Viewpoint: Centennial Song
2013 was a big year for Verdi, Wagner and Britten celebrations, wasn't it? Are any big anniversaries on the calendar in 2014? This month, when the Metropolitan Opera is broadcasting its new Die Fledermaus — the greatest of all the operetta scores of Vienna's golden age — it's instructive to remember that exactly one hundred years ago, Victor Herbert, the king of Broadway operetta in the early twentieth century, was at work at the Met.
Born in Dublin in 1859 and raised in Germany, Herbert emigrated to the U.S. in 1886, when he and his wife, Therese Herbert-Förster, were engaged by the Metropolitan Opera — he as a musician, she as principal soprano. Mme. Herbert-Förster, who was the Met's first Aida, had relatively little impact on New York's musical life after her first Met season. Her husband, who first made his mark as a cellist and conductor, was to be one of the most influential composers in the history of the American theater. Beginning in 1894, Herbert created operettas that bridged the gap between the vaudeville-style shows of the nineteenth century and the increasingly sophisticated "book" musicals of the late 1910s. His greatest successes featured gorgeous melodies and vocal demands worthy of bona fide opera singers. Many of Herbert's Broadway stars were just that: soprano Fritzi Scheff spent three seasons on the Met roster before creating Fifi in Herbert's Mlle. Modiste (1905), and Emma Trentini and Orville Harrold sang with the Manhattan Opera Company before they were the first Marietta and Captain Richard Warrington in Naughty Marietta (1910).
Although Herbert knew how to write music for opera singers, he had much less success in the opera house than on Broadway. Herbert's first opera, Natoma (1911), the story of a Native American maiden, was a critical flop. Herbert's second work for the opera house, Madeleine, which had its world premiere at the Met on January 24, 1914, was a one-act work based on a French comedy. The first Madeleine Fleury was prima donna Frances Alda, the wife of Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who was the Met's general manager at the time; her leading man was American tenor Paul Althouse, best remembered today for his work as a teacher with such students as Richard Tucker, Eleanor Steber and Astrid Varnay. Reviews for Madeleine, its composer and its stars were respectful, but the opera played just six performances in repertory for a single Met season and disappeared.
Herbert made a more enduring contribution to American musical life later that year. On February 13, 1914, he founded the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, an organization designed to protect the copyrighted compositions of its members that still endures today. "The King of Broadway" served as vice-president and director for ASCAP until his death, in 1924.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL
CORRECTION: Broadway diva Mary Martin received her fourth Tony Award for The Sound of Music, not her second, as stated in "There's Something About Mary" (Nov.). Martin received a special Tony Award in 1947 for her work in the national tour of Annie Get Your Gun and won Tonys as best actress in a musical for South Pacific (1950), Peter Pan (1955) and The Sound of Music (1960).
The opinions expressed in OPERA NEWS do not necessarily represent the views of The Metropolitan Opera Guild or The Metropolitan Opera.
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