A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Parody and Psychoanalysis

Learning to love operetta at the Stadttheater Baden, where art mocks life, life mocks art, and anyone can be the butt of the joke

Baden’s theatre, by the architects of Vienna’s Volkstheater and Konzerthaus | Photo: Stadttheater Baden

Follow the tracks of Konstanze Mozart’s carriage to Baden-bei-Wien – long the home-away-from-home for countless Viennese hypochondriacs like her – and you’ll discover quite possibly the most beautiful small theatre in Central Europe. It’s one of 48 that the architect-duo Hellmer and Fellner erected from 1871 to 1913, after Vienna’s Volkstheater, but before its Konzerthaus. And Konstanze might well have appreciated the lighter muse, to which Stadttheater Baden has always been loyal: operetta, which you, gentle reader, probably consider more old-fashioned and outlandish than Renaissance madrigals or Feydeau farces.

It took a great movie critic, Pauline Kael, to pinpoint the most salient quality of operetta, its saving grace: self-parody. In a sense, this is perfectly expressed by the posters for the Stadttheater Baden that refer to this docile little city as an Operettenmetropole. Operetta got started with tongue-in-cheek Offenbach, the favourite of grouch-o newspaperman Karl Kraus, whose campy, cracked rendition of Metella’s song from La Vie Parisienne is preserved on 78s. Its brief golden age is epitomized by Johann Strauß’ Die Fledermaus, which may seem to you a mellow New Year’s Eve intoxicant, but was the only piece one born-again baritone told me he considered too immoral to sing.

When Archduke Rainer inaugurated H and F’s theatre in 1909, operetta was already into its so-called “silver age” with composers like Imre Kálmán and Franz Lehar, whose yummy musical idiom infuriated Karl Kraus and Richard Strauß. But with their lush, self-indulgent harmonies teach us every bit as well as a psychoanalyst how to live out our libido within the strictures of social convention. (Kraus also despised psychoanalysis: “the disease of which it purports to be the cure”.) In a post-silver age, Kurt Weill even wrote a musical, Lady in the Dark, where the heroine spends much of the evening on the analyst’s couch. Let’s face it: In Freudian theory and in operetta, we are all stock characters.

The enormous difference between psychoanalytic theory and operetta, though, is that through music, operetta shows us that our stock characters can be secret springboards to freedom. This is where self-parody comes in. Self-parody is a kind of self-examination – literally self-control – through exaggeration, and this contradiction not only makes it funny, but can set the performer soaring. The Count’s canopied seduction bed in Baden’s Eine Nacht in Venedig (Johann Strauß) is built so high off the ground that his suave tenor’s legs are left dangling, just after he’s sung his most ardent duet.

In order to examine and to exaggerate, the self-parodist requires tics, habits, stock characters, waltz rhythms. Julia Koci delivers her “tipsy song” with flailing arms that almost stretch into revolutionary salutes, and shocked giggles that almost become orgasmic shrieks. Inspired operetta performers don’t just inhabit a cliché, they compare themselves to it. A buffo can do this, but a diva can too – and maybe, if you watch enough operettas, you can.

Three ladies in the operetta Eine Nacht in Venedig at Stadttheater Baden | Photo: Christian Husar

Here, the performer is not merely doing his material justice, but through self-parody, going farther. And yet that little tickle of self-deprecation means he is just as humble as any performance-practise fanatic. Song and dance means discipline, and you have to sweat for your happy end, as the Russian-heir-to-the-throne-disguised-as-a-gas-station-attendant-in-Chicago finds out in the almost surreal Der Orlow (composer: Bruno Granichstaedten), last sighted 2010 in Baden.

With its extravagant neo-Rococo curves, its bridge-of-sighs intermission foyer over the side alley, its sunburst moldings around the chandelier, H and F’s theater is architectural self-parody. The little slope of curved parquet floor up next to the top standing room, as subtly beveled as an eagle’s wing, has an extraordinary fineness that can only come from this extra parodistic dimension; Schönbrunn palace, built when Baroque architecture had the only tits in town, is an unimaginative saltbox by comparison. In this theatre, the cloth wallpaper is still padded – stuffed walls for Baden’s stuffed shirts.

In Baden, soloists are often state-of-the-art excellent, and conductors Oliver Ostermann and Lászlo Gyükér have considerable flair. One full-fledged opera is presented a year, several straight plays from St. Pölten, and this year, a sophisticated children’s opera by Hans Werner Henze. The lighting, as often on smallish stages, is suitably garish for scenery that sometimes looks like it is longing for a good night’s sleep in the warehouse. The visuals offer us what the singers don’t quite achieve: faded tradition redeemed by scrutiny.

Operetta should not be an aggressive undertaking, but it has too much competition these days from loud-speaking musicals and single-entendre pornography. Other art forms sing, but operetta knows how to hum, too.

There was a time when double-entendre was the 3-D cinema of entertainment, when deferred revelation was hotter than instant gratification. Music like Lehár’s gives you both, anyway; don’t singers realize how freeing it is not being allowed to spell everything out?

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