The mixture of humor and beautiful music

Musicologist Prof. Dr. Thomas Erlach on the premiere of Eduard Künneke's operetta "Der Vetter aus Dingsda" that occured 100 years ago in Berlin

"Der Vetter aus Dingsda" by Eduard Künneke was premiered on April 15, 1921 in Berlin. What is this operetta about?

Erlach: As with many operettas, it revolves around the theme of a marriage initiation with entanglements. Here, we are dealing with a main character named Julia de Weert, who lives in a small Dutch castle and has been waiting for her missing cousin and fiancé Roderich for seven years. He swore allegiance to her but then disappeared to Batavia, a city in the then colony of the Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta. However, the stepparents with whom Julia lives, have a very different view of her marital future and have provided another cousin for her with the unattractive name of August Kuhbrot, so that the rich inheritance that Julia brings with her will stay in the family. Then, in the course of the plot, two strange men appear. One of them, supposedly a "poor journeyman," surprisingly falls in love with Julia immediately. This creates a dramatic conflict between reality and the ideal of loyality that Julia has cultivated until now. This stranger is August Kuhbrot in reality, but he pretends to be Roderich because he wants to fit into Julia's pattern of prey. Then, there is another, local man, Egon, who is also interested in Julia but is out of the question for her, the figure of the awkward rival. This rival unmasks the false Roderich. Finally, at the end, the real Roderich appears as a second stranger, who spontaneously falls in love with Julia's friend. Thus, as is typical for operettas, after a few complications, the real union of two couples takes place. The two strange men find suitable partners, only the awkward Egon remains alone and is sent to Batavia.
The constellation is somewhat comparable to today's soap operas or television comedies. There are real feelings, but they only work out at the end. In between, there are delays in the plot caused by certain fixations, dissimulations, intrigues, or other motives (in this case, e.g. the greed of the stepparents). These delays are what makes such an operetta so appealing.

According to its meaning, operetta is the "little opera". What distinguishes it from grand opera?

Erlach: On the surface, operettas are characterized by a mixture of spoken dialog, singing and dancing. So there is no singing throughout, as is the case with most operas. The dances are always at the pulse of the period in which they were created, and the development of the plot often takes place in three acts. First, a dramatic knot is built up. It is always in the context of a love affair that is in the making, but which for some reason is not quite suitable. Towards the end of the second act, before the intermission, this conflict comes to light and failure threatens. After the intermission, the solution then occurs, almost always in the form of a happy ending. One can exaggeratedly say: In an opera all are dead at the end, in the operetta the right ones find themselves. Of course, this is not true in this exaggeration (in operas, too, many or even all of the stage characters often survive), but it contains a true core: opera developed from ancient tragedy genre-historically, operetta from comedy, so there is a fundamental difference in genre. Operetta as a genre, is a child of the 19th century. Numerous operettas were created in Europe over a period of about a hundred years. The first around 1855, the last around 1970. There were significant operetta traditions in Paris, Vienna and Berlin. We are dealing with an example of the Berlin operetta in the case of "Vetter aus Dingsda", which combines both parodistic and sentimental traits.

Eduard von Künneke's music is characterized by rhythm and harmonic stylistic images. His best-known operetta, "Der Vetter aus Dingsda," is classified as upscale light music. What characterizes upscale light music?

Erlach: It is always difficult to pigeonhole music. Especially, when there are valuations associated with it. "Upscale" implies a pejorative counter-term, something like "flat". The basic distinction between E-music (serious music) and U-music (light music) is common, but ultimately not applicable to all forms of music. Actually, Eduard Künneke came from the so-called serious music. He studied with Max Bruch and then, more or less out of pressure to succeed, switched to the genre of operetta, where he then achieved a major breakthrough with the "Vetter aus Dingsda". When we talk about "light music", it can be understood in two ways: Either music with which you can entertain yourself in passing, or music that entertains you. One can certainly speak of light music in the second sense in the case of operettas. In the theater, people usually listen attentively, but the musical composition is closer to what we would call "popular music". This is due to the use of songlike forms and fashionable dances, as well as to the lower complexity in the tonal composition compared to classical art music. You will find no operettas in twelve-tone technique, avant-garde music is also ruled out for this genre. The technical term "upscale light music" is usually associated with the 1920s. At this time, radio orchestras were introduced in Germany, which cultivated a special repertoire, a kind of mixed repertoire of symphonic and salon music. This music was intended for casual listening on the radio set. Many operetta arrangements were therefore still popular on the radio and also on television for a long time. Today there are a small number of salon orchestras that actually specialize in this upscale light music, otherwise operettas are often included in the repertoire by municipal theaters.

At the time, critics spoke of a masterpiece of Berlin operetta, which, at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, took the trend for exoticism in its stride. What is meant by this?

Erlach: Exoticism is the tendency to present foreign settings (often in a clichéd way), either in a transfiguring or threatening sense. One also speaks of the "allure of the foreign". Ultimately, this method is based on older traditions. As early as the 18th century, we find works in literature such as Baron de Montesquieu's "Lettres persanes," which shift the setting to the Orient in order to be able to criticize politically. For musical theater, we find exoticism, for example, in Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio," and later especially in Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" or "Turandot," where the Far East is thematized. Exoticism was also a significant theme in the operetta of the 1920s. As examples, I cite "The Land of Smiles" by Franz Lehár, in which "Chinese" sounding music is used, and the "Tsarevich" with Russian color, or also "The Flower of Hawaii" by Paul Abraham, an operetta partly set in Honolulu. Today, one often suspects that there are colonialist tendencies behind these pieces, that they are therefore no longer acceptable, but one perhaps overlooks the enlightenment roots from which these introductions of foreign worlds originate. Künneke differs from the usual exoticism of the 1920s operettas because he does not use exoticism as a decorative addition, but treats it ironically. The exoticism in "Vetter aus Dingsda" appears in the form of the place Batavia on the island of Java, which, however, is not shown, but only mentioned. In addition, the person who tells about it, August Kuhbrot, was not actually there. Thus, there is a double refraction of the perspective on the place. In his narration, the alleged Roderich reports that it is a custom in Batavia to kiss girls in the jungle, and to be observed by animals (wildebeest and kangaroo) that are not actually to be found there. This freely invented story is packaged musically in such a way that it seems implausible: the used music is a foxtrot, i.e. a music whose origin actually refers to North America and not to the Far East. Nevertheless, the intrusion of this (faked) foreign world into the bourgeois circumstances of this small Dutch town causes some turmoil there.

Künneke's skill in interweaving vocal numbers with the then newly emerging fashionable dances foxtrot, paso doble, tango or valse Boston contributed to his success. Did he thus change operetta in the 20th century?

Erlach: Yes, definitely. In earlier operettas, dance was, above all, associated with a collective. When you think of Offenbach's "Höllengalopp" or also the 2nd act of Johann Strauss' "Fledermaus," it is all about ecstatic mass spectacles. In later operettas (e.g. in Lehár's "Listiger Witwe"), dancing was more frequent in duets and other ensemble scenes. Then, for example, two verses are sung and dancing takes place to the music of the third verse. Now one must know that during the First World War dancing was forbidden in Germany, and that this ban on dancing was only lifted again on New Year's Eve 1918. This apparently triggered a real dance epidemic. The premiere of "Vetter aus Dingsda" took place during this period, and Künneke used the above-mentioned dances, which were new to Europe. It can be said that the operetta composers of the 1920s took up these dance forms coming from America, for example Shimmy and (later) Charleston. The special feature of "Vetter aus Dingsda" is that the dances are not used arbitrarily, but have a relation to the plot. One example is the tango duet in which August Kuhbrot tries to calm Julia down. The actual character of the tango, which conveys something provocative, is thus turned around into a kind of appeasement dance. Künneke is very original here. He interweaves different musical spheres in "Vetter aus Dingsda", e.g. ragamuffin melodies and late romantic orchestral sound. That is very successful.

Künneke's operetta was topical at the time and not absurd, because in 1921 many women were still waiting in vain for men who had stayed in the war. So it was an operetta about unfulfilled longings and love for the unattainable. Is this where its success lies?

Erlach: I think the success of an operetta is always based on several factors. The theme, the plot, the conciseness of the characters, the music, the performers and also the location of the performance all play a role. In 1921, the political situation in Germany was not yet stable, and the consequences of the First World War were still clearly felt. However, I do not believe that the motif of the missing fiancé is the only cause of this groundbreaking success. It is primarily due to the thematic constellation of unrequited love, which, in the end, becomes a fulfilled one. This theme is timeless and enables identification, even in difficult times. In addition, the play's characters appear very successful in their distinctiveness.
There was also a lucky constellation of producers in the case of "Vetter aus Dingsda". The libretto was written by two authors: on the one hand Hermann Haller, who wrote the plot parts. Haller was the director of the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in Berlin, and thus an experienced theater practitioner. The second librettist, Fritz Oliven, wrote the song lyrics under the pseudonym Rideamus, which means "we want to laugh." Actually, he was a lawyer by profession, but had great success as a revue poet. The Theater am Nollendorfplatz was already specialized in operettas, which provided good conditions for success.

"Der Vetter aus Dingsda" offers everything you could wish for: Swooning romantic moments, heart-stopping emotional tangles, rousing dance rhythms and a good pinch of waltz bliss! How do you convey this music to a social media audience today?

Erlach: The topics discussed here are as much a part of young people's lives today as they were then. Julia de Weert is just coming of age, looking for the right partner, having romantic fantasies and experiencing entanglements and disappointments. Such a theme always appeals to young people. I have made the experience over the years in the field of musical theater pedagogy that it works best when you do something yourself and try it out. In other words, putting yourself in the roles of the play, linking the events portrayed with your own experiences, and then staging that in front of others. Such small stage exercises, also with the addition of music, are fun, and you quickly get into the play. I experience a great openness to the subject of operettas among our students. I have offered operetta seminars several times, including an operetta project. That was always received enthusiastically. I think it is the mixture of humor and beautiful music that is attractive. However, I think that such a piece only works in analog and not in digital form, because it is designed for a small stage and lives from physical movement as well as from the closeness and distance of the protagonists.

Uwe Blass (Interview on February 18, 2021)


Prof. Dr. Thomas Erlach has been University Professor for Didactics of Music at the University of Wuppertal since 2014.


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