The Merry Nibelung debuts in Philly

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday June 13, 2010


Daniel Pantano, artistic director Concert Operetta Theater, has been working a year on bringing The Merry Nibelung to the stage. It is the first full English adaptation of Oscar Straus' 1904 farce Die Lustigen Nibelungen, itself based on the some of the same German mythology -- the Nibelungenlied -- that Wagner used in his Ring cycle.

Pantano worked with Stephan Stoeckl and Michael Ashby on an English translation. Stoeckl is Viennese who, while fluent in German, still had difficulties translating some of the period colloquialisms, which led him to ask older relatives to decode some of the language.

"Even when it was done originally, it was an underground operetta. It's tricky because it's funny, even burlesque, but some of it is pretty relevant. For instance Siegfried asks The mythical Bird 'what is going to happen tomorrow in precious gems' and she says 'Siegfried you know I can't tell you that. It would be insider trading," Pantano said.

When the operetta had its Berlin premiere in 1911, it attracted the attention of the New York Times, which reported: "The Merry Nibelung," called by its composer, Oscar Straus, of "Waltz Dream" and "Chocolate Soldier" fame, a "burlesque operetta," was produced for the first time at the Theatre des Westens last night. It proved to be a rollicking parody of Wagner's Nibelungen Ring, with broad take-offs of Siegfried, Brunnhilde, Hagen, Gunther, and other characters of the masterpiece. The book, by an Austrian whose name appeared as "Rideamus," was bright and amusing in spots, but critics failed to find that Straus had succeeded in reaching the heights attained by Offenbach in his attempt to create burlesque musical effects. Nevertheless the audience liked the fun and the pieced scored an enthusiastic external success."

Despite its initial success, it fell into obscurity partly, as Pantano notes, due to its "checkered past." It has even been connected (unfairly) to anti-Semitism, probably because it is thematically associated to Wagner's music. Its librettist, lawyer Fritz Olives (who was Jewish) took his name off it, using the moniker Rideamus instead.

"Some have tried to draw a co-relation with this being rarely performed and anti-Semitism. There were waves of anti-Semitism in Europe of course. Straus was also Jewish and from a banking family. Though a success at its 1906 premiere, some Germans thought this was a degradation of their mythology.

Straus' source is the German myths, not Wagner's reinterpretation of them. Of course, they share some of the same characters, Brunhilde, Siegfried and Hagen and others," Pantano notes.

Despite the challenges of translating German rhyming couplets, Nibelungen has many musical riches, even some "false" Wagnerian motifs and gives the singers broad comedic moments.

While rarely performed, the operetta is suddenly in fashion. "Actually, the original version is the hot ticket in Vienna right now. An opera house there did a six-week run of it. There has only been a couple of other recent productions in Europe," Pantano said.

"The singers find it hysterical. We're trying to present it authentically, even though there are no sets and costumes, it's all about the music and I can call this a full-throated cast," the director said.

In the cast are singers from the Academy of Vocal Arts and AVA alums. Leading the cast is tenor Ashby as Siegfried and mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook, whom Pantano calls the Marilyn of Brunhildes. Jose Melendez is the musical director and pianist. The production will be performed in Merkin Hall in New York in the fall.

The Merry Nibelung plays June 12 and 13, 2010, 4pm at the Warden Theater at

The Academy of Vocal Arts Theater 1920 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. Doors open at 3:15 pm

$25 general admission / $20 Seniors / $10 students. Pay at the door - cash and checks only. For more information visit the Concert Operetta website.

The opera will be performed again on October 24, 2010, 3pm, at Merkin Hall in New York City, NY.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.