It is late in the second act of a performance of THE SOUND OF MUSIC the climactic Salzburg Festival sequence. A giant banner, bearing a swastika, glowers from above. Storm troopers stand guard in the auditorium. Nazi officials sit in a box overlooking the stage. Maria and the children cluster near the wings, scared yet expectant. Captain von Trapp stands alone in a spotlight. He picks up his guitar, looks out at a darkened hall filled with his fellow Austrians, and begins to sing:
Edelweiss, edelweiss/Du blhst hoch und verborgen/Find ich dich, freu ich mich/Und vergess meine Sorgen...
In February of 2005, the venerable, century-old Vienna Volksoper premiered the first fully-mounted production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC ever staged in Austria, the country where its story began. R&H President Ted Chapin lead a delegation to the opening for what he later described as an unforgettable, extraordinary experience.
When THE SOUND OF MUSIC was first announced for the Volksoper Viennas peoples opera, with a repertory ranging from grand opera to middle European operetta local critics were indignant and foreign reporters were skeptical. But this is the peoples opera, and the people had the final say: THE SOUND OF MUSIC, performed entirely in German, has emerged as the opera companys biggest hit in its 2005 repertory, and as one its most successful productions in recent seasons. The original run quickly sold out, extra performances were added (and sold out, too), a cast album was recorded and released, and the work has already been returned to the repertory for next season.
All of this is sweet vindication for Rudolf Berger, the Volksopers newly-appointed artistic director. Berger took a risk simply by presenting THE SOUND OF MUSIC; after all, as he acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times: There is a prejudice [in Austria] against the piece.
That prejudice stems from a long and complicated relationship between the musical a work of stage and film, based on historical fact and the country where its story unfolds. While the rest of the world knows, loves and embraces THE SOUND OF MUSIC, it is all but invisible in Austria. There, the true-life saga of the von Trapp family who fled Salzburg after the Anschluss and Nazification of their country in 1938, is intertwined with the nations still-roiling response to its role in WWII.
When we deal with our past, there are always two groups in Austria, Helga Rabl-Stadler, the President of the current Salzburg Festival, told the New York Times. One group ignores it, doesnt want to know, and the other group wants to talk about it. According to the Times of London, because of the issues that lurk beneath the musical...[this production] barges into a very quiet debate about Austrias role in the Second World War.
Compounding Austrian reaction to the works subject matter is a realization that THE SOUND OF MUSIC especially its 1965 movie version, filmed on location in Salzburg has come to define that nations culture to the rest of the world. Of course, that was never the authors intentions; one can safely assume that Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse would be as surprised as anyone to learn that, today, Edelweiss is widely perceived to be an authentic Austrian folk song, and that schnitzel with noodle is tagged as the national dish. (The former causes endless confusion in and out of Austria; as for the latter, Austrians will tell you sternly that schnitzel is never eaten with noodles.)
For years, Austrians only encountered THE SOUND OF MUSIC when they ran into visitors who assumed them to be proxy von Trapps, or when they went abroad themselves. Wilfried Haslauer, a Vice Governor for the State of Salzburg and a native of that region, told Ted Chapin recently that he had not seen the film until he studied outside Austria in his college years. Franz Vranitzky was Chancellor of Austria from 1986 to 1997; he attended the Volksoper premiere of THE SOUND OF MUSIC and confessed to the Associated Press: I worked in America in the 1960s and was asked constantly about Edelweiss, and The Sound of Music, and had no clue what it was about. [Tonight], Ive made up for it.
Like the former Chancellor, many Austrians seem to be making up for lost time with their belated enthusiasm for THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Local pride may have something to do with it after all, here was their prestigious and homegrown Volksoper, bestowing its considerable talent, resources and reputation on the musical. Nothing was stinted the orchestra, lead by American maestro Erich Kunzel, boasted 52 players; the Nuns Choir was truly angelic, and nearly all the leading roles were played by Austrians.
Presenting the whole piece in German was another risk that paid off; in Vienna, when foreign works are performed in the operetta or musical repertory, it is customary to present the dialogue in German, and the lyrics in their original language. Here, by converting the entire libretto to German (with English surtitles, to lure the tourist crowd), the Volksoper was extending a clear invitation to the hometown crowd. (The fact that the translation, according to Variety, was remarkably faithful, didnt hurt either. Even the offending schnitzel with noodle became Gulasch mit Nockerln goulash stew with a local Salzburger meringue.)
But Ted Chapin has another theory about Austrias welcoming of this SOUND OF MUSIC: The Volksoper was confident enough to trust the original text, resulting in a bold and confident production that surprised those only familiar with the film, he notes. Taking nothing from the cinematic triumph of the movie version, the original stage musical has a more dramatic edge to it.
The 1959 stage libretto by Lindsay and Crouse is far more political than the screenplay, especially in the characters of Elsa and Max, and their trio with the Captain, No Way To Stop It (not used in the film). As depicted in the stage script, Elsa and Max are utterly charming and likable even though, we discover, both are willing to cooperate with the Nazis and accept the Anschluss. Reporting on the Volksoper production, Richard Bernstein of the New York Times contrasted Austrias own often difficult, hesitant and ambiguous reckoning with its past, with his observation that the authors of the stage musical had no such difficulty. The musical makes clear a certain vision of Austria. It is a country where, even as Captain von Trapp bravely refuses to collaborate, most of his friends willingly or at least resignedly, do so, capitulating to the Nazis out of cowardice, or social snobbery, or economic interest.
For Austrians whose only passing knowledge of THE SOUND OF MUSIC was through the film You always hear that its such a kitsch image of Austria, says Rudolf Berger the stage musical struck a powerful chord. Thats the way it was, one theatregoer told the Associated Press, adding, I think its a very good piece for children and teenagers who did not live through that era. Echoed the Salzburg Festivals Helga Rabl-Stadler, It is one way to tell young people, The time was like this.
Staging THE SOUND OF MUSIC for the Volksoper was French opera director Renaud Doucet. To prepare for this his first musical directorial assignment Doucet acknowledged local sensibilities, scrutinized the script, and came to his own conclusions. THE SOUND OF MUSIC is so often seen as kitsch, he told Variety. But it reminds us that freedom is something we have to fight for every day. There is no kitsch in that.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC continues in repertory at the Vienna Volksoper; visit www.volksoper.at for updated performance schedules, as well as streamed video and audio highlights.