Sligo girl reviled by Bavaria: the musical
Katrin Röver and Genija Rykova as Lola Montez. Photograph: Matthias Horn
Once upon a time, a fine, spirited wee girl was born to her Irish mother and Scottish father in 1821 in Grange, Co Sligo. Or so the story goes, because little Eliza Rosanna Gilbert grew up to change her name and nationality several times and travel the four corners of the world in search of excitement and adventure.
When she died, at the age of 40, the world knew her better as Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer. As such, apart from gaining notoriety in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, she became a countess in the central European country of Bavaria, started a revolution there and toppled its government three times.
“Next to Queen Victoria, Lola was the most famous woman in the world,” says German director Jürgen Kuttner, whose new production, with co-director Tom Kühnel, of the musical Lola Montez, by Peter Kreuder and Maurus Pacher, has just premiered at the Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich, Germany. “She was a superstar not even someone like Madonna could reach.”
Lola thrusted herself into a whirlwind of adventure and excess that would make a society reporter blush. At 16, Gilbert eloped with a British lieutenant, but the couple separated shortly after. She relaunched herself under her new identity as Spanish dancer Lola Montez and travelled across Europe, trailing scandals in her wake.
In 1846 she arrived in Munich, the capital of the kingdom of Bavaria, now a state in Germany. She sought an audience with King Ludwig I and, when he asked if her chest dimensions were real, ripped open her bodice to prove it. The 60-year-old king became besotted with her. He had her portrait painted and placed in his “Gallery of Beauty”.
When Lola, reviled by the populace and government alike, wished for more power and acceptance, Ludwig made her first a Bavarian citizen, then the countess of Landsfeld, an imaginary place.
To accommodate her wishes, he dissolved and reformed his government twice. Ludwig presented her with a palace in a chic city-centre location and showered her with money.
But rather than keep her head down to avoid further antagonising an irate and begrudging population, she wore black and smoked openly in the streets – both taboos – while walking her enormous Great Dane.
Eventually finding herself at the centre of public hostility and warring student fraternities, Lola convinced King Ludwig to close Munich’s university. The tumult, fed by the widespread revolutionary spirit of 1848, became so great that Ludwig had to abdicate in favour of his son Maximilian to save the monarchy.