Daniel Pantano immersed himself in opera and oratorio when he studied voice at the Academy of Vocal Arts. After he launched his career, Pantano discovered operetta after a singer friend sent him a tape from Berlin. "It hit me," recalls Pantano. "I discovered a musical style I liked a lot."
Pantano's fate was sealed when he read Operetta A Theatrical History, Richard Traubner's magisterial history of operetta.
Pantano wanted to hear live performances of the great operettas of Franz Lehar, Emmerich Kalman and Oscar Straus. In Philadelphia, he couldn't. No one performed this repertory.
Pantano decided to do something about that. He founded Concert Operetta Theater five years ago. His company debuted with the first local performances of Kalman's The Gypsy Princess that operetta fans can remember. Classics such as Sigmund Romberg's Desert Song and the Philadelphia premieres of Lehar's Paganini and Kalman's The Duchess From Chicago followed.
All were performed in what Pantano calls "a minimalist production concept." Concert Operetta puts the focus on the music and the voices. The singers appear in costume, but there are no sets. A piano accompanies the singers and all dance numbers are cut.
Saturday and March 25, Pantano will introduce Eduard Kunneke's The Cousin from Batavia, performed in a new English translation by Traubner. Pantano calls the scholar and translator "the guru and scholar of operetta."
In his classic operetta history, Traubner dismisses the plot of The Cousin From Batavia as "numbingly dumb," but he insists Kunneke's score has some appealing music.
The operetta portrays a young Dutch girl who has fallen in love with a handsome cousin who departs for Batavia. When he returns years later, she discovers he does not live up to her youthful illusions.
"The plot is so silly," comments Traubner. "But the music is charming and reflects the American jazz and ragtime that revolutionized musical styles on European stages in the 1920s. It's a bit sexier than the standard operetta score."
Traubner calls The Cousin From Batavia "a chamber operetta" and says the cast is featured in a lot of ensemble singing.
"It has a lightness of touch not typical of German operetta. By the 1920s, the French chamber operetta style was becoming prevalent in Berlin."
Kunneke's original 1921 German version was set in Holland. The contemporary dress, minimal sets and no chorus provided a stark contrast to the escapist stories and lavish settings of most pre-war operettas. When it reached New York City in 1923, The Cousin From Batavia was renamed Caroline and set in Civil War Virginia.
Pantano says Kunneke's operetta remains popular in Germany but performances in the U.S. are rare. Concert Operetta's production marks the first time the piece has been performed in the United States since Traubner's translation was introduced by the Ohio Light Opera Company in 2000.
Concert Operetta concludes its season June 22 and 24 with performances of Romberg's The Student Prince. Pantano hopes to round out the bill with the world premiere reading of Viennese Nights, a score Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein created for a 1931 Warner Brothers film.
Pantano may have to delay Viennese Nights to next season.
"The big problem we face is finding suitable English translations for our productions," explains Pantano. "Richard Traubner is only one of three or four people who are doing this today."
Pantano hopes to produce Traubner's version of Straus' White Horse Inn next season. So far, he has concentrated on German and American operettas, but he would like to branch out into the French repertory and produce zarzuelas (Spanish operettas).
"So many wonderful scores have disappeared from American stages," notes Pantano. "When we produced Countess Maritza, two elderly couples told me they had met and fallen in love when they were performing that operetta in Philadelphia in the 1950s.
"There's an audience for what we do and we also have talented young singers who can keep this wonderful musical form alive. Some of the stories may be goofy, but the music is beautiful."