VIENNA — For nearly half a century, operetta fans have flocked to the tiny Austrian hamlet of Moerbisch on the Neusiedlersee, the lake that separates Austria from Hungary, for the annual Moerbisch Operetta Festival.
It is likely that no one who attended the inaugural performance of “The Gypsy Baron” in 1957 could have guessed that the festival — which highlights one operetta each year — would one day become a multimillion-dollar enterprise, entertaining 220,000 visitors each year, playing to nightly audiences of 6,000 from a 38,750-square-foot floating stage.
But under the guidance since 1993 of veteran baritone and artistic director Harald Serafin (who, at 74, still finds a role for himself each year), the festival has grown from a cottage industry known mostly to locals to one of Austria’s most famous tourist attractions.
Just 40 miles southeast of Vienna, Moerbisch is easily accessible and boasts a recently renovated, state-of-the-art arena that contains restaurants, cafes and shops, which sell original Moerbisch cast CDs and DVDs.
This year’s fest, running July 14-Aug. 28, celebrates the centennial of Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow.”
Directed by thesp Helmut Lohner, the operetta features a large cast, opulent costumes and extravagant sets, suggesting tout le Paris by award-winning theater and opera designer Rolf Langenfass.
On opening night, American thesp Margarita De Arellano took the stage as Hanna Glawari, the glamorous, recalcitrant widow who can’t decide what to do with her millions. (She shares the role with two other singers throughout the run.)
With tickets from E20-E90 ($24-$108) for front-row VIP seats, “Widow” figures to recoup more than $8.5 million of its $11.2 million production costs from ticket sales, and eventually turn a profit with additional income from merchandising, corporate sponsors and small subsidies from the governments of Austria and the state of Burgenland.
Even more astounding is that 53% of the audience has attended performances for five or more years at the “Mecca of operetta.” Indeed, tickets for the following year’s production go on sale at the current festival, and the season usually sells out by the preceding winter.
After 10 consecutive days of unrelenting thunderstorms, which prevented even one complete run-through, “The Merry Widow” was able to bow on a warm July night.
Among the most relieved was choreographer Giorgio Madia, whose show-stopping Can-Can was finally allowed to show off its acrobatic glory without toning down to compensate for a wet stage.
“My job is to bring the audience to the edge of its seats without forgetting that kitsch can be done with quality and taste,” Madia says. “When you’ve got 100 dancers, water fountains shooting into the sky and fireworks, you have to adopt a Las Vegas attitude to Viennese operetta!”