The Merry Widow in Oldenburg

The Grand Duchy of Oldenburg ceased to exist in 1918, at the end of the First World War, when the last reigning grand duke, Frederick Augustus II, was forced to abdicate, along with all the other dukes, grand dukes, counts, margraves, landgraves, princes and even kings who up to then had ruled dozens of traditional jurisdictions within the defunct Second German Empire.

Stage tower of the Oldenburg State Theater

What all these dukes, grand dukes, counts, margraves, landgraves, princes and kings had in common was that they each had a palace, a throne, a crown, a private railway carriage and — most important — a court theater and opera ensemble. Typically, these court theaters continued operating as state theaters after Germany became a republic. Nearly all of them still exist today in one form or another, though as of December 2020 they are struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Spectators arriving at the Oldenburg State Theater, 2016

In addition to operas, plays, musicals and concerts, these former court theaters typically perform operettas, which is slightly ironic because operettas often make fun of insignificant little principalities such as the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg used to be.

Program booklet for The Merry Widow

When I went to Oldenburg in 2016 I saw their production of one of these operettas, The Merry Widow by Franz Lehár. In the original German, this operetta is called Die lustige Witwe, in French La veuve joyeuse.

The Merry Widow was first performed in Vienna in 1905 (the year my father was born), and soon became a huge success throughout the world. Besides the Oldenburg production, I’ve seen it in two different Frankfurt productions (staged by Peter Mussbach 1996 and Claus Guth 2018) and at the Komische Oper Berlin (staged by Andreas Homoki 2000 and starring the Frankfurt baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle as Count Danilo Danilowitsch).

Orchestra tuning up for The Merry Widow in Oldenburg

Other operettas about silly little principalities include Wiener Blut by Johann Strauss Jr., which I once saw in Magdeburg, Der Walzertraum by Oscar Straus, which I have seen several times in Frankfurt (Andrea Schwalbach set the second act on the deck of the Titanic as it hit the iceberg) and Gräfin Mariza by Emmerich Kálmán, which I once saw in Meiningen.

Applause after The Merry Widow in Oldenburg

Incidentally, one of my favorite films of the 1960s was Romanoff and Juliet, a Cold War spoof starring Peter Ustinov (who also wrote and directed the film) as the president of the tiny country of Concordia. There were only three substantial buildings in Concordia: the Presidential Palace, the American Embassy on the right and the Soviet Embassy on the left. The prime minister was also the telephone operator, and he earned the entire national budget by charging the Americans and Russians to listen in on each other’s phone calls.

Even more incidentally, in 1887 the operetta composer Johann Strauss Jr. gave up his Austrian citizenship (in real life, not in an operetta) and became a citizen of the diminutive principality of Sachsen-Coburg and Gotha, so he could divorce and re-marry, which at the time was illegal in Austria.

Traditional auditorium and modern lobby in Oldenburg

The Oldenburg State Theater now consists of a traditional auditorium with 540 seats, dating from 1893, and a newer annex with lobbies, workshops, rehearsal stages and offices, dating from the 1970s.

In the Oldenburg State Theater

The Oldenburg State Theater was my fifty-seventh German opera house,
out of the seventy-one I have been to so far.

My photos in this post are from 2016. I wrote the text in 2020.

See more posts on Oldenburg, Germany.
See more posts on operettas.

9 thoughts on “The Merry Widow in Oldenburg”

  1. I love all the stories of the little municipalities. The movie may have been the inspiration for Key West succeeding from the USA (the Conch Republic) which happened in 1982 because the Border Patrol had a road block and searched everyone for narcotics and illegals. Incidentally your dad was a little younger than mine – mine was born in December 1904

        1. Oldenburg has a small orchestra pit, and the Merry Widow is scored for an unusually large (for an operetta) orchestra. So it would take some major rearranging if they wanted to revive it today. Not to mention the dancing, the chorus, the duets, …

  2. Romanoff and Juliet was great fun in its day. I wish we had opera houses in small towns all over the country. Most of my opera singing friends from university moved to Europe after school . . . for obvious reasons.

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