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‘The Merry Widow’ Preview: ‘A Big Party’ for Harvard College Opera’s 30th Anniversary

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Impressive productions are Harvard College Opera’s bread and butter. In the past decade, the group has successfully brought the likes of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” and Jules Massenet’s “Cendrillon” to the stage. But despite the strong contenders, this year’s production of Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow,” running through Feb. 5 at the Agassiz Theater, might be the most special still.

The fact that the group advertises “The Merry Widow” as such — and not under its German title, “Die lustige Witwe” — is already telling, a sign of the fact that the operetta is sung in translation. The bold creative decision was hardly accidental: It was done with the goal of making this year’s production, coinciding with the group’s 30th anniversary, as accessible as possible.

“We wanted to keep in mind that this was HCO’s 30th anniversary year,” said Olympia M. A. Hatzilambrou ’23-’24, the production’s stage director. “We wanted a show that was going to be really fun and a big party, and was going to get people really excited about working on it.”

And “The Merry Widow” proves just that: An operetta thoroughly accessible not just to anyone thinking of getting involved in staging it, but also to the Harvard audience in general — in large part due to its appealing story.

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In the performance, Hanna Glawari (Sophie M. Choate ’22-’23), a rich widow from the fictional Balkan principality of Ponteverde has moved to Paris and hopes to remarry. But if she were to do so, her fortune would pass into French hands, bringing the country to financial ruin. Only the Ponteverdian diplomat and Hanna’s former fiancé, Count Danilo Danilovitsch (James P. Rose ’22-’23) can save the principality by winning her over.

“It's just a great show about a lot of the ridiculousness of elite societies … dishonesty and disingenuousness between married couples, and people sort of lusting after this woman who has a lot of money,” said producer Lucas J. Walsh ’24.

“Don't take the plot too seriously. It's mostly about having a good time and [about] romance,” said cast member Eliza R. Zangerl-Salter ’26.

According to Dora Woodruff ’24, the same holds true for what is arguably the operetta’s key selling point: the music.

“There's some music in operas that's kind of hard to listen to. You have to put intellectual energy into unpacking it. And this music, you know, it's not simple — I don't want to condescend to it — but it's very beautiful. It's like the kind of music that can get stuck in your head,” Woodruff said.

But despite the seeming simplicity, the music posed some challenges. “The Merry Widow” premiered in 1905, thus putting it firmly within the public domain. But Franz Lehár had not composed an overture for the operetta until 1940, making that part of the score copyrighted. Unfortunately, the Harvard College Opera did not manage to secure the rights for that segment of the original composition. But Benjamin T. Rossen ’23, the production’s music director, stepped up and composed an original piece.

“This is a totally new composition for this opera. So it's been really exciting being a part of playing it,” Woodruff said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a production featuring dozens involved and more than 25 in the orchestra itself, there are more moving pieces than just the music.

“All of the artistic disciplines figured very prominently in the show,” Hatzilambrou said.

But perhaps the most notable is the role of dance, as the “The Merry Widow” is one of the operas where choreography plays a significant narrative role.

“The dancing really progresses the story and the dancing characters are extremely important to the plot,” Hatzilambrou said. “My musical favorite moments are the dances.”

For Hatzilambrou, the answer came easily. But between the music, choreography, and singing, the audiences might have a hard time deciding what their favorite parts were.

—Staff writer Zachary J. Lech can be reached at zachary.lech@thecrimson.com

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