By Rory Winston
Expert Guests: Susan Rosenberg & Gabriella Kelen
“It’s waltz time once again,”
sing the voices onstage as András Deák conducts an excerpt from Merry Widow in this year’s Salute To Vienna at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Sitting next to me: my very own pair of ‘Wary Widows’ (sic) – two Jewish Grande dames, one from Vienna one from Budapest; one hoarding a history of operatic performances under her copious skirt; the other with years of ballet evinced in each protracted gesture. Wading in Franz Lehar’s embellished orchestral motifs, the two girls emit oddly well-tuned sighs as the orchestra finishes a Waltz that dates back to the inception of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Exacting ballroom dancers; a flirtatious songstress… The lighting goes from a frosty winter blue to an incandescent interior glow of amber and pink. Thrust into a salon frequented by the Kaiser himself, we listen to Strauss’s Blue Danube. My dates for the evening have seen the fickle waters of the Danube adapt to different seasons. They have seen the swells of monarchist tides as well as the deadly Nazi undertow that followed.
Ironically, the first ‘Neujahrskonzert’ (symphonic New Year’s concerts) had been celebrated in 1938 only months after Anschluss. Just months after local marching bands greeted Hitler’s troops to the City of Music, and weeks after a most ebullient Kristallnacht, sentimental locals decided to inaugurate the New Year with a ‘Waltz and Schmaltz’ concert series that would last to this day.
To be fair, this traveling version of this spectacle, ‘Salute to Vienna’ was only now celebrating its 20th anniversary. As for the nostalgia involved, it is for something far older than the thirties. Every composer from Johann Strauss Jr. to Emmerich Kálmán confirms this fact. From Die Fledermaus excerpts to Csárdás Princess segments, the show is a gilded adventure into the Hapsburg realm, each cast member making good on Franz Joseph I’s promise to create a civilization that reaps the finest talents from all corners of the empire: Soprano Sera Goesch and tenor Michael Heim – Vienna; an eleven year old virtuoso pianist Misi Boros and the conductor András Deák – Hungary. As for the ballroom dancers with inflections of folk and character – Violetta Kis, Bertalan Hegyes, Ildiko Bori, Vencel Kis – Hungary, again. Although there was the matter of a Ukrainian dance company, Kiev-Aniko Ballet, guessing from the look on the faces of my two discerning colleagues, the dancers must have come by way of Lviv, Ternopil or other parts of the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy.
With élan and humor, the brilliant performers of Salute to Vienna bring a fin de siècle dazzle to everything they do. Theirs is a world unsullied by world wars. Frivolity and unrestrained ambition course through the air.
My two distinguished Jewish ladies feel a proud sense of ownership rather than disinheritance. And this, as I am told, is just as it should be. ‘Did I know that Johann Strauss had a grandfather who was a Hungarian Jew? That Emmerich Kalman was partly Jewish as well and had to flee to the US after Anschluss? That Richard Strauss and Franz Lehar were both married to Jews even while living under the Third Reich?’ No. There seems to be a lot I don’t know when it comes to their marzipan world adorned in Herendy porcelain and promise. Here, coffeehouses still bubble with conversation between helpings of Linzer tortes, Dobos tortes, and strudels. If you listen carefully, you can still hear Freud, Mahler and Zweig mumbling beneath each waltz. Salute to Vienna is less an event than a mirage built of motion and sound. It is the perpetually popping cork of a champagne bottle that heralds a very special twentieth century – one that was never destined to appear.