Markian Prokopovych: "Triumphant Empire: The Premiere of Zigeunerbaron in the Budapest Opera House, 1905"

May 15, 2015

Markian Prokopovych: "Triumphant Empire: The Premiere of Zigeunerbaron in the Budapest Opera House, 1905"

Five academic events took place in the framework of the History Department’s Research Seminars during the fall term, and a series of six new, exciting lectures attracted the audience in the winter term. The “season opener” lecture was given by Markian Prokopovych (Institute for East European History, University of Vienna) on the premiere of Zigeunerbaron in the Budapest Opera House in 1905. Professor Prokopovych presented a chapter of his recently published book, entitled In the Public Eye: The Budapest Opera House, The Audience and the Press, 1884-1918.

The lecture started with a short excerpt of the Rákóczi March. The tune belongs to the genre of verbunkos that was part of the centuries-long tradition of military recruitment  in the Habsburg Empire and Hungary. Rákóczi’s War of Independence –with which the aforementioned march was associated - was the last uprising against the Habsburgs in the early eighteenth century and thus the Rákóczy March carried subversive political connotations with a reference to the 1848 revolution. For this reason, it could not be played in public places from the mid-nineteenth century until the early twentieth century. It’s incorporation into the libretto of the Ziguenerbaron – in which it was originally not present - and its performance in the Opera House – where it could not be played before - was a symbolic act that fed into a more general discourse on the identity of the Opera House as a public institution exposed to the influences of changing political power relations and as an agent of the commercializing entertainment industry.

The lecture explored the main elements of this complex picture through the specific event of the premiere of Strauss’ operetta and its public reception. Politically, the Opera House had to reconcile the contradictions between its role as the “Hungarian temple of all arts” and its position as an imperially supported, watched institution. Financially, it had to cope with the proliferation of profit oriented competitors (Comedy Theater, Hungarian Theater, Popular Theater) as capitalist enterprise ventured into the entertainment business from the 19th century. The Zigeunerbaron was an important part of the identity transformation of the Opera House, since it was simultaneously important for the Hungarian elite and attractive for a middle-class audience. The genre of the operetta generally functioned as a unifying force that linked the population of a metropolitan society, but Professor Prokopovych highlighted also the importance of local specificities and a constellation of peculiar factors that contributed to the success of the Zigeunerbaron in the Budapest Opera House.

First of all, Strauss was a good candidate for the sympathies of the Hungarian public: he was a supporter of the 1848 revolution and adapted Hungarian melodies and literary pieces successfully into his works. The libretto of the Zigeunerbaron was written by Ignaz Schnitzler from the novel of the celebrated Hungarian writer, Mór Jókai, and its plot unfolded among the peculiar circumstances of eighteenth-century Hungary.

Simultaneously, Strauss also parlayed a demand emerging in the Viennese context as a “Hungarian mania”, a fashion from the mid-nineteenth century, that played upon an enthusiastic sympathy for the stereotypical image of Hungary associated with extravagance. The story of the Zigeunerbaron also comfortably reconciled Hungary’s exoticism with the correct political message of Austrian loyalty: the main character, Sándor Barinkay sacrificed his fortune and risked his life for Austria in the war against Spain, but finally he returned victoriously and ennobled to Vienna, where he married his fiancée, Szaffi, the daughter of a late Ottoman pasha of Hungary.

Thus the premiere of the Zigeunerbaron mirrored the possibilities and limits of the political and cultural reconciliation of Hungary and of the Dualist Monarchy that was a highly discussed issue in 1905.  The scandalous “election with a handkerchief” took place only a few month earlier, in November 1904 and the subsequent elections ended the thirty-year rule of the Liberal Party. The political crisis amplified the voices that agitated for a return to the program of the 1848 revolution and revived debates on Hungary’s independence.

The press coverage of the premiere enabled the reconstruction of a complex picture in which different perceptions of Hungary and Hungarians could be detected. The performance was praised or criticized in accordance with the political agendas of the newspapers. The old metropolitan journals -traditionally sympathetic to the politically collapsing liberal elite - were supportive and emphasized the great success of the operetta, while radical young newspapers could not recognize national culture in it, but only a mismanaged performance comforting to the taste of the aristocratic elite.

Parallel with the premiere, the journals reported about the financial scandals and sudden death of the former intendant of the Opera House, István Keglevich. Keglevich himself was an embodiment of the “old Hungary” of Kálmán Tisza (Liberal Party): a stereotypical figure of the liberal aristocrats with his autocratic, explosive, money waster character, involved in numerous political and personal conflicts, but unquestionably loyal to the emperor. His death also put a symbolic end to the Hungary that was the subject of the Zigeunerbaron. After his death, and after the elections of 1905, gentlemen in the Liberal Party no longer decided about the fate of the country, nor about the management of the Opera House. The position of the state appointed intendant was abolished for ten years and the aristocracy with its old values lost its determinative influence on public debates. Eight years later, when another aristocrat, Miklós Bánffy became the intendant of the Budapest Opera House, a completely new era had begun. Bánffy, who himself was an avant-garde novelist and playwright, created a flourishing theater with a new generation of artists, among whom Béla Bartók’s name can be mentioned as the most prominent one. But before this new era had arrived, the Zigeunerbaron conquered the stage and overbridged the intervening period of renewal and decline.