Zeller's operetta about Adam the bird seller and his fiancée Christel became his most successful work for the operetta stage. He had trained as a lawyer and enjoyed a successful position with the Imperial and Royal Ministry of Information in Vienna. Still, he remained close to music and wrote frequently, giving himself up to the delights of Viennese operetta as popularized by the Strauss family and others.
At its premiere at the Theater an der Wien on January 10, 1891, Zeller's fourth stage work was a spectacular success. At a time when operetta had begun to fade in public favor, Zeller's Der Vogelhändler not only won the hearts of its audiences, but also renewed Vienna's love affair with the genre. Excerpts from Vogelhändler were sung and whistled in the streets and small ensembles everywhere produced arrangements of its marches and waltzes. The work's success was repeated in other capitals of Europe and it traveled to North and South America to considerable acclaim. Still, the Viennese style of light opera tends not to endure transport and translation altogether well. Thus, Zeller's charming story of a Tyrolean bird seller and his (several) loves was most dear to those in the composer's own country. There, it was assured not just popularity, but honor as a splendid offering of irresistible music.
The libretto by Moritz West and Ludwig Held may be no more literate than those of other suppliers of operetta texts, but it did afford the composer ample situations for memorable music. Best known moments are the heroine's bouncy "Ich bin die Christel von der Post" (I am Christel from the Post) and the duet led by Adam, the eponymous bird seller, "Schenkt Man sich Rosen in Tirol" (When One Gives Roses in Tyrol). Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, incomparable in operetta as well as opera and Lieder, both recorded them on a celebrated recital album and further popularized them in operetta concerts in Europe and America. Well-known from stage performances is the trio at the end of the final act in which the loving and determined Christel tells her wandering man, Adam and the gambling, philandering Count Stanislaus (who join her in the ensemble), "Kämpfe nie mit Frau'n...," "Never fight with women, you'll easily be defeated."
Subsequent operettas by Zeller (Der Kellermeister and Der Obersteiger) had their day, but neither achieved the ripeness of Vogelhändler's invention.