At the beginning of the 20th century, Vienna, as the main banking and business center of Europe, had enormous resources and a large number of rich people ready to support the arts, including several opera theaters, of which some been active to nowadays. Viennese opera hits would often travel to Berlin, London and New York and there was a constant search for new ideas and fresh talent.

In 1905, Viennese librettist Leo Stein came across a play he thought would be a good operetta - L'Attaché d'ambassade by Henri Meilhac.  Meilhac’s story of an attaché of a German state, lurking the richness of a wealthy and young widow, promised a good background for a comic operetta. He suggested that his associate and a manager of the Theater an der Wien, Victor Leon, that they should write a libretto together. They engaged Richard Heuberger as a composer, as he had previously composed the popular operetta The Opera Ball and its libretto had also been written by Leon and Stein and it was being performed at Theater an der Wien.

Heuberger began working on the score, but it was not “his cup of tea”. The Head of the theatre Wilhelm Karczag was so disappointed when he heard the first results that he (to Heuberger’s relief) gave the back. He wanted to cancel the project by the time his secretary, Emil Steinberger, suggested offering libretto to a composer Franz Lehar. The son of a master of the military orchestra, Lehar was at the time the leader of the theater orchestra and had already collaborated with Leon and Stein, but had never composed this kind of comic operetta before. However, in a few months the operetta was completed.

For the leading roles they engaged Mizzi Günther and Louis Treumann, of that time opera stars. During rehearsals, the theater management lost faith in the score and asked Lehar to withdraw it, but he refused. However, the soloists were so thrilled with the piece of art that they complemented the theatrical low budget by paying for their own luxuries costumes.

The operetta was premiered at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on December 30, 1905. It achieved a sensational success and was performed 119 times in its first season. In the summer, this theater used to close due to the heat, but in 1906, because of high demand for The Merry Widow, they moved to another theater on the outskirts of Vienna, to return to their building in the autumn without interrupting the performance of the operetta.

When it reached its 300th consecutive performance, the theater management finally purchased new costumes. The operetta had 483 performances.

Just in a few years it achieved an international success. In 1906 it was performed in Hamburg, Berlin and Budapest in Hungarian language.

In 1907 it was translated into Croatian, English, Swedish and Italian and performed in Zagreb, London, Stockholm and Milan. It was performed 778 in London. King Edward VII saw it even four times and audience all over the country was excited about the Merry Widow. In the same year, the operetta began to be performed in the USA and at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York it was performed 416 times in just a year. The success was so huge that in Buenos Aires it was being performed in five different theatres simultaneously.  

In 1908 the play was performed in Copenhagen, Moscow, Cairo, Shanghai, Melbourne and Johannesburg, and afterwards in Madrid and Paris.

Parodies of the operetta have appeared as well. It has had a number of adjustments, with setting being changed, music adopted to the language it is performed in, changes in the names of the characters and headlines occurred as well, but the original version, the one once heard in London, has remained the most popular ever since.

The operetta originally had no overture. Lehar wrote it for the 400th performance, but was rarely used, as the original short introduction was preferable. , but it was rarely used, as an original short introduction was preferable. The Vienna Philharmonic performed the overture at the concert on the occasion of Lehar's 70th birthday, in April 1940.

What makes the music in The Merry Widow so appealing is the richness of melodies, the particular erotic fluid and the dance motifs that choreographers have always been happy to use.

The rhythms of mazurka, polonaise, kolo, gallop, cancan alternate in the operetta, but nevertheless waltz dominates. The orchestra is very numerous, real opera one, even symphonic and the title heroine has gone from the repertoire of cheerful and funny roles singer to the repertoire of opera divas.

Film and other adaptations have been made as well. The well – known music score includes "Vilja Song", "Da geh 'ich zu Maxim" ("You will find me at Maxim’s") and "Waldz Merry Widow Waldz".

The Merry Widow is estimated to have been performed about 500.000 times in the first sixty years. According to a theater writer John Kenrick, by 1960s, no other play or musical achieved such international commercial success.

No wonder it is known as the Queen of Operettas. 


And one interesting detail: Residents of the small town of Groningen in the Netherlands were, one Sunday morning, surprised to hear the bells of their church ringing the waltz of The Merry Widow!

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