Rosanne Dingli

The Land of Smiles

All my dreams used to be about places. With no need to wake from them, I voyaged. I voyaged because I knew even as I dreamed that I would wake and dissolve it all. I arrived and departed, I revisited and recognised, I explored.
When I was a boy, we lived close to an aqueduct, and I would climb the grassy slope with a cousin, who would pretend to be King of the Mountain when he got to the top. ‚When I grow up,‘ he would say, ‚I am going to be a bandmaster.‘ He waved a twig like a baton. ‚Did you hear me, Franz?‘
I had similar ambitions, but I was not about to damn them with such foolish declarations. My superstition held me in check, kept me silent. I was not about to ruin things like Grégor. He ran back down the grassy slope, rolling down the last few yards, breathless, reckless like a child. And I, with all the sagacity and prudence of my eleven years, plodded slowly down the aqueduct side like an old man.
‚Dust yourself off,‘ I said to Grégor, impatient with his levity.
I was a solemn child, wanting more than was available in Komárom. Wanting what was so near, and yet so far, across Hungary’s border into Austria. Wanting more than just sheet music, more than just what the aunts hummed under their breath as they darned stockings.
Grégor was scornful of my caution, scornful of my superstition. I never told him secrets. Yet, when we grew up, he became a bookkeeper, pushing a pen, counting columns of figures. And I – I went on from the Prague Conservatorium to bigger and better things. I remember bowing on meeting Antonín Dvorák. I dared not lift my eyes to meet the famous composer’s until a decent interval had passed. How could I presume such an intimacy? Yet I could sense something in the man. He liked me, encouraged me, and from him I learnt a circumspect kind of daring.
Ah – what heady days those were. I really did become a bandmaster, and thought of Grégor every time I waved my baton. Every time I took a bow or an encore I thought of Grégor rolling down the side of the aqueduct in the watery eastern European sun of our long long childhood. I conducted the band with a new verve, a new gusto in the last months of 1899, knowing that when the great celebrations started, when a new century began, people all over Austria would be playing my music, my songs.
I wonder where you get the inspiration, wrote my cousin Grégor from Tatabánya, where he was auditing the books of a textile factory. Was it possible he did not know it was Vienna itself? The people, the music – everywhere there was music – the laughter, the companionship and the tinkle of cake forks upon fine china. Was it possible his childhood passion had ebbed and died? Did he no longer hear the music?
I wrote and wrote, pushing Leon and Stein, librettists who understood and accepted that acknowledgment and applause, not to mention renown, always went to the composer of the music. I pushed until they understood my pace, my peculiar kind of quiet ambition that flamed only when fanned by success. They wrote words – and such words! – but I concentrated on the waltzes.
‚What is this?‘ they asked, perplexed. They had never seen such a plan for an operetta.
‚Yes,‘ I cried. ‚It is a new kind of operetta!‘ I ignored their looks of disbelief.
‚But…!‘ they tried at once.
‚And it will take the whole of Europe by storm.‘
And it did of course, and not only Europe. It was La Belle Epoche – a breathless, sensual, sumptuous time – and it was everywhere. Die Lustige Witwe, The Merry Widow, was heard all over the world, overwhelming not only its writers but our critics as well. No one could deny the notion worked.
Grégor wrote from Pécs – the furthest he ever travelled in his life – to congratulate me, and I am afraid I laughed, tossed his careful papers in the air and proceeded with what many thought was insanity. How dare I introduce music so like the can can into operetta? Was I not afraid it would be a nine day wonder?
My response was tacit. Perhaps I had retained something of my youthful prudence. But I laughed again when the success of The Merry Widow burgeoned. It took only two years before it was lauded in places like Buenos Aires, where it was playing at five theatres at once. That, I thought, would be answer enough for any critic.
The hardest audience to please is an English audience. They are slow, discriminating consumers of all that is novel, groundbreaking, risky. But the Widow brought houses down there too. Audiences rose to their feet as one, roaring and begging for encores.
And I found my name was now a household word. What would my father think? And my dear mother? What would the aunts, in their stiff black skirts, suppose about my widow whose inspiration evolved from those silk stockings, that even fresh from the laundry basket, smelled of them? The rustle of taffeta, the swing of brocade, the flash of jewellery, the shimmer of sparkling shirt fronts and the small glimpse of onyx cuff links as dancers whirled around a floor. That was what I wrote in my music. It was all about the life of the dance floor, the fleeting romance, the perfidy and loyalty lost and gained at an elegant thé dansant.
And what of Grégor? His letters dwindled then stopped altogether, even when I thought there was still a chance he would one day visit me in Vienna. But I was travelling, revelling in the way Il Conte di Lussemburgo, as they called my latest operetta, was doing in Rome. People were humming snatches on the street. Ladies summoned all the patience and indulgence of their escorts by stopping me at cafes, longing to touch my arm or look into my eyes. I looked back, searching more for inspiration than for adulation. I saw in some of those eyes all that I needed to write another piece. Like The Land of Smiles. What a show! What lightness and sweetness. I wrote the music of colour, the music of satin skirts swirling, of black hair and golden hair drawn up into daring chignons under tiaras sparkling in chandelier light.
And when I paused to think, I thought of my dreams. They were a muddle, a kaleidoscope of faces. Of mouths wide with smiles, of eyes sparkling, of the reflection of theatre lights upon the shiny back of a violin. I no longer dreamed of places.
A solemn pause is inevitable after months and months of social whirling and gallivanting. I gathered my wits one empty night, one dull and freezing night when the condensation of my own breath shrouded the window of my hotel room. It was 1932, and the world was a noisy place, full of my music and of laughter, of the tinkle of crockery and glasses, the chink of coins in a pocket. I stood alone for once in a hotel room in Paris, a fringed scarf of cream silk still thrown around my neck, creasing my bow tie. I could not see past the fog of my breath in the gelid room. Someone had omitted to light the fire, but I was patient, benign. I did not summon a valet. I did not move. I stood at the window in the dark and thought of my dreams.
Strange, but it was then I thought once more of Grégor, and his childish rolling down a grassy hill. I wished suddenly – but only for a brief moment – that I was a painter rather than a musician, and could capture on a canvas the aqueduct, the games of my childhood. I longed for dreams about places, just places. Landscapes unpeopled by the crowds, the laughter, the strident gaiety. I longed for a stretch of moonlit sand, a damp-smelling copse of birches, a group of lichened crags, a meadow of corn waving in the wind, an endless sea. Perhaps, just as I had inherited Grégor’s ambition by keeping quiet about it, he had similarly inherited mine. Perhaps he was at that very moment in some solitary place, alone, without a soul to accompany him. Alone on a hill overlooking a lonely place warming with his own presence.
That week, I started the outline of my most ambitious piece, Giuditta. With the package of new score paper, tied with string and inviting in its brown wrapper, came the letter that announced Grégor’s death. His cabriolet was involved in a level crossing collision, and he was killed instantly, with the horse and the driver.
I tried to recall, counted the hours, tried to stem my grief with a slow calculation. Had he died while I stood alone at a cloudy hotel window, thinking of him as a child, rolling down the green slope of the aqueduct? But no – it was too romantic a notion. I was merely trying to mask my guilt. I had allowed my success to come between us, and had not even bothered to write or visit him for years. What was I? What sort of unfeeling success-bent monster had I become?
I threw myself into my work, ignoring all who summoned me to the glittering world outside. I heard La Terra Dei Sorrisi was again having a successful season in Milan, I heard that any number of sopranos and soubrettes were lining up to audition for the Widow. I heard Gypsy Love was once more showing in Vienna. People flocked to watch, to listen, to laugh at the musical comedy. My little attempts at satire were small diversions, perhaps not even noticed. No matter: was it not the music I wanted them to take away, as they left the theatres in their evening clothes?
I shaved off my small moustache, then grew it again in the space of a fortnight. I wrote like one demented. I paced and hummed and played and sang. I consulted books, even the bible. And on impulse, I confided in a woman. It is not important to say her name now – it is a small matter. It is a small matter.
I told her all about my new work, all about my great attempt at a serious opera, Giuditta. I told her too much. She laughed, smiled, and her rope of pearls clattered against a gold chain around her neck. It was then I remembered my own superstition. How silly, I thought to myself. That was only a childish thing I would do then, when I was young. But still I wondered. I had let on my plans, my ambitions, to another person. What was more, I treated it all lightly. What would happen?
It was two years later, 1934, long after I forgot the whole episode, that I was looking at a string of reviews clipped from the Vienna papers. The opera had not succeeded. They all expected yet another light musical comedy from me and I let my audiences down.
I stood in the wings at one of the last performances. I listened to the crowd. They did not think my opera was such a great idea, in spite of the polite applause.
‚They are applauding the singers, not the work,‘ I said to the Italian impresario.
He looked sideways at me, but remained silent.
‚Next season…‘ I started to say.
He interrupted, smiling widely. ‚Next season, we’ll put on the Widow – La Vedova Allegra! And everything will be all right again.‘
I left the theatre alone, an unusual thing for me, but I wanted solitude. I wanted peace. I wanted to put myself into a quiet frame of mind so that I would sleep deeply. And long. I wanted to return to dreaming of places again.

This fictionalised episode from the life of Franz Lehár was inspired by the picture Scene from Musical Comedy 1967 by Jack Brack (The University of Western Australia art collection at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery, Nedlands, WA) and has appeared in print in a special edition of Westerly in Summer 1997.

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