Grand operetta

The word "operetta" might suggest a smaller-scale version of the lavish production values and full-out singing commonly associated with grand opera. But Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" with its lush music, larger-than-life characters and splashy choreography isn't your run-of-the-mill operetta.

In fact, for Wichita Grand Opera, which is in the middle of celebrating its 10th anniversary season, "The Merry Widow" is the perfect vehicle to pull out all the stops. And what better idea than to program a romantic comedy for Valentine's Day weekend?

"We purposefully chose something that's upbeat but also complicated when you do it right," says Parvan Bakardiev, president and CEO of Wichita Grand Opera. "The idea was to attract people who would usually go to see comedy or musical theater or a ballet, and ("The Merry Widow") has all those elements. ... It's opera for everybody."

Bakardiev says that "The Merry Widow" will be the most elaborate production in the history of the company — even bigger than its recent stagings of "Aida" and "Carmen." Three area construction companies have been busy creating its three sets. And for its cast of about 100, including dancers and chorus, there are about 150 costume changes, five for the title role alone.

Abundance would seem to be the only fair response to an operetta that after its 1905 world premiere in Vienna became a runaway international success and moneymaker — the "Wicked" or "Phantom of the Opera" of its day. Still resonating with audiences more than a century later is its premise of first love getting a second chance.

A modern infusion

The story for "The Merry Widow" takes place in Paris. Having recently arrived in the city from her native Marsovia with a rich inheritance, the "merry widow" Hanna Glawari encounters her old sweetheart, the Count Danilo. For much of the operetta's twisting story, the two main characters tiptoe around their unacknowledged feelings. Fittingly, various kinds of dance rhythms infuse Lehar's score, from different folk dances to, most of all, the Viennese waltz.

You might say that the operetta evokes the charm of old Vienna via Paris ... via New York? In effect, that's what Wichita Grand Opera will be presenting next weekend. For Bakardiev and WGO artistic director Margaret Ann Pent, the 1995 New York City Opera production of "The Merry Widow" (broadcast a year later on PBS's "Live From Lincoln Center") was the version they wanted to reproduce here, from the period costumes to Robert Johanson and Albert Evans' English translation of the original German.

"The great thing about (this production) is that it makes it accessible to modern-day audiences," says the director, Jayme McDaniel. Not only is the dialogue updated, says McDaniel, a Johanson protege with Broadway credentials, but also, additional music has been extracted from another Lehar operetta to round out some of the characters. Act III even includes the well-known cancan music by Jacques Offenbach to accompany one of the production's many razzle-dazzle dance numbers. (Everyone in the cast dances at some point in the operetta, according to McDaniel.)

Despite these changes, McDaniel says that this production is true to the characters and, above all, the music. "(The score) just seeps into your bloodstream," he says. "You just want to wrap yourself in it, like a big fake fur."

'Keep it light'

The so-called "Vilja Song" of Act II is probably the most recognizable and beloved melody in "The Merry Widow."

"It's a stunning moment when you get it right," McDaniel says. "At that point, we should see couples in the audience taking each other's hands."

For soprano Kallen Esperian, who will sing the song and title role next weekend, the music aches with nostalgia and tenderness.

"Lehar touches the inner core, our soul," she says. "You feel true love. ... I really think (this operetta) would be a really great thing for couples, a wonderful Valentine's Day gift."

It's Esperian's first time performing the character of Hanna. Known mostly for her Verdi and Puccini roles (including Mimi in WGO's 2008 "La Boheme"), Esperian says that she often has to remind herself to "keep it light." For this production, she feels especially fortunate to receive guidance from McDaniel and to collaborate with musicians who include veteran conductor Martin Mazik and baritone Michael Nansel as Danilo.

"Operetta is a very special genre and I feel like I'm appreciating it a bit more," she says.

Operetta can sometimes be considered the lesser cousin to opera. Usually what distinguishes operetta from opera is the comic breeziness of the music and libretto (no unhappy endings) and spoken dialogue rather than opera's sung recitative (just like a Broadway musical).

But with Lehar, that definition gets turned on its head a bit. The orchestra for WGO's "Merry Widow" consists of 40 players, similar to a Puccini or Verdi opera. And the voices for this production are anything but small, Bakardiev says.

"This is being done as a huge musical, a huge opera with a huge cast, a lot of details and a huge orchestra," he says.

And what about big-time risk? On one hand, you would think that Wichita Grand Opera is taking a gamble as it invests significant resources and expense into a work it hasn't done before in its 10-year history.

But Bakardiev, who has been actively working behind the scenes during the rehearsal process, doesn't seem the least bit troubled. "I'm having a lot of fun," he says.