OPERA: The Merry Widow has legs

Edmonton Opera GigCity The Merry WidowA good measure of any opera is to subject it to the grueling “Bugs Bunny Test.”

The Merry Widow, which opens Edmonton Opera’s season at the Jubilee Auditorium on Saturday, Oct. 24, might not have an entire Looney Toon devoted to it like Figaro or The Ring Cycle, but there is a rich widow (Granny) wooed by greedy suitors (Bugs and Yosemite Sam) in the 1953 episode Hare Trimmed.

That was just a year after the successful The Merry Widow feature film came out, starring Lana Turner – one of seven movie adaptations of the Franz Lehar operetta (based on an earlier play), plus one TV series, a ballet and countless revivals all around the world. The success of the 1907 Broadway run was also said to spawn a brief fashion fad that included Merry Widow corsets and cigarettes – long before movie marketing – and a hit song with The Victor Orchestra’s The Merry Widow Waltz on the Victor label (available on 78 and cylinder).

Will that do for populist credibility?

Hanna and her suitors

Hanna and her suitors

Content might not be suitable for a children’s cartoon, however, even a racy Looney Toon from the 1950s. For The Merry Widow is a comedy that involves a lot of “adult themes.” It’s all totally implied, but there’s a lot of sex going on behind that curtain – and love, of course.

“They’re making me sleep around the most,” says mezzo-soprano Barbara King, who plays Olga, a minor if promiscuous character in a story with more love triangles than an average episode of TMZ. “I’m the more flirtatious one, but there are three women, and myself and Sylviane are both sleeping with French aristocrats.”

In an early 20th Century background of gold diggers both male and female in the fictional Grand Duchy of Pontevedro, the tale revolves around Hanna, a recent widow who has just inherited 20 million Francs. The Baron wants to keep the money inside the impoverished Duchy, and arranges for her to meet and hopefully marry the handsome Count Danilovitsch, not knowing that the two are already secretly in love though they seem to have some communication issues. Meanwhile, a French count is hitting on the Baron’s wife, unbeknownst to the Baron, already a jealous sort and we’re already losing count of counts. An incriminating fan with the words “I love you” written on it makes its way into the hands of Olga, also implicating the Baron’s wife, who to thwart her own temptations plays matchmaker between Hanna and the foreign count – counter to the intentions of her husband, who also eventually wants to marry Hanna. Romantic sparks fly at a ball during a Ladies Choice dance.

King, a former competitive gymnast who turned to opera singing later in life, even gets to play one of the dancers – the can-can-like Grisettes (top photo, third from left) – in addition to the role of Olga.

The story might be hard to follow – even doing the English version of the work originally in German – but King says, “Put it into a modern age world, and I think most people can relate to the whole story. The widow has 20 million in her pocket and everyone is trying marry her because they all want the money. Everyone can relate to that in today’s society. Because a lot of people would do that.”

The next movie version of The Merry Widow should star the Kardashians.