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Being Composer Emmerich Kálmán Means Never Saying You’re Sári.

By Benjamin Ivry

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The Hungarian Jewish composer of light music, Kálmán Imre (1882 –1953), better known by the Germanized version of his name, Emmerich Kálmán, continues to enjoy cult status in East and Central Europe. American audiences, though, might need reminding about Kálmán’s past glories like the Broadway hit “Sári” from 1914, which will be presented in concert version by Philadelphia’s Concert Operetta Theater at New York’s Merkin Hall on October 18.

Also staged as “Der Zigeunerprimas” (The Gypsy Band Leader; which you can listen to here ), Sári offers up a typically fluffy story of an aging gypsy violinist caught in a generational struggle with his son, who prefers Bach, Handel, and Wagner to folkloric tunes. The less-than-gripping plot is bolstered by Kálmán’s soulfully sweet melodies, which make up in sincerity what they lack in Lehár-like sardonic verve.

A long line of distinguished Jewish singers specialized in Kálmán roles, perhaps because the ardent cantorial tradition, as exemplified by the Hungarian Jewish tenor and former cantor Róbert Ilosfalvy (who passed away this year, but who you can listen to here ) so perfectly suited Kálmán’s music. Likewise, the Austrian-born Jewish tenor Richard Tauber was a friend as well as a stellar interpreter (check him out here ) of Kálmán, as was the once wildly popular Russian-born Jewish tenor Leo Monosson (again on YouTube, here ).

Hungarian Jewish sopranos like the lovely Gitta Alpár (listen to here ) and Budapest-born Marta Eggerth (enjoy here ) also personify this long-lost meltingly charming approach to music. Ms. Eggerth, now 97, embodies the healthy, eupeptic message of Kálmán’s music, and is scheduled to lead a voice master class on February 17, 2010 at the Manhattan School of Music. Kálmán himself, in a Central Europe which grew increasingly unfriendly to Jews, managed to preserve as long as possible an upbeat spirit, creating still-cherished numbers which possess some of the permanent zest of music hall classics.

Watch an excerpt from a previous Philadelphia’s Concert Operetta Theater performance of Kálmán’s Sári, below:


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