Operetta can save the world.
Okay, Austrian tenor Michael Heim doesn’t assert this proposition in so many words — but he comes close.
“With operetta, you can open hearts, and then you can see that all people have the same problems, and, of course, hopes,” he says in an e-mail from Vienna. That awareness of shared experience and interests is valuable, he observes: “It sounds naive, but for me it is the essence for a future of global freedom.”
The heart-opening properties of operetta will be on display when the Embassy Series — the 20-year-old musical-concert program — mounts two consecutive evenings of arias and duets featuring Heim and Hungarian soprano Krisztina David, at the Embassy of Austria (May 15) and the Embassy of Hungary (May 16). The program for the performances includes numbers by operetta greats Emmerich Kálmán, Franz Lehár, and Johann Strauss the Younger, who hailed from Austria and Hungary.
Embassy Series founder and director Jerome Barry says operetta — that frothier, more sentimental, more comic brand of opera—doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. “People don’t realize how great the music is!” exclaims Barry, who is a singer by training himself.
For Heim and David — who chose the repertoire for the upcoming evenings — operetta also has an intense personal draw. In an e-mail from Hungary, David says she is looking forward to singing a number or two from Lehár’s 1905 smash hit “Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow)” — one of the best-known operettas — since the part of that show’s eponymous heroine “is my dream role that I have never got to play.”
But she also feels affection for a piece that is less of a household name: Kálmán’s “Die Csárdásfürstin (The Gypsy Princess),” whose arias are part of the program. David says “Gypsy Princess” was the first operetta she ever saw and the first stage work she ever appeared in. Moreover, she says, her aunt and mother — both noted Hungarian singers — also had “Gypsy Princess” roles on their resumes. “I feel very strongly connected” to the Kálmán work, says David.
Heim will be performing, among other works, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehár’s “Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles).” This happens to be his favorite operetta aria. It’s also a song so beloved that it received an airing at the ceremony honoring the European Union as the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize recipient — a detail that means something to Heim, who is attuned to geopolitics. He jokes that, while in Washington, he’d like to stop by the White House to grill the president about the negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. “The people in Europe have not enough information about that,” Heim deadpans.
Both vocalists have performed opera, as well as operetta. “Operas are smoother to sing,” David notes. “The lyrics are, in most cases, easily singable and build up with the music.”
Heim says that, of the two formats, he prefers operetta, “because as a singer you can show more personal feelings. You have more freedom for your own interpretation. Operetta is pure emotion: Love, jealousy, yearning. And mostly it has a happy end.”
A happy end will be in the offing for at least one of the chefs competing in the 6th annual Embassy Chef Challenge on May 15. Scheduled to be judged by a panel of celebrity foodies (including Post writer Tim Carman), this fundraising event mounted by Cultural Tourism D.C. will showcase the work of over a dozen culinary wizards, including chefs Boitshwarelo Graffius from the Embassy of Botswana and Muhammad Aliyev from the Embassy of Uzbekistan.
Some of these maestros might be keeping mum about their plans for the competition, but not Jiraporn Bunlert of the Thai Embassy. For the Chef Challenge, she is planning to prepare spicy salmon salad, she confided the other day while en route to Duangrat Oriental Food Mart in Falls Church.
Duangrat is a go-to store for Bunlert, who has been in Washington since fall, and whose previous assignments have included cooking for Thailand’s embassies in Greece and Kuwait. On this particular day, she had allowed a reporter to tag along on a shopping trip to stock up on ingredients for dishes like pad thai and mango with sticky rice, for a May 3 embassy open house.
Bunlert bustled about the crowded aisles of Duangrat, where the shelves were laden with cans of green jackfruit, jars of sour bamboo shoots and other items. Bunlert and her assistant loaded shopping carts with noodles, peanuts, bean sprouts, distilled vinegar, packets of preserved radish, and cartons of coconut cream.
Wannipa Isarabhakdi, wife of Vijavat Isarabhakdi, the Thai ambassador, had come along on the shopping trip to act as translator, so that Bunlert could speak in Thai. Isarabhakdi had also brought along a smartphone containing pictures of elaborately carved fruit that Bunlert’s kitchen had recently produced, reflecting a Thai artistic tradition.
When purchases at Duangrat were concluded, it was time to buy more run-of-the-mill ingredients from the Costco in Pentagon City. Here, Bunlert and her assistant stocked up on chicken, strawberries, and some three dozen cartons of eggs. The two women would be returning the next day to buy perishables like vegetables. But for now, the chef said in English, flashing a serene smile, “Finished!”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Operetta evenings by the Embassy Series. May 15 and 16. Visit www.embassyseries.org or call 202-625-2361.
Embassy Chef Challenge. May 15 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Visit www.culturaltourismdc.org or call 202-661-7581.