The most prominent figure of the early twentieth century Viennese operetta revival, Franz Lehár ranks among history's greatest composers in the genre. He was known above all for his international success Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow). That work kicked off a vogue for Viennese operetta in America. He expanded the genre by introducing more serious subjects in such works as Eva. Die lustige Witwe had the dubious honor of being Hitler's favorite stage work of all time, but its merits are greater than this recommendation indicates. Dramatic and vigorous, full of life, it is original and full of melodic invention. The libretto is unusually good, and the story full of romance and wit.
Lehár's ancestry included a typically Central European ethnic mix: his father, a composer, horn player, and bandmaster of note, had roots in the Czech-German Sudetenland, and his mother was Hungarian. The young Franz studied violin and entered the Prague Conservatory at age 12. He studied instrumental performance and composition, and in 1888 was hired as a violinist in a Rhineland theater orchestra. He was drafted into the military, beginning a long career as a military bandmaster, following in his father's and uncle's footsteps. Lehár composed marches, waltzes, and dances, and, after a new post brought him to Vienna from Budapest, tried his hand at operetta. He became music director of the Theater an der Wien in 1902, but his first operettas, with the exception of Der Rastelbinder (The Tinker), were not terribly successful. Lehár was a second choice as composer for the Merry Widow libretto, but the runaway success of that work established for him a permanent place on the world's stages.
Der Mann mit den drei Frauen (The Man with Three Wives), Der Graf von Luxemburg (The Count of Luxembourg), and Zigeunerliebe (Gypsy Love) were all given in 1908 and cemented Lehár's success. And as Lehár became better known, his stage works became ever more ambitious, and he began to draw on the musical resources of contemporary grand opera, particularly the works of Puccini, in his scores. During the First World War he again conducted music for the military. After the war, Viennese opera declined in popularity as new kinds of popular music took over the scene, including blues and American popular dance tunes. Instead of acknowledging defeat, Lehár tried to incorporate these new elements into the Viennese genre. The result was more successes. His success in the 1920s was also due to the famous tenor, Richard Tauber, who could handle Lehár's increasing challenging vocal roles. Two of Lehár's best operettas from the postwar period include Der Zarewitsch (The Tsarevitch) of 1927 and Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) of 1929. Lehár also began composing film scores and producing filmed versions of his operettas. Giuditta, based upon the biblical story of Judith, was his final opera, produced in 1934. Written for the Vienna Staatsoper, its dramatic content and music helped blur the distinction between serious opera and the lighter genre, which was on the wane. An ambitious work, it was broadcast by 120 radio companies. Lehár remained in Vienna during the Second World War, even though his wife was Jewish. He remained aloof from politics, and thus briefly attracted the attention of Allied anti-fascist investigators after the war.