About this work
Emmerich Kálmán's Die Herzogin von Chicago is a transitional work in operetta. At the time of its premiere in Vienna on April 5, 1928, the classic, nostalgic, post turn-of-the-century Viennese operetta had begun absorbing influences from the American musical stage, including popular dances such as the shimmy and the rhythms and textures of jazz. Kálmán visited New York in 1927 for the Broadway premiere of his operetta Die Zirkusprinzessin and was taken with the vitality of his first experience of the modern American. The early 1928 result was Die Herzogin von Chicago ("The Duchess of Chicago"), Julius Brammer's and Alfred Grunwald's libretto was built on the conflict between jazz and operetta. Viennese audiences found the work to be far too American influenced, while American critics felt that it was too Viennese-centric. The piece subsequently disappeared in favor of more popular works by Kálmán. It was on a long list of works banned by Germany's Nazi regime, which also forced Kálmán -- a Hungarian-born Jew -- and his family into exile in Switzerland, France, and finally America. The piece straddles two worlds, telling of Prince Sandor of the bankrupt kingdom of Sylvaria who is in Budapest lamenting his impending arranged marriage to his cousin, Princess Rosemarie of Morenia, a sweet girl with a lisp who believes she's not worthy of proper royal betrothal; there he chances to meet Mary, the daughter of the Chicagoan who has bought Sylvaria's oil wells. He is drawn to her vivacity but repulsed by her infatuation with the Charleston, which he hates and which she intends to bring to Sylvaria in the course of her buying and updating the décor of the royal palace; she also intends to "buy" the prince by persuading his ministers that her wealth will economically restore Sylvaria. Meanwhile, Princess Rosemarie has met Mary's secretary, Johnny Bondy, and found herself attracted to him; Johnny, in turn, falls in love with her. These mismatched lovers are sorted out and the proud royal marries the member of the idle rich and the humble royal finds happiness in the humble worker. From its opening bars, one can see why Viennese audiences were appalled: The Prologue sounds like a Viennese parody of the title theme to a Warner Bros. musical and the first German music quoted is an irreverent rendering of part of the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. "Wienerlied" from the first act, extolling the virtues of Viennese music, is traditional enough and extraordinarily beautiful, as is the aria Mary sings in the first act. That material is juxtaposed, however, with quotations of American patriotic and popular music -- including the Charleston -- that sounds like it was lifted from the Marx Brothers' movie The Cocoanuts. Ironically, Kálmán may have succeeded better than he had hoped. He captured the spirit of the American musical in a Viennese framework in a mix that might've worked in the hands of, say, Ernst Lubitsch and Busby Berkeley.