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Die lustige Witwe and the Creation of the Silver Age of Viennese Operetta

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 July 2014


Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe (1905) was conceived during a period of instability in both operetta and Viennese life. Considering the music and reception of both Witwe and some of its immediate, now-forgotten predecessors, this article argues that the operetta’s dramatic and musical dualism between urbane, Offenbach-like Paris and folksy, imaginary Pontevedro can be read both as a response to operetta’s conflicting priorities of satire and sentiment and as a depiction of the multi-ethnic world of working-class Vienna. The operetta’s unusual popularity, subsequent influence and exceptionally long performance history have tended to obscure these more immediate concerns.

Research Article
© Cambridge University Press 2014 

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I would like to thank the editors and anonymous reviewers of this journal, Wendy Heller, Ellen Lockhart, Scott Burnham, Barbara Milewski and Jamie Reuland for their advice in developing this article, as well as the staff of the Austrian National Library, Austrian Theatre Museum Archive, Wienbibliothek, and Niederösterreichisches Landesarchiv St Pölten for their assistance.


1 Lehár hinted at the incident in ‘Vom Schreibtisch und aus dem Atelier’, a biographical essay published in Velhagen & Klasings Monathefte (February 1912), but it is not made into the centrepiece of Witwe’s genesis until future Lehár and Bruckner biographer Ernst Decsey told the story in ‘Franz Lehár’, a profile in Komödie: Wochenrevue für Bühne und Film (25 May 1924), 11. It is repeated and expanded upon in Decsey’s 1930 authorised biography, Franz Lehár (Munich, 1930).

2 The origins of the term ‘Silver Age’ are somewhat unclear, but its first prominent usage is Otto Keller’s 1926 operetta history, which describes operetta from 1905 (Die lustige Witwe) to 1918 as ‘Die silberne Operette’, while post-war works are referred to as ‘Tanzoperetten’ (dance operettas, presumably referring to many works’ revue-like character) – notably, Keller was writing before Lehár’s turn towards operatic operetta in the later 1920s. Today, ‘Silver Age’ conventionally refers to all Viennese operetta between Die lustige Witwe and the Second World War; for example, in the histories of Traubner, Richard and Klotz, Volker. Keller, Otto, Die Operette in ihrer Geschichtlichen Entwicklung: Musik, Libretto, Darstellung (Leipzig, 1926)Google Scholar; Traubner, Richard, Operetta: A Theatrical History, rev. edn (New York, 2003)Google Scholar (originally published 1984); Klotz, Volker, Operette: Porträt und Handbuch einer unerhörten Kunst, rev. edn (Kassel, 2004)Google Scholar.

3 The most notable entries in the Die lustige Witwe memorial genre include Karpath, Ludwig, ‘Das Schicksal der “Lustigen Witwe”’, Neues Wiener Journal (26 June 1923)Google Scholar, by a theatre critic present at the dress rehearsal; Steininger, Emil, ‘Vom unbekannten Lehar und dem durgefallenden Leo Fall’, Neues Wiener Journal (16 December 1928)Google Scholar, by the Theater an der Wien’s business manager; an entry by Karczag’s co-director Wallner, Karl, ‘Die Wahrheit über Lehars “Lustige Witwe”’, Neues Wiener Journal (1 January 1931)Google Scholar; the rebuttal to Wallner by librettist Victor Léon, ‘Die wahre Wahrheit über “Die lustige Witwe”’, Neues Wiener Journal (6 January 1931); and actor Louis Treumann’s recollection, ‘Entstehungsgeschichte eines Welterfolges (aus einem Gespräch)’, Neue Freie Presse (30 December 1936). Some notable later accounts of the success that immortalised these accounts include Stein, Fritz, 50 Jahre Die Lustige Witwe (Vienna, 1955)Google Scholar, and Maria von Peteani’s authorised biography, Franz Lehár (Vienna, 1950).

4 The first figure is from Bauer, Anton, 150 Jahre Theater an der Wien (Zurich, 1952)Google Scholar, the second from Otto Keller’s still-authoritative 1926 history. Operetta studies’ fetish for statistics – understandable, considering the very real importance of popular success to composers, librettists and thus the genre’s development – is visible in Keller’s extensive, ranked lists of performance figures up to 1921. Die lustige Witwe is first among operettas composed after 1900; Johann Strauss II’s Fledermaus (1874) tops the table of 1855–1900 premieres with 11,962 performances, but it had thirty more years than Witwe to achieve those numbers. Keller, Die Operette in ihrer Geschichtlichen Entwicklung.

5 Wallner, ‘Die Wahrheit über Lehars “Lustige Witwe”’; Léon, ‘Die wahre Wahrheit über “Die lustige Witwe”’.

6 Traubner, , Operetta, 249Google Scholar.

7 Schorske, Carl E., Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York, 1979)Google Scholar. More recent historians have offered many criticisms of Schorske’s methods and scope. For a summary of more recent writings, see Beller, Steven, ed., Rethinking Vienna 1900 (New York, 2001)Google Scholar, particularly the introductory chapter; and Maderthaner, Wolfgang and Musner, Lutz, Unruly Masses: The Other Side of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, trans. David Fernbach and Michael Huffmaster, International Studies in Social History (New York, 2008)Google Scholar.

8 Salten, Felix, ‘Die neue Operette’, Die Zeit (8 December 1906)Google Scholar.

9 The Germanic sources of operetta librettos are examined by Klotz, Volker, Bürgerliches Lachtheater: Komödie, Posse, Schwank, Operette (Heidelberg, 2007)Google Scholar; the French antecedents are considered by Schmidl, Stefan, ‘À la viennoise: Sardou et l’opérette viennoise’, in Victorien Sardou: Le théâtre et les arts, ed. Isabelle Mondrot (Rennes, 2010), 182193Google Scholar; the place of operetta in the larger theatrical establishment is analysed by Linhardt, Marion, Residenzstadt und Metropole: Zu einer kulturellen Topographie des Wiener Unterhaltungstheaters (1858–1918) (Tübingen, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Léon, Victor, ‘Bittere Operettenwahrheiten’, Komödie: Wochenrevue für Bühne und Film (9 January 1923)Google Scholar.

11 This territory is surveyed by Camille Crittenden in Johann Strauss and Vienna: Operetta and the Politics of Popular Culture (Cambridge, 2000), esp. chs. 6 and 7.

12 Collected in Hanslick, Eduard, Am Ende des Jahrhunderts, 1895–1899 (Allgemeiner Verein für deutsche Literatur, 1899)Google Scholar, 27.

13 This is reinforced by music critic Max Graf in his 1905 feuilleton ‘Von der Wiener Operettenbühnen’, which describes nineteenth-century Vienna as having a strongly regionalised and yet socially mixed culture. After the Gründerzeit, growth and improvements in public transportation made operetta both more homogenous and more suited to a mass market. Graf was, however, quite wrong in predicting that the future star of twentieth-century operetta would be Edmund Eysler. Max Graf, ‘Von den Wiener Operettenbühnen’, Neues Wiener Journal (24 October 1905).

14 While writers often identified Offenbach’s German heritage, his works were considered invariably French. The definitive history of the political turmoil of this era is Boyer, John W., Political Radicalism in Late Imperial Vienna: Origins of the Christian Social Movement, 1848–1897 (Chicago, 1981)Google Scholar.

15 This included the founding of two new theatres with German nationalist agendas, the Deutsches Volkstheater and the Kaiserjubiläums-Stadttheater. See Yates, W.E., Theatre in Vienna: A Critical History, 1776–1995 (Cambridge, 1996), 168177CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Linhardt, Residenzstadt und Metropole.

16 Dr Mutus, ‘Cagliostro in Wien’, Hans Jörgel, 1875, 10; cited in Holzer, Rudolf, Die Wiener Vorstadtbühnen: Alexander Girardi und das Theater an der Wien (Vienna, 1951)Google Scholar, 298.

17 Jacobson wrote the libretto to Oscar Straus’s Ein Walzertraum, among other works. The broad range of critics who covered operetta – ranging from friendly industry insiders to art-music outsiders – can be seen in Marion Linhardt’s two collections of press coverage: Marion Linhardt, ‘“Warum es der Operette so schlecht geht”: Ideologische Debatten um das musikalische Unterhaltungstheater (1880–1916)’, special issue of Maske und Kothurn 45 (2001), 1–2; Linhardt, Marion, ed., Stimmen zur Unterhaltung: Operette und Revue in der publizistischen Debatte (1906–1933) (Vienna, 2009)Google Scholar.

18 Erich Urban, ‘Die Wiedergeburt der Operette’, Die Musik (Berlin) 3 (1903), 176–86; continued in 3 (1904), 269–81.

19 Ferdinand Scherber, ‘Die Operette’, Neue Musik-Zeitung 26 (1904/1905), 45.

20 Ibid., 45–6.

21 Lehár, Franz, ‘Die Zukunft der Operette’, Die Wage (10 January 1903)Google Scholar, 85.

22 Urban, ‘Die Wiedergeburt der Operette’, 269Google Scholar.

23 Eugen Thari, ‘Warum es der Operete so schlecht geht’, Der Kunstwart 18 (1904/1905), 543–8.

24 Antropp, Theodor, ‘Die Wiener Operette’, Die Zeit (11 February 1905)Google Scholar.

25 Dahlhaus, Carl, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley, 1989)Google Scholar, particularly 249 and 314.

26 Thari, ‘Warum es der Operette so schlecht geht’. Recent historians, notably Dahlhaus, have contended that Offenbach’s status as a political subversive (for these critics as well as, later, Karl Kraus and Siegfried Kracauer) was ‘if not sheer myth, at least grossly naïve’, and that Offenbach was comfortable and popular among the Parisian political establishment. Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, 228.

27 Urban, , ‘Die Wiedergeburt der Operette’, 280Google Scholar. The Berlin composers he names – Paul Linke and Victor Holländer – became far better known internationally as song composers than as dramatic composers. Berlin’s real time would come in the 1920s, when the booming Weimar Republic surpassed Vienna and its revue-style operettas came into fashion. The occasional satirical operetta was written throughout the Silver Age, but they were always described as the exception rather than the rule.

28 Silver Age operetta was not without its satirical moments, most memorably in Oscar Straus’s 1904 Wagner parody Die lustigen Nibelungen and Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe self-parody Mitislaw der Moderne, but few of these works enjoyed the lasting success or influence of more serious works. Mitislaw, for example, played in the Theater an der Wien’s Hölle cabaret space rather than its main stage.

29 This landscape is described and perceptively analysed by Linhardt in Residenzstadt und Metropole, 93–128.

30 Built by Emmanuel Schikenader, the theatre hosted the premieres of the first two versions of Fidelio as well as many of the most important Golden Age operettas. The theatre’s history is documented by Eugen Brixel in ‘Die Ära Wilhelm Karczag im Theater an der Wien’, Ph.D. diss., University of Vienna (1966); as well as in Anton Bauer, 150 Jahre Theater an der Wien; Láng, Attila, 200 Jahre Theater an der Wien:‘Spectacles Müssen Seyn’ (Vienna, 2001)Google Scholar; Krzeszowiak, Tadeusz, Theater an der Wien: seine Technik und Geschichte 1801–2001 (Vienna, 2002)Google Scholar; Holzer, Die Wiener Vorstadtbühnen.

31 Due to Karczag’s lack of business experience, the owners of the theatre obliged him to hire a co-director with greater financial acumen. The first co-director was Georg Lang, who was replaced by Karl Wallner in 1902. Both seem to have enjoyed inferior status to Karczag.

32 Karczag discussed this unexpected turn to operetta in a 1917 interview that was reprinted upon his death in 1923. ld. [pseud.], ‘Wie Karczag Operettendirektor wurde: Aus einem Gespräch im Jahre 1917’, Neues Wiener Journal (12 October 1923).

33 Stieber, Hans, ‘Die Wiener Operette’, Wochenschrift für Kunst und Musik 1 (1903)Google Scholar, collected in Linhardt, , Warum es die Operette so schlecht geht, 303305Google Scholar.

34 While in some respects similar to the eighteenth-century form of grotesque dance and the eccentric dance of the 1920s, this style derived from music hall is its own special form. Marion Linhardt examines the style in greater detail in Residenzstadt und Metropole, 184–95.

35 Treumann, Louis, ‘Die Wiener Operette und Ich’, Wiener Theater- und Musik-Magazin. Monatschrift für Theater, Konzert, Musik und Musikliteratur 1 (1928)Google Scholar, 1.

36 Kauders, Albert, ‘Die Wiener Operette’, Bühne und Welt 6 (1904)Google Scholar, 970.

37 Most of the major composers of the Silver Age – not only Lehár, but also Oscar Straus Leo Fall and Emmerich Kálmán – were conservatory trained, unlike their Golden Age predecessors.

38 Frey, Stefan, Was sagt ihr zu diesem Erfolg: Franz Lehár und die Unterhaltungsmusik des 20. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt, 1999), 6869Google Scholar.

39 Girardi’s career is the major subject of Holzer, Rudolf, Die Wiener Vorstadtbühnen: Alexander Girardi und das Theater an der Wien (Vienna, 1951)Google Scholar.

40 A cartoon in Der Floh compared the union of librettist Julius Bauer with Lehár to other unlikely marriages such an African man and a long-haired Germania (Der Floh (18 December 1904), 8.) The operetta did not open until 22 December. If this had been the general tenor of the preshow discussion it may have never stood a chance.

41 See Deutsches Bühnen-Jahrbuch (Berlin, 1904 and 1905), vols. 15 and 16.

42 A detailed account of Der Rebell is found in Frey, Stefan, Christine Stemprok and Wolfgang Dosch, Leo Fall: Spöttischer Rebell der Operette (Vienna, 2009), 4552Google Scholar.

43 Meilhac, Henri, L’attaché d’ambassade comédie en trois actes, en prose (Paris, 1861)Google Scholar. The leading role was particularly associated with Franz-Joseph’s actress mistress, Katharina Schratt, see ‘Rollen der Frau Katharina Schratt am k.k. Hof-Burgtheater’ (unknown, 1900), Österreichisches Theatermuseum, 623357-A.

44 Frey, Stefan, Was sagt ihr zu diesem Erfolg, 7071Google Scholar.

45 bs [Leopold Jacobson], ‘Theater an der Wien’, Neues Wiener Journal (31 December 1905); st. [Julius Stern], ‘Theater an der Wien’, Fremden-Blatt (31 December 1905).

46 Victor Léon and Leo Stein, Die lustige Witwe, NÖ Reg. Präs Theater TB K 338/27 (libretto) and ZA 433/2 (censor’s act), Landesarchiv Niederösterreich, St Pölten. It was also published, though available only by rental from the publisher: Lehár, Franz, Victor Léon and Leo Stein, Die Lustige Witwe:Vollständiges Soufflierbuch Mit Sämtlichen Regiebemerkungen (Vienna, 1906)Google Scholar.

47 Roberts, Elizabeth, Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro (London, 2007), 258259Google Scholar. Other operettas with Balkan settings are discussed in Glanz, Christian, ‘Das Bild Südosteuropas in der Wiener Operette’, Ph.D. diss., Universität Graz (1988)Google Scholar.

48 Sch-r. [pseud.], ‘Theater an der Wien [Die Lustige Witwe]’, Deutsches Volksblatt (31 December 1905).

49 st. [Julius Stern], ‘Theater an der Wien’.

50 D.B. [David Josef Bach], ‘Theateran der Wien’, Arbeiter-Zeitung (31 December 1905).

51 A more detailed comparison of the libretto with the source material can be found in Marten, Christian, Die Operette als Spiegel der Gesellschaft: Franz Lehárs ‘Die lustige Witwe’: Versuch einer sozialen Theorie der Operette (Frankfurt, 1988), 8890Google Scholar. On the relationship between French theatre and Viennese operetta more generally, see Stefan Schmidl, ‘À la viennoise: Sardou et l’opérette viennoise’.

52 The source is Alfred Delacour and Alfred Hennequin’s 1884 play Les dominos roses, known in German as Die Rosa-Dominos.

53 The latter charge is somewhat puzzling; Heuberger’s sole great success was renowned for its eroticism. But Heuberger was not a consistent composer, never producing another operetta whose popularity would approach that of Der Opernball. Treumann, ‘Entstehungsgeschichte Eines Welterfolges (aus einem Gespräch)’.

54 One suspects that, like Hanslick, he harboured some personal affection for the genre. Dahlhaus, Carl, ‘Zur musikalischen Dramaturgie der Lustigen Witwe’, Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 12 (1985), 657664Google Scholar.

55 The setting of Paris, Moritz Csáky has argued, became ‘a topos for erotic freedom’ and ‘a metaphor for the only recently openly articulated longings of the new generation’. Aptly enough, he associates this in particular with Richard Heuberger’s Der Opernball. Csáky, Moritz, Ideologie der Operette und Wiener Moderne: ein Kulturhistorischer Essay zur österreichischen Identität (Vienna, 1996), 129Google Scholar.

56 ‘dem patriotisch wir uns weihn’.

57 Dahlhaus, , ‘Zur musikalischen Dramaturgie’, 658Google Scholar.

58 The kolo, a folk dance that over the course of the nineteenth century was domesticated into a ball dance for the aristocracy (in a manner similar to that of the mazurka) is an apt choice. See Ruyter, Nancy Lee Chalfa, ‘Dvoransko Kolo: From the 1840s to the Twentieth Century’, in Balkan Dance: Essays on Characteristics, Performance and Teaching, ed. Anthony Shay (Jefferson, NC and London, 2008), 239249Google Scholar.

59 Lehár described himself as a ‘Tornisterkind’, backpack child, referring to the many places he lived while growing up as a military child. Franz Lehár, ‘Mein Werdegang’, Die Zeit (13 October 1907).

60 Salten, Felix, Felix Salten – Wurstelprater: Ein Schlüsseltext zur Wiener Moderne, ed. Siegfried Mattl, Karl Müller-Richter and Werner Michael Schwarz (Vienna, 2004), 76Google Scholar.

61 ‘Hab’ ich in Paris mich noch nicht ganz acclimatisiert’.

62 ‘Gar oft hab’ ich gehört, wir Witwe ach, wir sind begehrt!’

63 Letter in the private collection of Thomas Schulz, Vienna. Included in full in Linhardt, , Residenzstadt und Metropole, 199200Google Scholar.

64 A comparison to ‘Chin-Chin-Chinaman’, Treumann’s big hit in Sidney Jones’s The Geisha, is suggestive, in both musical character and text. Treumann’s numbers in San Toy, Die lustige Witwe and also his entrance song in Der Rastelbinder, ‘A jeder Mensch, was handeln tut’, all deal with characters who dislike their work or feel that their business is going badly. As Bogumil Graf Karinsky in Vergelt’sgott!, Treumann’s character was too aristocratic to be customarily employed, but his entrance song nonetheless proclaimed that he is out of money and wants to shoot himself.

65 Felix Salten chose Treumann as his primary example in his essay of this title. Salten, ‘Die neue Operette’.

66 This strophe would later be copied as ‘Er geht links, sie geht rechts’ in Lehár’s Der Graf von Luxemburg, which also takes place in Paris.

67 Dahlhaus notes instead a resemblance to Carl Friedrich Zelter’s setting of ‘Der König von Thule’. Dahlhaus, , ‘Zur musikalischen Dramaturgie’, 662Google Scholar.

68 For an example contemporaneous to Witwe, see No. 222 in Linder, August, ed., Deutsche Weisen: Die beliebtesten Volks- und geistlichen Lieder für Klavier (mit Text) (Stuttgart, 1900), 181Google Scholar. Another reading can be found in Erk, Ludwig, ed., Deutscher Liederhort (Berlin, 1856), 6566Google Scholar.

69 ‘Im Traume ich nicht daran denke, – das sagte der Prinz und nicht ich! Und weiter sagte der Prinz noch.’

70 ‘Da nimm ihn, der sie Dir vergönnt!’

71 Dahlhaus calls the Pontevedran ‘ahs’ (he does not consider the Parisian ‘zipps’) ‘tönende Schweigen’, ‘sounded silence’, a quintessentially Wagnerian device (though, he hastens to note, the Witwe never reaches Wagnerian levels of pathos). Dahlhaus, , ‘Zur musikalischen Dramaturgie’, 663Google Scholar.

72 Anonymous, ‘Theater an der Wien’, Neue Freie Presse (Vienna, 31 December 1905).

73 Bernauer, Rudolf, Das Theater meines Lebens: Erinnerungen (Berlin, 1955), 215Google Scholar.

74 Ibid., 215–16. Fall, Bernauer and Welisch had progressed far enough in their revisions to submit a revised versions of their work to the police censor in January, and the mostly revised score is contained in the Austrian National Library’s Musiksammlung. Rudolf Bernauer and Ernst Welisch, Der Rebell. NÖ Reg. Präs Theater TB 214, 255 (first version), TB 1906/16 (revised version); Leo Fall, Rudolf Bernauer and Ernst Welisch, Der Rebell, Score draft, revised version. F88 Leo Fall 1–2, Österreichisches Nationalbibliothek, Musiksammlung.

75 Critics routinely attended general rehearsals, though the only writer known to have attended that of Die lustige Witwe was the influential Ludwig Karpath of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt. Léon, ‘Die wahre Wahrheit über “Die lustige Witwe”’; Frey, Was sagt Ihr zu diesem Erfolg, 76.

76 ‘-rp’ [Karpath, Ludwig], ‘Theater an der Wien’, Neues Wiener Tagblatt (Vienna, 31 December 1905).

77 Wallner estimated the number of free tickets – given out to ‘paper’ the house and create the appearance of a full audience and a scarcity of tickets – as representing 40 per cent of seats, a dangerously high number. Operetta theatres often gave away many tickets early in a show’s run. The beneficiaries were generally employees of the theatre and their families and friends. Hugo Poller, ‘Die ökonomische Bewirtschaftung eines Operettentheatres’, Ph.D. diss., Würzburg (1920), 12, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (MS 20/1052).

78 A comprehensive account of Die lustige Witwe’s international reception is found in Frey, Was sagt Ihr zu diesem Erfolg, 78–103.

79 Theodor Adorno, ‘Lustige Witwe’, in Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. 19: Frankfurter Opern- und Konzerkritiken, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt am Main, 1997), 249.

80 Lehár expands upon this topic in ‘Die Zukunft der Operette’.

81 Kraus, Karl, ‘Grimassen über Kultur und Bühne’, Die Fackel 10 (1909), 118Google Scholar; Kraus, Karl, ‘Girardi’, Die Fackel 9 (1908), 3844Google Scholar.

82 A good example of this narrative in action is Lichtfuss, Martin, Operette im Ausverkauf: Studien zum Libretto des Musikalischen Unterhaltungstheaters im Österreich der Zwischenkriegszeit (Vienna, 1989)Google Scholar, as well as Stegemann, Thorsten, Wenn Man das Leben durchs Champagnerglas Betrachtet: Textbüucher der Wiener Operette zwischen Provokation und Reaktion (Frankfurt am Main, 1995)Google Scholar.

83 Salten, ‘Die neue Operette’.

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