Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 May 2019

The Merry Widow: an opera for people who have never been to an opera

We speak to star soprano Monika Fischl about the thrill of bringing The Merry Widow to a new audience in Dubai

Soprano Monika Fischl, centre, says the colourful costumes and stage design make the operetta a real crowd-pleaser. Courtesy Dubai Opera
Soprano Monika Fischl, centre, says the colourful costumes and stage design make the operetta a real crowd-pleaser. Courtesy Dubai Opera

After a series of intense performances, from Othello to a recital by dynamic soprano-tenor couple Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, a lighter ­option will grace the Dubai Opera stage this week.

The Merry Widow is a crowd-pleaser in every sense of the word. Ever since its premiere in 1905 in ­Vienna, the famous operetta by Austro-Hungarian ­composer Franz Lehar has toured the world with its delicious blend of comedy, dance and rom­ance, as it follows the story of Hanna, a rich widow ­from an ­impoverished province and the attempts of her compat­riots to keep her riches in the country.

With three ­performances planned for Dubai, The Buda­pest Operetta Theatre will bring its acclaimed cast of performers to town, with Monika Fischl in the leading role. A veteran of the stage, Fischl is a star in her native Hungary and has racked up plenty of lead roles in famous operettas, ranging from Adele in Die Fledermaus and Mary Lloyd in The Duchess of Chicago.

Introducing the operetta

An acclaimed opera ­soprano, too, Fischl prefers the lighter version of the genre, the operetta, as it’s a better showcase of her talents. “Both have their own skills and preparation,” she says from Budapest, where rehearsals for the show are taking place.

“The operetta is much more active. There is lots of singing, dancing and movement on stage. It is a combination of all these various arts and, of course, it is a lot more fun.”

Fischl describes The Merry Widow as a great illustration of the art form, as it has all the elements – from the lavish sets and a romantic plot line, to great songs, the most ­popular of which is the Vilja Song. Coming in the second act, the sprightly number is sung by Hanna, as she serenades a dinner party with a song about a forest fairy chased by hunters.

It remains a popular stand-alone piece and a key part of the live performance of violinist and conductor Andre Rieu.

Fischl says the piece’s benign melodies disguise its complexity. “It is actually a very difficult song to perform,” she says. “That’s because it has many layers and it is actually quite long. The crowd love it because it is a very romantic song and there is choreography that goes with it. In the song, I have a partner who is a belly dancer, so there will be that, too. But it’s the choreography between the characters in this piece that makes it the favourite of the show.”

Fischl says the song will also be enhanced by the company’s stage design, which is a star in its own right. “It will be very colourful,” she says. “There is a song with the Grisettes [young French working-class women] in the show and that will be a can-can dance. When that happens, everything on stage is pink. Mixed with all the colour of the costumes, it will look exciting.”

Playing to the crowd

This is one of the reasons why Fischl views The Merry Widow as the perfect entry point for those who are stage averse. She says the uncomplicated and zippy pace of the show makes it easily accessible.

It is that thrill of seeing audience members engaging with stage performance for the first time that Fischl finds deeply gratifying. “We actually have much bigger success if we play for an audience who doesn’t have previous knowledge about this genre,” she says. “The crowd are very excited and they enjoy what is happening on stage.

“But it is a big ­responsibility as well, because a lot of things depend on me and the company. We ask ourselves what will these people’s first experience of the theatre be like? It’s a big responsibility to care about them. We want the audience leaving and saying, ‘We were happy we saw a Hungarian operetta.’ Perhaps they will go on the internet and find other pieces from this genre.”

Fischl admits that her international performances are powered by a sense of patriotic duty. When representing one of her homeland’s most prestigious artistic institutions, she says that nothing is left to chance. “We have this word back home: ‘Hungaricum,’ and that’s what the Hungarian operetta is,” she says. “It means that like paprika or the goulash soup, the operetta is a national treasure of Hungary. It is something that we are proud about and that we have to take care of.”

The Merry Widow is at Dubai Opera from February 21 until February 23 Saturday. Tickets from Dh350 are available to book at www.dubaiopera.com

Updated: February 19, 2019 05:51 PM

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