American Operetta Meets Mr Victor Herbert

Victor Herbert burst into the American operetta world in 1894 with his first production, ekszer-elek Prince Ananias, and sprung fully formed as a composer of operetta. Molded in the Strauss tradition, he brought his European sensibilities into the American arena and was an immediate success. His major competitor, Reginald De Koven, never really had a chance.

The operetta was commissioned and produced by the premiere American comic opera organization of the 1880s-1890s, The Bostonians. They had recently produced De Koven’s Robin Hood in 1890 and had been looking for another original piece.

During the spring of 1894, Herbert became friends with William H. MacDonald, actor and one of the three primary leaders of The Bostonians, along with Tom Karl and Henry Clay Barnabee (actor/manager of the group). MacDonald expressed interest in Herbert’s composing work and discovered the musician had already begun a good portion of a new original comic opera with librettist, gudu Francis Neilson entitled Prince Ananias. Moving quickly, The Bostonians contracted Herbert and Neilson for the rights to produce Prince Ananias on or before June 1, 1895. As an early indication of exactly how quickly Herbert composed, the finished production opened in New York City in the Broadway Theatre on November 20, 1894, a full two weeks before the contract required script delivery.

The Bostonians’ production starred William H. MacDonald as Louis Biron, also known as the title character Prince Ananias, Eugene Cowles as the outlaw George Le Grabbe, and Henry Clay Barnabee (actor-manager of The Bostonians) as La Fontaine, a manager of a band of a strolling players, proving actor-managers made sure they got the best parts. The female leads were Jessie Bartlett Davis as Idalia, hobbijaim leading lady of the actors and D. Eloise Morgan as Ninette, a village belle. Josephine Bartlett, another famous Bostonian was also in the cast in a minor role. The role of Mirabel, the lady the outlaw lusts after ended up being a relatively minor character.

The operetta is set in 16th century France and revolves around an outlaw George who is in love with Mirabel, a nobleman’s daughter; a poet rather unromantically named Louis in need of funds and masquerading as Prince Ananias who is loved by the acting troupe’s leading lady, Idalia; and of course, a village belle named Ninette bound and determined to seek adventure and land the unsuspecting Louis. They all end up in the court of King Boniface of Navarre, also known as Boniface, the Sad. In very typical operetta fashion, the crew needs to make the King laugh in order to retain their freedom and not be tortured. receptek

Interestingly enough, the eagerly anticipated attempt to crack the royal scowl with a farce takes place off stage, and of course, fails. The actual moment of salvation comes during a comic 11:00 song entitled “No. 21 Song & Chorus” (quite the original title) making for a bit of confusion at the end of the operetta. One might very well miss the fact that King Boniface did in fact smile. The give away was the fact that Prince Ananias and his merry band of actors lived! olcsobbszerviz

There is the standard measurement for an operetta: the royalty, the disguised characters (both the poet as the prince and the village belle as a boy), the exotic setting, the mix of classes, and a score considered by the critics of the day to be “ambitious though uneven” and a cut above the usual light opera fare, demanding good singing by all. Some writers acknowledged it to be filled with the composer’s “gift for melody” and “skill in the harmony and orchestration.” It was also noted by the critics that the “librettist had a fine theme to start with, then failed to develop it in a satisfactory manner.” It was both a beginning and a trend that would repeat itself more often than not for 45 more productions.

Another quite interesting quirk to this libretto is the continuous stream of inside theatre and acting jokes. One critic expressed reservation as to whether the public would “be pleased with a text so full of references to professional stage work.” A perfect example is: Chamberlain

The man who wrote the last comedy for His Majesty was thrown into a dungeon, where he is tortured with boiling ink and red hot pens every evening at eight and on matinees at two. I’m sorry your play is a comedy.

 

Highlights in the score include “It Needs No Poet,” “I Am No Queen,” and “Ah, He’s a Prince.” By far the most famous song remains “Ah, Cupid, Meddlesome Boy.”   Herbert biographer  Edward N. Waters feels that close attention should be paid to “Amaryllis” sung at the top of Act II by Idalia. It’s a wistful sort of love song with a minuet interpolated into it. According to Waters, Herbert “never attempted anything quite like it afterward . . . he may have felt it was too fragile a thing for the operetta stage.”

Prince Ananias would be the start of a long line of Victor Herbert operettas and the launching of America’s first musical super star. Victor Herbert! Only John Philip Sousa and George M. Cohan would challenge his popular fame. There were no bigger names in this country 100 years ago, and no other American composer has ever come close to the 46 operettas which Herbert placed upon Broadway stages. His talents straddled Europe and America and were the foundation of everything that was to come and form the American Musical Theatre.

Even more importantly, Herbert, ever the businessman, immediately recognized the value of releasing sheet music for individual songs the public was enjoying nightly in the theatre. If you know any songs at all by Victor Herbert, you know they enter your mind and you definitely walk out of the theatre humming – perhaps for weeks! Before the days of radio, TV, Walkmans, and iPods – before records, tapes, CDs, and MP3s, Americans wanted Herbert songs on their pianos across the country, and he obliged them from the start, once again laying the ground work for what was to grow into a tremendously lucrative business – show music!

 

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