The Circus Princess, Operetta by E. Kálmán
What should you do when things don’t go right for you? The answer for some is to run away and join the circus and that is precisely what happens in Emmerich Kálmán’s wonderful operetta, The Circus Princess.
The work’s hero, a Russian grand duke called Fedja Palinski, distraught that the woman he loves is to marry his uncle, has transformed himself into the mysterious Mr X. The crowds marvel at his exploits in the big top at the Circus Stanislawski in St Petersburg, but it’s all just a pretence to mask his sorrow. When a young and beautiful woman, Fedora, arrives for a show and spurns the advances of a certain Prince Sergius, the nobleman decides to take revenge by acting as matchmaker for her and Mr X. However his plan to shame Fedora backfires when Palinski recognises her as his uncle’s widow and reveals his true identity.
First performed on 26 March 1926 at the Theater an der Wien, and now enjoying a return to Vienna at the Volksoper Wien, The Circus Princess was a huge and immediate success. This was the era of Viennese operetta’s last hurrah and Kálmán was its great champion. Such was The Circus Princess’ popularity that one contemporary review reported, within two days of the premiere, that no less than forty different impresarios in Europe had contracted Kálmán to transfer the operetta to their theatres.
Audiences adored Kálmán’s ability to combine spectacle with instantly hummable melodies. Indeed The Circus Princess has all the ingredients of the extravaganzas that became a mainstay of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Kálmán was immensely talented at synthesising his influences - the dances of his Hungarian homeland, the waltz music of Vienna, and the emerging idiom of jazz - into a whole that captivated lovers of musical theatre.
That he should have created such joyful works for the stage, which would invariably see his central characters overcome the obstacles put in their way to fall in love with one another, was in stark contrast to the tragedies in his personal life: Kálmán lost a brother during the First World War and two of his sisters at the end of the Second. One of the great loves of his life, Paula Dworczak, his companion for nearly twenty years, died in 1928. His operettas, seen in this light, are a panacea: one that celebrates the power of reconciliation to heal the soul.