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Theatre / The Merry Widow

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The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) is an operetta with music by Franz Lehár, first performed in Vienna in 1905.

The setting is Paris. Hanna Glawari, a young widow from the small Balkan state of Pontevedro, is being courted by many men for her beauty and the 20 million francs she inherited from her late husband. The Pontevedrian Ambassador, Baron Zeta, would prefer her to marry another Pontevedrian, because the departure of the 20 million francs would be disastrous to the tiny Pontevedrian economy. His chosen candidate is Count Danilo Danilovitsch, but there's a catch: Danilo and Hanna had a romance when they were young, which was broken off because Danilo's family disapproved of her then-poverty, and now Hanna refuses to marry Danilo until she's sure he's not just interested in her money, while Danilo refuses to marry Hanna at all (because he fears that, whatever happens, it will be generally assumed that he is just interested in her money).

In a subplot, a French nobleman attempts to seduce Baron Zeta's wife, with complications that get entangled with the main plot but eventually help provide part of a solution to Hanna's dilemma.

The costumes for the first London production, in 1907, created a fashion trend, the "Merry Widow hat", whose wide brimmed hats lasted until the wake of World War I. The operetta inspired several films including an extremely loose 1925 romantic drama directed by Erich von Stroheim and a still quite loose 1934 musical comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The Metropolitan Opera in New York premiered a new production of this for New Years' Eve in the 2014-15 season. A recording of this can be seen on the Met OnDemand streaming service.

This work provides examples of:

  • Chorus Girls: The last act includes a sextette of chorus girls from the nightclub Maxim's.
  • Exact Words: Once she's sure Danilo still loves her, Hanna deals with his objection by publicly announcing that, under the terms of the inheritance, she will lose all her money if she re-marries. Most of her suitors melt away, but Danilo immediately proposes. Once the engagement is locked down, Hanna clarifies that the reason she will lose her money on re-marrying is that it will then become the property of her husband.
  • Gay Paree: The setting of the opera, complete with references to popular nightspots like Maxim's.
  • Green-Eyed Epiphany: Despite Danilo's determination not to marry Hanna, his reaction when she announces her engagement to Count de Rosillon makes it clear that he still loves her.
  • Marry for Love: Hanna refuses to consider marrying Danilo until she's sure he still loves her for herself.
  • Micro Monarchy: Pontevedro.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Pontevedro is inspired by the real-life small Balkan state of Montenegro, at least to the extent of the Pontevedrians' names being recognisably Montenegrin.
  • Odd Name Out: The chorus girls are named Lolo, Dodo, Jou-Jou, Frou-Frou, Clo-Clo and Margot.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Danilo and Hanna were in love, but his uncle put an end to it because Hanna had no money.
  • Ruritania: Pontevedro, a small independent Balkan state ruled by a Grand Duke.

Specific productions provide examples of:

  • Accidental Public Confession: In the 2014 Met Opera production, one of the running jokes with Baron Zeta's assistant Njegus is this mixed with Did I Just Say That Out Loud?. Particularly involving the fact that the Baron's wife is having an affair.
  • Dub Name Change: The first English-language production, in London in 1907, changed most of the names, at least partly to weaken the Montenegrin connection (the original Vienna production had received complaints from the Montenegrin royal family). Among other changes, Pontevedro became Marsovia, Hanna became Sonia, and the ambassador became Baron Popoff.
  • I'll Kill You!: In the 2014 Met Opera production, when two Frenchmen are fighting over who will marry Hanna. "If you do, I'll kill you!" "If you do, I'll kill you back! Engarde!" They proceed to, well... try to fight.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: In the 2014 Met Opera production, when Baron Zeta sends his assistant Njegus to find Danilo at the nightclub Chez Maxim and bring him to Hanna's party.
    Baron Zeta: Did you tell him the Fatherland demands it?
    Njegus: He said the Fatherland was starting to get on his nerves... again, I'm paraphrasing.
  • Stylish Sunhats: The 1907 production has the lead actress Lily Elsie donning a giant brimmed hat topped with ostrich feathers. The "Merry Widow hat" caught on with the Edwardian audience so much that it became an accessory for the rest of the Edwardian era until the dawn of World War I.