It was just like a scene in the movies. Composer Emmerich Kalman and his young daughter Yvonne would be out walking the family dachshund, Marinka, in New York's Central Park, and he would suddenly break off their conversation.
" 'Yvonka, please don't be mad, but I have got to go home now,' " Yvonne Kalman remembers him saying. "I would say, 'Daddy, why?' And he would say, 'Because there's a melody in my head and I've got to play it, and I've got to hear how it sounds.'
"And he would do that. I'd get under the piano and watch the black and white keys go up and down. And then if he thought it was a good tune, he would call the rest of the family in and play it, and then he'd work on it. That's how it went."
It was too late for one of those tunes to get into "The Gypsy Princess" (originally "Die Csardasfurstin"), which opens Friday for a seven-performance run by Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Kalman had composed \o7 that \f7 work in 1915 (Yvonne was born in 1938). But the melodies his daughter remembers were still the kind of works that had brought him fame and fortune, especially in Europe.
Kalman, who was born in Hungary in 1882, began studying serious music at the Budapest Academy of Music when he was still in high school. Other students there included Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly). For a while, he also had plans to become a concert artist, but he developed painful neuritis.
Despite winning composition prizes for serious pieces, Kalman had trouble finding a publisher. But some humorous cabaret songs he had composed attracted attention, and he was offered the chance to write an operetta, "Tatarjaras." This work, composed in 1908, met with success, and a year later it was followed by "Ein Herbstmanover" (1909), which was received even more warmly in Europe, England and even the United States, where it ran as "The Gay Hussars" before World War I.
The die had been cast.
Kalman went on to write more than 15 operettas in all, including such works as "Countess Maritza" (1924) and "The Circus Princess" (1926).
During these years, he lived in Vienna, but, having been born to Jewish parents, he realized the threat in the rise of Nazism. He moved with his family to Paris in 1939 and, after that city was invaded, immigrated to the United States, where he lived in Hollywood and New York. He become an American citizen in 1942, only after the Hungarian government had allied itself with Hitler.
In 1949, an ailing man, he decided to return to Europe, settling in Paris, where he died in 1953, less than a week after his 71st birthday. He lived long enough to see a wave of revivals of his works, however.
"Many wonderful things happened during those years," his daughter recalls. "He received the Legion of Honor, and it was a very rewarding time. The only thing that was hard, during the war, all his family had been wiped out (in Nazi concentration camps), and he never recuperated from that. H never got over that."
"Gypsy Princess," with its romantic plot of a prince in love with a cabaret star, has remained a great and lasting success in Europe ever since its sensational premiere in 1915. But brought to New York soon after as "The Riviera Girl," it flopped, undoubtedly because of anti-German sentiment.
Still, although his operettas were frequently staged in this country in the first quarter of the century, Kalman's reputation here has generally faded over time.
Asked to name favorite operettas and their composers, most Americans would have no trouble coming up with names such as Franz Lehar and "The Merry Widow," Jacques Offenbach and "Orpheus in the Underworld," Johann Strauss and "Die Fledermaus," or any number of works by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Kalman and his works are not likely to be on the list.
Yvonne Kalman hopes to change all that. A tireless advocate of his music, she persuaded the Vienna Volksoper to bring "Gypsy Princess" to New York, along with "Merry Widow" and "Fledermaus," during a 1984 tour, and performances of the Lehar and Strauss works had to be canceled to accommodate the demand for the Kalman operetta.
She also persuaded the Australian Opera to mount a production of the work in 1990, and it is this production that the Opera Pacific is presenting.
"My feelings for the music are very strong," she says. "When the baton is raised and the music starts, there is something special about it, and it never has failed to win an audience."
What: Opera Pacific presents Emmerich Kalman's "The Gypsy Princess."
When: Friday, Feb. 21, and Feb. 27, 28 and March 4 and 7 at 8 p.m.; March 7 and 8 at 2 p.m.
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Street exit. Go north to Town Center Drive. (Center is one block east of South Coast Plaza.)
Wherewithal: $20 to $75.
Where to Call: (714) 740-2000 (TicketMaster).