Franz Lehar’s operetta sparkles with passion in three-quarter time 

Toledo Opera’s Merry Widow will sweep audiences off their feet

The lead actress spreads her arms victoriously as she is held aloft by a group of male chorus members
Alyson Cambridge (as Hannah Glawari) celebrates as she is serenaded by the chorus

This Valentine’s, Toledo Opera will be performing Franz Lehar’s beloved operetta, The Merry Widow. The term operetta means “light opera” — a genre characterized as comic in nature, having some spoken dialogue, and usually a happy ending. It’s the kind of escapist night at the theater long overdue these past three years. Operettas are a wonderful introduction to traditional opera with dialogue, dance, and songs that lean toward popular music in addition to traditional arias. Historically they are a bridge between formal opera and modern musical theater. If you think of opera as stuffy, here is your antidote.

Written in 1905, The Merry Widow’s enduring appeal is astonishing and includes productions in nearly every European language along with four film versions. The most famous of these is the 1934 film starring Jeanette McDonald and Maurice Chevalier — one of MGM’s earliest movie musicals (Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas starred in the studio’s 1952 version). Franz Lehar’s operetta was based on an 1861 French play about a beautiful, young, wealthy widow from a small Balkan province and an ambassador from her country who schemes to arrange a marriage between the widow and someone from her province rather than a Frenchman. To marry a Frenchman would mean her money would leave the province causing economic ruin.

A woman in a long, fancy dress canoodles with a man in a tuxedo underneath a streetlamp
Toledo Opera presents The Merry Widow, composed by Franz Lehar, on Friday 10 and 12, 2023 at the Valentine Theatre

The story takes place at the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris. The Pontevedrian ambassador, Baron Mirko Zeta, is giving a ball, hoping their Parisian guests will help them raise money for their country. He believes his wife, Valencienne, is flirting with a wealthy young Frenchman in hopes of winning French support for their country – but is she? Their guest of honor is our titular character — recently widowed Hannah Glawari. The Baron wants to set our widow up with embassy secretary, Danilo Danilovitch, so her millions will stay in Pontevedro, but there are a few complications. Danilo is a womanizer complete with a reputation, and they already have a romantic past together. 

While the basic storyline of The Merry Widow stays the same, the dialogue has been open to interpretation with every new production, allowing opera companies to keep the basics and riff on the rest. Toledo Opera will have its own imagining of this beguiling, romantic, operetta.

An actress, center, responds to two actors on either side of her as the chorus performs in the background
Alyson Cambridge, center, (as Hannah Glawari) responds to Jason Budd, left, (as Baron Zeta) and Keith Phares, right (as Count Danilo Danilovitch)

Co-director Jamie Offenbach shared his thoughts on Toledo Opera’s production. “We hope to make it more modern and approachable without straying too far into the modern. One of the biggest numbers in the production will be Girls, Girls, Girls — a buoyant, infectious song that romantic lead Count Danilo sings that will include can-can dancers.”

Although the story has some of the constraints of its time (mainly that a woman’s property and money becomes a man’s when she marries), co-director James Norman stresses that this production makes sure the women are always outsmarting the men. Norman notes, “The Merry Widow is such a perfect introduction to opera because it’s so much fun. In fact, the cast is laughing and having fun even in rehearsals. It has humor, beautiful music, dancing, and 75% of the cast is local.” Leads Alyson Cambridge and Keith Phares come to Toledo Opera from the Metropolitan Opera and co-stars Caroline Miller and Drake Dantzler are from the Toledo Opera’s resident artist program.  

“The costumes will be traditional turn-of-the-century dress,” explains Norman. “The first scene is a party at the embassy, so it’s all ballgowns and tails, and in act two the widow gives a costume ball in her garden in Paris. In the third act, Hannah turns her Paris home into the famous club, Maxim’s, a take on the Moulin Rouge. Maxim’s is Count Danilo’s happy place. His character is a gentleman of the Gilded Age who didn’t work and enjoyed the comforts of money.”

Even if you’ve never seen The Merry Widow, you’ll probably recognize some of the music — like The Merry Widow Waltz and Vilja — because they’ve been used as underscoring in countless films and commercials. Offenbach marvels, “Musically, the operetta takes you from arias and light opera to musical theater, and the score itself guides you beautifully through the story. Lehar was a master at taking the audience on a journey with the music.” The Merry Widow promises to be everything an audience could want for Valentine’s. 

The male and female leads of the opera gaze into each other's eyes during rehearsal
Keith Phares (as Count Danilo Danilovitch) and Alyson Cambridge (as Hannah Glawari) rehearse a duet from The Merry Widow.

Friday, February 10 at 7:30pm; Sunday, February 12 at 2pm at the Valentine Theatre. $79-$129. 419-255-7464. Valentine Theatre, 410 Adams St., Toledo. Tickets are still available.

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