You’d be pretty surprised if Boston Lyric Opera announced that its new production of “The Merry Widow” was being conducted by Billy Joel. That’s not happening, but Billy’s half-brother, Alexander Joel, will be on the podium when Franz Lehár’s operetta opens on Friday at the Citi Shubert Theatre, with Roger Honeywell as Count Danilo and Erin Wall as Hanna Glawari, the wealthy title widow.
The brothers were born worlds apart: Billy in the Bronx in 1949, Alexander in London in 1971. Alexander remembers first meeting Billy when he was 5. “We were in Vienna. It was my first day of school, 1976, and that’s what inspired him to write the song ‘Vienna.’ ”
Joel says his childhood was spent moving between London and Vienna. After boarding school in Switzerland, he studied law for a year in London. “My father wanted me to become something serious,” he says. “I wanted to become a musician.”
Which he did, and now he’s making his American conducting debut. “I asked [BLO general and artistic director] Esther Nelson, ‘Why did you hire me?’ And she said, ‘We just heard about you, from our connections in Europe.’ ”
It’s easy to imagine what they heard. Joel says his first job was in a small town just outside Vienna as assistant to “a fantastic operetta conductor named Franz Bauer-Theussl. He was the assistant to a guy called Max Schönherr. And Max Schönherr was the assistant to a guy called Franz Lehár. So that sort of thing is passed along in Vienna. And I was fortunate enough to learn it from a real master of the genre.”
Nowadays, he adds, “music directors never conduct operetta, because you don’t get any attention. And that’s very sad, because conducting operetta is actually just as hard as conducting a Puccini opera. Conducting operetta is harder than conducting a Wagner opera, as far as I’m concerned. You only learn to conduct by conducting opera. I went through that system, and I can tell you that’s the way to do it.”
This production’s stage director, Lillian Groag, has her own Viennese credentials. She was born in Buenos Aires, but her father, she says, “was a Viennese Jew. He got scared and left in ’38.” Was Viennese operetta part of her childhood? “My dolls were called Lolo, Dodo, Frou-Frou” — the names of three of Danilo’s beloved grisettes. “I knew the entire score of ‘The Merry Widow’ in German; I could sing each and every song when I was 5 years old.”
Groag says she’s directed the operetta just once before, “when I was just coming out of college, in Lake Forest. One of my grisettes broke a leg or an ankle, and I had to go on for her, and I had to dance the can-can. It was horrific.” Groag went on, under the stage name Lillian Garrett, to become an actress, whose TV credits include “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Lou Grant.” She’s also a playwright.
For BLO’s “Merry Widow,” she’s moved the time frame from 1905, when the operetta was written, to 1913. “We wanted it right up against World War I,” she says. “The big Strauss waltzes, from the 1870s and 1880s, already have that feeling of a world going by. So we wanted to bring it close to when it actually happened. It’s New Year’s 1913. We’re in Erté clothes and Art Deco and Art Nouveau designs. Any aware person at the time knew that something horrible was going to happen.”
There are a few more changes. The production will be mostly in English, with some singing in German and French that will be surtitled. Groag wrote a new book for the dialogue: “I didn’t make the jokes contemporary; I just made them acerbic and witty and fast and, forgive me for saying so, funnier.”
Hanna, originally from the mythical Balkan nation of Pontevedro, is now an American who married the head of the Pontevedran state bank. “We’re trying to represent all the countries that were involved in World War I,” Groag explains. The action is confined to the Pontevedran embassy in Paris, where the staff is praying that Danilo will marry Hanna so her money stays in Pontevedro; otherwise, says Groag, “the country will go bankrupt, and the entire embassy will have to go back to that Balkan mudhole.”
Then there’s Camille (John Tessier), who if war breaks out could be going to the front in Belgium, and Valencienne (Chelsea Basler), the woman he loves. Valencienne’s husband, Baron Zeta (Andrew Wilkowske), is often presented as “a bumbling old fool,” Groag notes. That won’t be the case here. “We have a young Zeta who’s just been married two years, tops; he’s not an old man who married a 20-year-old. And he’s a wonderful comedian with a fantastic voice, a very able theater man.”
One last change: “The can-can won’t happen; there’s an apache dance which is what was going on in 1913. But it is the embassy wives that do it,” Groag adds, “and the girls are dressed very naughtily.”
BOSTON LYRIC OPERA: “The Merry Widow”
At Citi Shubert Theatre, April 29-May 8. Tickets: $25-$175. 866-348-9738, www.blo.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.