Austria. Kalman declined and fled with his family to the United States. Initially they went to Los Angeles, because several Kalman operettas had been optioned for the movies. When they found that interest in Austro-Hungarian musicals had evaporated, they decamped for New York. There the Kalman apartment became a haven for displaced Europeans, with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Rubinstein, and Greta Garbo dropping in to commiserate over hot goulash and cold beer. Though such Kalman operettas as The Gypsy Princess and Countess Maritza had been translated and had played successfully on Broadway, during the war his music was scarcely heard in the U.S. Exiled from Europe at the height of his fame, he dropped into near anonymity, an old man in a strange land, unable even to speak the language.

With the end of the war came the worst blow. His youngest child, Yvonne, remembers coming home from school one day to find her father crying and unapproachable. "I said, 'What's wrong, what's wrong?'" she recalls. Kalman had received word that nine of his family members, including his mother and siblings, had died in the Holocaust. "It was the beginning of the end," she says. Soon after he suffered a heart attack, followed by a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and nearly speechless. He refused to ever set foot in his homeland. In 1949 Vera convinced him to move back to Paris; he died there in '53. He had written the scores for 23 operettas.

The Duchess of Chicago is the story of a hot-dog heiress who goes to Europe to buy herself a castle. Hitler labeled it "degenerate" and banned it in Austria, partly because it includes American jazz along with Kalman's trademark blend of Viennese waltzes and Gypsy music. Light Opera Works is staging the American premiere this weekend and next at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson in Evanston. Shows are presented Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2; there will also be a performance next Friday, August 28, at 8. Tickets are $22 to $49.

Kalman's daughter Yvonne will speak and his widow Vera will be guest of honor at a benefit dinner preceding this Saturday's performance. The dinner will be held at 4:30 at Chef's Station, 915 Davis in Evanston; tickets are $55 (and do not include the show). For dinner or show tickets, call 847-869-6300. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Emmerich Kalman/ Vera Makinska uncredited photos.

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