Geistinger, Marie (1833–1903)

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Geistinger, Marie (1833–1903)

Austrian soprano celebrated in Vienna as the "Queen of the Operetta" whose superstar status helped popularize the stage works of Johann Strauss, Jr. Born Maria Charlotte Cäcilia Geistinger in Graz, Styria, Austria, on July 26, 1833 (some sources cite July 20, 1828 or 1836); died in Klagenfurt, Carinthia, Austria, on September 29, 1903; daughter of Nikolaus Geistinger and Charlotte Geistinger; married August Kormann (1850–1930, an actor), in 1877 (divorced 1881).

For almost half a century, Marie Geistinger was a power to be reckoned with in the cultural life of Imperial Vienna, not only as a celebrated soprano but also as a dramatic actress and as a theater manager. She was born in 1833 in the provincial capital of Graz, where her parents Nikolaus and Charlotte Geistinger were both engaged as actors. By age 11, Marie was appearing on stage in children's roles. In 1850, she made her official debut as an adult actress in Munich, followed two years later in Vienna where she performed at the Theater in der Josef-stadt, delighting her audiences with her humorous parodies of the then-famous Spanish dancer Pepita de Oliva . She left Vienna for Berlin in 1854, remaining there for several years before moving on to successful engagements in Hamburg and Riga. Geistinger reigned over the Riga stage from 1859 through 1863, showing remarkable versatility as a star of opera, operetta and comic theater. The upward trajectory of Marie Geistinger's career continued in Berlin, where the singer and comedienne pleased countless theatergoers at that city's Viktoria Theater until she accepted an offer from Vienna in 1865.

From the start of her Vienna years, Marie Geistinger was the undisputed "Queen of Operetta." Her return to Vienna in 1865 marked an important milestone not only in Geistinger's career but in the history of Vienna as well. The year 1865 saw proud Vienna's inaugural of its grand new Ringstrasse, which in time could boast of such imposing edifices as the Parliament building, the new University of Vienna, and the Imperial Opera House. To entertain the prosperous and confident Viennese citizenry, Geistinger starred in Jacques Offenbach's La belle Helene, immediately creating a sensation. Although many regard Vienna as the cradle of operetta, it is in fact the city of Paris that deserves that distinction. The naughty sophistication and witty social satire of Offenbach's operas bouffes were imported to Vienna in the late 1850s, where they were avidly accepted by the increasingly sophisticated bourgeoisie of the burgeoning metropolis of Central Europe's key political state, the Habsburg Empire.

Marie Geistinger enjoyed the imprimatur of Offenbach because he had seen her on stage in Berlin performing in a popular farce in which she was required to divest herself of various items of clothing. "I have never seen anyone undress with such beauty and discreetness," Offenbach told her backstage. "I will have a scene of that sort written for you in my next piece." After he saw her in La belle Helene, Offenbach felt she had given the best performance he had ever seen in the work's starring role and was the greatest operetta performer he had ever encountered. The only serious rival to Geistinger's fame in Vienna in the mid-1860s was Josephine Gallmeyer (1838–1884), whose comedic talents were considerable and who was renowned for her uniquely uninhibited cancan.

Geistinger was more than equal to challenges from Gallmeyer or any other Viennese star performer. By the end of the 1860s, she had appeared in countless performances of Offenbach (including his La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein and Barbe-bleue), as well as in other composers' works, invariably enjoying enthusiastic reviews and sold-out audiences. Energetic, confident and with years of stage experience behind her, in 1869 Geistinger became co-director of the Theater an der Wien, sharing management responsibilities with the versatile Maximilian

Steiner. By the early 1870s, Viennese audiences had grown tired of Offenbach and other foreign composers; the cancan was now regarded as somewhat absurdly frivolous and passé if not indeed downright decadent. The desire for a new and more homegrown operetta genre was growing and the Waltz King, Johann Strauss, Jr., was on hand to meet this need. In 1871, he set to music as his first operetta Maximilian Steiner's libretto Indigo oder die vierzig Räuber (Indigo or the Forty Thieves). Although the story line was muddled at best and it was far too long (four hours), Geistinger's performance turned this, the first indigenous Viennese operetta, into a smash hit from its premiere performance at the Theater an der Wien on February 10, 1871.

The next Strauss operetta, entitled "a comic operetta in three acts," was to prove to be his single most successful stage work, and indeed very likely the most famous operetta in history. This was Die Fledermaus (The Bat), with a libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée, based on a French vaudeville piece by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. The French work was first translated for use in Vienna as a straight play which took place at a réveillon, a midnight supper party. The problems this caused were only solved when the play was adapted as a libretto for Johann Strauss, who replaced the réveillon with a Viennese ball. Along with Strauss' sparkling music, a brilliant singer-actress is necessary in the soprano part of Rosalinde, wife of the wealthy and bored Gabriel von Eisenstein, for the witty plot of Die Fledermaus to shine. Even before the premiere performance, Geistinger gave a select group of Vienna's elite a sneak preview of Strauss' still-unperformed work when she sang Rosalinde's csárdás at a charity performance.

Marie Geistinger helped make Die Fledermaus an immediate success with the fickle Viennese public at its premiere performance at the Theater an der Wien on April 5, 1874. Her Rosalinde won her many curtain calls that evening. Despite the fact that Vienna had been profoundly shaken only months before by a catastrophic stock-market crash, the audience left its cares behind for a few hours, having been completely won over by both the new operetta's music and plot. The work was taken off the boards after only 16 performances, not—as some sources claim—due to lack of audience interest, but rather because of a theater schedule tied to a prebooked visiting operatic company season; after this hiatus, in fact, the work returned to continue to delight the fun-loving Viennese—something this frothy comedy of errors has continued to do not only in Vienna but throughout the world.

After the smashing success of Die Fledermaus, to which she contributed to a substantial degree, Marie Geistinger continued her multifaceted career as singer, actress and theater manager. In 1875, she resigned from the management of the Theater an der Wien, but remained as busy as ever on the stage. She created leading roles in the premieres of two more Johann Strauss operettas, Carneval in Rom (1873), and Cagliostro in Wien (1875), and remained a favorite as well with the Viennese public by starring in the always popular local dialect plays of Nestroy and Raimund. Geistinger was now at the height of her popularity in Vienna as the city's idol, adored for being uniquely vivacious, charming and enticing. Displaying stamina and versatility, in 1876 Geistinger began to emphasize her dramatic ability by appearing in classic stage roles at Vienna's Stadttheater. Here she starred as Queen Elizabeth I in Heinrich von Laube's Essex, as well as taking the roles of Medea and Sappho in the play by Grillparzer. She also successfully played the part of Beatrice in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. Encouraged by her Viennese successes, she then brought the same roles for the next several years to the major theaters of Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Dresden and Leipzig.

In 1880, Marie Geistinger undertook a gruelling tour of North America which would take her to both coasts of the United States. In large cities as well as small towns and hamlets, she performed both as singer and actress to audiences that were considerably less sophisticated but perhaps even more enthusiastic than the ones she knew so well in Europe. In New York City, a large and enthusiastic audience saw her perform at the Thalia Theater in the Bowery. Several years after her return to Europe, she was forced to go into temporary retirement because of serious eye problems. By 1891, however, she had resumed her touring, again venturing to North America in April 1897. The following year, the aging Queen of the Viennese Operetta made her last major tour in Austria and Germany. In 1900, she gave her farewell performance in Vienna. In profound contrast to her stage portrayals, which Egon Gartenberg has described as being "realistic, charming, and persuasive," Geistinger's personal life was marked by instability and lack of direction. Her only marriage, to the actor August Kormann, was a failure, lasting only from 1877 to its dissolution in 1881. Despite her immense success over many decades, by the closing years of her life she had lost virtually her entire fortune through poor judgment and was forced to auction off her most precious possessions. Marie Geistinger died in Klagenfurt on September 29, 1903. She is buried in Vienna's venerable Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), where her grave is designated as Ehrengrab (Grave of Honor) 32A/18.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Geistinger, Marie (1833–1903)

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