In Franz Lehár’s 1929 operetta “Das Land des Lächelns,” a Viennese lady, Lisa, loves a Chinese diplomat, Sou-Chong. She follows him back to China and marries him, only for them to ultimately be forced apart by Chinese custom. In 1929, this was a plea for tolerance by its two Jewish librettists. But today, its depiction of a cruel, exotic China gives us pause. Watching the Opernhaus Zürich’s new production, I was struck by a piece whose intentions were trapped within the limitations of its own perspective.

“It’s not a piece about China. It’s about a woman in an alien environment which draws her husband away from her,” said Andreas Homoki, who directed the production and is also the general director of the Opernhaus Zürich, in a recent interview.  Compared to many directors, the genial Homoki is specific and practical when discussing his work. “It could be anything, could be Arab, could be Aboriginal, but it’s China because China was fashionable at the time.”

On one hand, he’s right. One of the defining features of exoticism is its interchangeability. But when you have music that sounds, when played in an opera house, “Chinese,” and you put people in “Chinese” costumes onstage, as Homoki has done—especially when they are mostly white people—how is it not also about “China”?

This might seem to be just another instance of opera trouble, where a dated piece shows its age and we debate whether or how we should perform it. But there’s something about “Das Land des Lächelns” that is so incredibly sad. How did a piece by two Jewish librettists, Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Löhner-Beda, which can even be read as an appeal against rising anti-Semitism, end up as Exhibit A in the annals of operetta Orientalism? Being a marginalized minority doesn’t free you from prejudice, but something about this seems cruel, particularly considering the sad fate of both men.

I wrote my dissertation about operetta, including this piece. But I think I’ve spent much more time trying to figure out what audiences heard in it in 1929 Berlin than considering what I hear in it now. This production is musically brilliant, theatrically unusually effective, and basically never confronts the ethical questions I pose above. It made me think seriously: what about this piece should we preserve?

Operetta was once a fixture of Central European opera houses. In the 1960s and 1970s, many would include two or three operettas every season, and in German-speaking areas those operettas would usually be Viennese, like those of Lehár, Strauss, or Kálmán. Now that repertoire, outside of a few specialist theaters like the Volksoper in Vienna, has dwindled to two very occasional visitors: Lehár’s “Die lustige Witwe” (“The Merry Widow”) and Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus.” “It is not something that is taken for granted anymore,” Homoki says. But Zurich’s “Das Land des Lächelns” was created expressly in response to demand. “At public events there was always one question: will we see an operetta and when?” Homoki says. “People were missing it.”

For many audience members, an operetta performance is a nostalgia trip. The elderly woman seated next to me in Zurich remembered seeing “Das Land des Lächelns” in the 1960s, “but not so much anymore”; in Vienna I’ve heard audiences hum along with their favorite tunes. The performance tradition often seems to have emerged from another era as well, and operetta’s quaint, arch dialogue, predictable outbursts of waltzing, and mechanic plots (usually something really bad happens in the second act finale, so prepare for melodrama!) are part of its appeal.

YouTube video

A medley from “Das Land des Lächelns,” in a 1996 performance with Michael Röder, Christina Agnes Weiske, Gunter Sonneson, and Regina Klepper.

“Das Land des Lächelns” is one of the most popular operettas outside the two big hits, famous for its tenor aria “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” and its emotional music, written for a large orchestra and demanding serious operatic voices in the leading roles. Homoki’s production is more sophisticated and modern than most, replacing the operetta’s imperial Viennese setting with the more chic and cosmopolitan 1920s. In addition, he cuts nearly all the spoken dialogue, telling the story instead through careful staging of the musical numbers. He also cuts most of the secondary characters, as well as several subplots. The plot moves incredibly quickly, characters are developed through gesture and music rather than exposition, and the focus is on the suave atmosphere and, as he described, tableaus, without the dated spoken comedy of most operetta performances.

But he doesn’t discount that formula and the shorthand of clichés are part of operetta’s charm. “There’s a certain humor about it and a certain irony, always… you can feel a certain cleverness and [manipulation]… I think if you’re an intelligent viewer, then of course you feel this cleverness and it makes you smile because you understand the way it’s done…. It has to be very subtle otherwise this whole thing is destroyed. You have to like being on the edge of kitsch.”

He sees this archness in the representation of China as well. “As we set this whole piece we said we will not put a set of China there or whatever. We will set this whole piece in this operetta world… so then of course the only way you can tell different cultures is through the costumes and behavior and choreography.” The production uses a minimalist set with a large staircase and curtain. I’m not sure if I would call it an operetta world, quite—Homoki cut the original production’s pagodas and parlor furniture along with most of the dialogue—but it definitely isn’t trying to be naturalistic.

But this approach means the production tends to lean on stereotypes which are, to say the least, broad. The European heroine, Lisa, is an enlightened, liberated, modern woman, first depicted here as a Marlene Dietrich stand-in. Chinese society, on the other hand, is an outdated monolith which forces Sou-Chong and Lisa apart, full of masks and formal ceremony and red dresses and fans.

This, Homoki claims, is simply the dramatic engine of the piece. “We don’t really encounter the Chinese society, we just see these people with masks, also with their fans, so we emphasize the machine or the structure of the society, which is choreographed and therefore becomes a metaphor for a cliché of how Chinese society would work—which is of course an invention for the operetta. Of course there are individuals in China.”

Of course. But the music itself doesn’t seem to grant the Chinese characters as much inner expressive life as the Western ones. The Chinese sections of the score are dominated by two motives, both using the pentatonic scale: one long, sinuous melody that represents the seductive aspects of China, and one mechanical, repetitive, comic motive that represents its facelessness. Both, however, transform and adapt to many situations, like when the seduction motive is sung by the entire court in the scary opening of Act II. Lehár seems to suggest that the Chinese have a smaller musical vocabulary than the West.

The tropes of a faceless East are tired. “It could be the other way around,” Homoki says, and it could. But the point is that it isn’t.  Homoki says in the program that “I don’t think it’s music theater’s strength to offer up political themes, the music always elevates it into something universal.” But by indulging in this depiction of China, a specific place in the world, the operetta is already political, and saying that it is set “in the operetta world” doesn’t really get you out of that. Homoki also says that he is using these clichés self-consciously. But what’s the difference between self-consciously using clichés and just being clichéd? I didn’t sense much ironic distance in this staging. If anything, Homoki’s pared-down, tasteful approach is less likely to distance its audience than something like Metropolitan Opera’s “Turandot,” with its hideously over-the-top approach.

Perhaps I’m asking too much of a piece whose main male character is named after a type of tea. It is in Sou-Chong and his music, however, that Lehár and his librettists seem to be closest to reaching beyond the limitations of their conventionalized modes of representation. The role of Sou-Chong was originally written for tenor phenomenon Richard Tauber, who sang it after an attack of angina. The thick makeup and heavy robes and stiff walk prescribed for this Chinese prince conveniently concealed his physical limitations. Sou-Chong repeatedly assures us that he is human even though he appears to be unfeeling, and at the premiere that soul was manifest in Tauber’s mellifluous and meticulously detailed singing.

In Zurich, Sou-Chong was sung by the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. He has a warmer and less nasal tone than Tauber, and sings this music with a bit more spontaneity. Beczala also had none of Tauber’s stiff walk, none of the heavy makeup, and only a silk robe to mark him as Chinese. Something about his performance only highlights the incredibly earnest and yet limited elements of this work: the librettists do see Sou-Chong, for all his dumb name and occasional straightjacket of pentatonicism, as a real—which, for them, means European—person. (Likewise, the women’s chorus reveal themselves as individuals when they proclaim their love for a Western pastime: tennis.) The real villain is not the Chinese, but their society. The problem is that that society’s villainy is mostly indicated by its distance from European ways.

This dramatic shorthand, though, is Homoki’s method, and he doesn’t intend to be a revisionist. “The more tradition there is between us and the actual piece of art, [the more] we have to dig through that…not to tell [our own stories] about it but to try to find out what the original story is.” I asked Homoki if that meant that every competent director should find the “original story” to be the same thing. Of course not, he demurred, times vary.

But I have to disagree more deeply. The authors are dead, after all, and was there ever any single “original story” to be found at all? Is my hope for this operetta as a progressive beacon—something that might salvage operetta from its reputation as reactionary—merely a mirage? There is some reason to believe that the librettists, Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Löhner-Beda, saw “Das Land des Lächelns” as plea for tolerance. For Lehár, its large emotional scope and variety of colors was a chance to show off his compositional abilities. For European audiences today like my neighbor in Zurich, it’s often a nostalgia trip. For Americans, well, my friend Dan wrote on Facebook, of this Zurich production, that it was “problematic with an all-white cast,” and compared it to something more familiar to him, Gilbert and Sullivan. What this piece, and performance, is “about” depends on your point of view, now more than ever.

Peter Konwitschny’s 2007 Komische Oper Berlin staging of the work was a full postmodern dressing-down of exoticism which included a ballet featuring both Hitler and Idi Amin; it was more intellectually and ethically satisfying than Homoki’s smoothly entertaining version. But it tried to do something very different, and it was never ambiguous about whether its kitsch was self-conscious. Homoki, in contrast, finds a swift and maybe slightly distanced way of enjoying those clichés. Maybe as clichés, maybe not. It’s less fussy than your average traditional production of “Turandot” or “Carmen,” but I’m not sure if it’s actually preferable.

If “Das Land des Lächelns” was ever meant as a cry against racism, it must be added that it hasn’t been a very effective one. The operetta was performed throughout the Third Reich, with its librettists’ names removed. Löhner-Beda was one of the first Viennese Jews to be deported; he wrote the lyrics of the “Buchenwald-Lied” before he was murdered in Auschwitz. (Herzer escaped to Switzerland.) That the Nazis delighted in the operetta’s portrayal of a totalitarian China is something I don’t feel equipped to understand.

But such worries are easier to forget when watching Homoki’s fluent, historically vague production. Homoki says that operetta will be part of future seasons in Zurich (as well as musicals), but notes that intervention is necessary. “Operetta has also become part of our history…. We look at it from a distance. It’s time. Time goes and things fade away and we want to keep them because we’re interested we have to grab it, grab them and bring them close again.” I still am not quite sure what about this piece we want to grasp. ¶

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