The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Franz Lehár. The composer owes his worldwide reputation to "The Merry Widow" (Die lustige Witwe) and "The Land of Smiles" (Das Land des Lächelns). Beyond these two famous operettas is a rich catalogue of some 260 works and a composer who was friends with Puccini.Franz Lehár was born in Komárno, a small town in today's Slovakia, as the eldest son of a military bandmaster. His mother tongue was however Hungarian, and he spoke German within the army where he began his musical career. After studying violin and composition at the Prague Conservatory – where he got encouragement from Dvořák – Lehár decided to join the Austro-Hungarian army as a bandmaster. His choice of a musical career gave him many occasions to travel: first to Vienna where he played in his father's band before later taking over the lead. He then moved on to Pula, Triste and Budapest, before returning to Austria to settle in Vienna.Lehár began composing dances in the early 1890s. His first stage work, Rodrigo, was written in 1893 but was never performed on stage during the composer's lifetime. However, Lehár did manage to get his opera Kukuscha (1896) staged in Leipzig. At the beginning of the 20th century, he abandoned his military career and made a living from composing. From then on, his operettas were performed at the Theater an der Wien, where Lehár was also appointed chief conductor. A meeting with the librettist Victor Leon led to the premiere, on 28 December 1905, of The Merry Widow (based on a French comedy by Henri Meilhac, L'Attaché d'ambassade). The operetta was again performed in Berlin (1906) and in Paris (1909) and became a lasting success. From then on, Lehár devoted his career to the stage.
In the 1920s, the composer's style changed and became closer to opera. Around the same time, Lehár wrote the prominent tenor roles in his works for Richard Tauber and drew closer to Puccini. It was perhaps the latter's opera Turandot that induced Lehár to compose a new piece of Asian inspiration. Die gelbe Jacke (The Yellow Jacket) was premiered at the Theater an der Wien on 9 February 1923. Although it got a warm reception, it didn't take hold over time. Six years later, the composer reworked the work to better show off the talent of his friend Tauber. Under its new title "The Land of Smiles" (on a libretto by Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Löhner), the operetta was enthusiastically received at its first performance in Berlin in October 1929. The work's premiere in French in 1932 in Ghent, and again in Paris, confirmed this success.
"The Land of Smiles" is set at the beginning of the 20th century, first in Vienna and then in China, where people are used to smiling, whatever the ups and downs of life. The young Viennese Countess Lisa accompanies her new husband, Prince Sou-Chong, to China. But upon her arrival in Asia, she is confronted with local traditions that would allow four Chinese princesses to become Sou-Chong wives. Lisa decides to escape, helped by her former suitor Gustave and Mi, her husband's sister. Sou-Chong then realises that he cannot hold Lisa back and hides his deep sorrow with a smile.