All Classical Radio James Depreist

Love affairs require some care: PSU Opera’s production of “The Merry Widow”

The refreshing English-language student production of Franz Lehár’s playful opera moved the action to 1960s Paris and added a few fresh feminist twists.

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Hanna Glawari (Megan Wakefield), center, surrounded by suitors in "The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 - 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
Hanna Glawari (Megan Wakefield), center, surrounded by suitors in “The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 – 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.

If you caught one of the four performances of The Merry Widow in late April at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, you got a taste of a full-blown semi-professional opera company. These productions are engineered and performed by mostly undergraduate students? Well yes, but under some very good direction.

PSU Opera’s final academic-year production, The Merry Widow, was a frothy and occasionally racy operetta composed and premiered in the early 20th century by Hungarian Franz Lehár, who studied in Prague and jammed with his dad’s band in Vienna. The lilting Viennese-inspired music, sprinkled with mazurka and waltz rhythms, was played by the full PSU Orchestra under Ken Selden’s direction. Opera orchestras never receive enough credit, and this one played well if it inadvertently occasionally overwhelmed the singers.

Pontevedrians celebrate their culture at Hanna Glawari’s Parisian villa in "The Merry Widow,” with the PSU Orchestra led by conductor Ken Selden, presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 - 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
Pontevedrians celebrate their culture at Hanna Glawari’s Parisian villa in “The Merry Widow,” with the PSU Orchestra led by conductor Ken Selden, presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 – 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.

The libretto was written by East European rhyming maestros Viktor Leon and Leo Stein. Add to the approachable music the libretto’s stream of smart rhymes–such as “this martial democracy is nothing but hypocrisy,” or “love affairs require some care” – hokey at times, but easy to listen to. Translator Jeremy Sams possessed a clever ear-trained talent for language and pushed the poetry beyond the mundane or predictable. 

The three-hour operetta was performed in English with two intermissions, and thankfully, supertitles were provided for the singing parts. Plenty of dialog, without supertitles, moved the story along, but of course, we came for the singing.

Baron Zeta (Izaak Thoms) and the people of Pontevedro celebrate their native culture with a festive dance at Hanna Glawari’s Parisian villa in "The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 - 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
Baron Zeta (Izaak Thoms) and the people of Pontevedro celebrate their native culture with a festive dance at Hanna Glawari’s Parisian villa in “The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 – 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.

Despite a dismal start in Vienna of Die lustige Witwe —-the 1905 directors deemed the piece tacky — The Merry Widow turned into a cult favorite, enhanced by such future events as a 1952 Lana Turner movie. Eventually its niche appeal resulted in a “merch” line with corsets and such. Under stage director Dan Wallace Miller and PSU opera director Kelley Nassief, the operetta conveyed a retro charm, set in 1961 Paris, the home of Champagne- and caviar-soaked Maxim’s, “where things are très intime” as dynamic tenor Andrew Walton sang in the role of Danilo, the young widow Hanna Glawari’s ultimate suitor.

The eligible playboy bachelor with the red bow tie takes us on an indirect journey as he indulges his louche, commitment-avoidance side, but in the end, he reveals a good heart and true love— both past and present—for Hanna. Walton’s dead-on comic performance, natural acting ability, and convincing tenor made him an on-stage highlight, as he was earlier this season when he performed the part of Sherlock Holmes in PSU’s excellent and original Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant (see my review). Fellow senior Johnny Derby, another Sherlock opera vet, sang the part in alternate shows.

"The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 - 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
“The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 – 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.

The Merry Widow doesn’t call for a bass, which the PSU program didn’t have this spring among its students, and chosen performance operas are based on the singers’ vocal talents. So it was a good fit. The operetta included 24 students and allowed for double-casting of several major parts. It telegraphed a colorful youthful vibe, dancing included. Such a combination would appeal to a younger audience, strategized Nassief, in her second year of running the opera program. She counts among her goals a desire to interest and sustain younger audiences. She invited high school students to one performance and they proved her instincts accurate. “They went crazy and were very vocal laughing, applauding, so engaged in the performance,” Nassief said in a post-operetta interview. “It was our most lively audience. Of the kids I talked to, all of them expressed an enthusiastic interest in coming back for another show.”

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Nassief graduated from PSU’s program and went on to much more, including a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions win and numerous world-wide performances. She is ambitious for her students, and is convinced some will advance to professional opera careers. To encourage that progression she ensures that students rub shoulders with in-the-field professionals. This season, she hired Miller, an import who has worked with Seattle, Santa Fe and Wolf Trap operas, to stage-direct. Together, they chose to use The Young Girls of Rochefort film as old-Hollywood inspiration. The vision included wide-lapeled ‘60s-style tuxedos and pink hair, furs and tights for the widow. Soprano Serena Mason soulfully sang the widow’s part in the show that I saw April 21, in a double-cast role with Megan Wakefield. Gratitude and compliments go to costume designer Candace Frank and all involved with hair and make-up for the imaginative takes on the off-beat looks.

Hanna Glawari (Megan Wakefield) and the people of Pontevedro at the Embassy Ball in "The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 - 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
Hanna Glawari (Megan Wakefield) and the people of Pontevedro at the Embassy Ball in “The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 – 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.

Speaking of collaborating with professionals, former Portland Ballet dancer and nationwide choreographer Nick Le-Jurica designed the dancing, often an element in French operas. In this piece, dancing included a provocatively charming cancan at the famous Maxime’s. The young women who wore the skimpy costumes were utterly unself-conscious, and what a stage attribute that is!

The Grisettes at Chez Maxim’s in "The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 - 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
The Grisettes at Chez Maxim’s in “The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 – 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
Tipsy Valencienne (March Steiger) joins the Grisettes in a dance at Chez Maxim’s in "The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 - 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
Tipsy Valencienne (March Steiger) joins the Grisettes in a dance at Chez Maxim’s in “The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 – 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.

The story is centered around the recently widowed Hanna Glawari, from the fictitious Iron-Curtainish country Pontevedro, which is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Hanna, allegedly wealthy due to her deceased husband, is looking for a new mate. The Pontevedrian ambassador Baron Zeta, laser-focused on acquiring her money for his poor country – and  stationed in Paris where Hanna has a home – is helping her to track down a Pontevedrian rather than Parisian suitor. The scramble for a mate generates loads of onstage rough-housing among competing money-hungry testosterone-loaded suitors. The young men who played these parts carved out distinct personalities, if it’s tiresome at times to watch guys fighting over sex and money. But so it goes onstage – and in real life.

The Baron’s role was shared by baritones Xavier Davidson and Izaak Thoms. Davidson, with his self-assured voice, was hilarious in the bumbling part of matchmaker, meanwhile being cuckolded by his sneaky bored wife Valencienne (sopranos Krista Shaeffer and March Steiger), who leads around her even more bumbling boyfriend Camille de Rosillon – Beatles haircut and all – by the nose. Jere Burkholder, who shared the role with Noe Ramirez-Perez, proved he has a fantastic voice, if a bad haircut.

Camille (Noe Ramirez-Perez) and Valencienne (March Steiger) take to the dance floor in "The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 - 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
Camille (Noe Ramirez-Perez) and Valencienne (March Steiger) take to the dance floor in “The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 – 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.

Through the many twists and turns, subplots, screw-ups and misunderstandings routine in comic operettas, Danilo and Hanna eventually seal the deal. She gives her fortune to needy Pontevedro, a plot twist that ignores pre-1965 French laws requiring women to hand over the goods to the husband, who in Hanna’s case, values her over the money. The romantic match was especially poignant since Hanna and Danilo were physically mismatched by traditional standards (she towered over him). In the end, in a wry moment, his head rested on her shoulder, not the other way around.

The feminist twist was refreshing, as was the operetta, even though a three-hour college piece is a risky undertaking. Some college operas and operettas, when done poorly, are dreary and dated–and, if lengthy, can be slogs for the audience.

"The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 - 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.
“The Merry Widow,” presented by Portland State Opera, April 19 – 28, 2024, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland. Photo: Chad Lanning.

Instead, well-paced singing, stylish flourishes and comic elements proved key to engaging the audience, as did the ‘60s update, though really, The Merry Widow is a timeless operetta that keeps reappearing in different shapes. Other than costumes, the Beatles haircut, the polka-dotted walls and swirling floors of designer Carey Wong’s set, the ‘60s references were few. But maybe those details were enough. The politics and cultural norms certainly weren’t reminiscent of the ‘60s that some of us grew up with.

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By the way, the PSU opera students heard earlier this season that its 2023 Magic Flute won third place in the National Opera Association Production Competition, Division IV. Amazingly, youtube registered more than 30,000 views from all over the world. Bets are that many of those clicks came from younger opera-lovers, a reaffirmation of Nassief’s wishes.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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