“Die Fledermaus”: A Sparkling Finale to Sommerfest

The Minnesota Orchestra’s summer festival Sommerfest is drawing to a close, but there is still time to catch its grand finale: Johann Strauss’ sparkling operetta, Die Fledermaus. There are a few tickets still available, and you should mob the Orchestra’s website to snap them up.

Let me tell you why.

* * *

To begin, let me share a few personal memories of Die Fledermaus, which may explain why the work will always have a place in my heart.

I have had an extensive background performing in musical comedy—I started out as Kurt in The Sound of Music and never looked back—but Fledermaus was the first real opera I performed in. That in and of itself is enough to make me love it. But these performances took place while I was still teaching Latin American history at the University of Kansas; and while it was not unusual for the music faculty to perform on stage, it most certainly was unusual for the history faculty to do so. As a result, I was the subject for much gossip and speculation prior to opening night… from fellow instructors and students alike. Intrigued, many made their way to the performances.

There, they had a bit of a shock.

Die Fledermaus was originally set in Vienna during the late 1860s—a time widely associated with reckless hedonism, and extravagance that was nearly violent in its intensity. Nowadays, these associations are largely forgotten, and we tend to think of the entire century as simply “old.” To help the audience better understand the “feel” of the piece, the director chose to set it in the Roaring ‘20s, an era that has the same connotations to us as the 1860s did to Strauss’ audience. And indeed, the Great Gatsby-like atmosphere fit perfectly. It also gave the creative staff a chance to let their imaginations run wild—so much so that when the curtain rose on the famous party scene in Act II, the audience audibly gasped as they took in the jaw-dropping costumes and set, and immediately broke into applause.

And trust me, my costume was something to behold. I was in a little fuchsia-and-purple number that fused Chinese and Persian elements with an Art Deco sensibility. The fabric was as diaphanous as it was sparkly, perfect for a drunken revel out on the town.

Of course, I was also bedecked in matching makeup—painted on so heavily that it would have startled a Maori warrior. Best of all, it primarily consisted of fuchsia glitter… and anyone who has ever worked with the blessed stuff knows that glitter gets everywhere and stays with you forever. So naturally, my face and hair still had more than a few traces of glitter the next morning when I went off to teach. I think you can imagine the scene as I walked into the classroom, and 75 undergrads uniformly tilted their heads to the side and raised an eyebrow.

I’m sure this helped make my lectures on the Bourbon Reforms of the 1740s much more… dynamic.

Anyway, the production was a sensation. The word of mouth from opening night was so good that ticket sales went through the roof, and each of the remaining performances were sold out. I personally gained a whole lot of street cred from my peers and students despite the fuchsia glitter… or maybe because of it. And most of all, the production rekindled my passion for performing—a passion that is still very much alive today.

* * *

In many ways, Fledermaus is a most unusual piece. It is a rare example of a revenge comedy. And for it to truly make its impact, both those elements have to be present. It is too easy to stage the work as a bit of madcap fun, but there has to be a hint of anger there, too. For me, the perfect description of Die Fledermaus is a phrase Hal Prince once used to describe Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music: whipped cream with knives.

The story is similar to the plots of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in that it is entirely logical, yet patently absurd. Sometime in the past, Gabriel von Eisenstein played a humiliating practical joke on his good friend, Dr. Falke. The two were at a fancy masked ball where Falke was dressed in an extravagant bat costume (the “fledermaus” of the show’s title). Eisenstein got Falke drunk, then dropped him off outside of town, forcing his hung-over friend to stagger back into town on foot in an increasingly bedraggled bat costume that evoked jeers from children and his neighbors alike. Soon he became the laughing stock of the entire city; he never lived down the mocking epithet, “Dr. Bat.”

And so Falke devises a complicated plan to avenge himself by duping the philandering Eisenstein into trying to seduce Eisenstein’s own wife in disguise, and thereby revealing his infidelity to all. The centerpiece of the story is an over-the-top masked ball, where multiple mistaken identities, close calls, and dubious antics make for joyous entertainment. And amid the final laughter at how things ultimately turn out, the audience more than suspects that like Eisenstein’s original prank that set the story in motion, Falke’s practical joke has also gone too far… and the cycle is about to repeat itself.

To match the effervescent story, Strauss composed some of the most astonishing music of his career. It is wonderfully melodic, to the point that many of the songs are performed independently and have taken on lives of their own. The Overture, in particular, is a beloved concert piece that invariably moves people to dance. It only takes one or two measures for it to completely capture the listener and transport him or her to a glittering age of decadence.

And this is one of the marvels of Strauss’s score—there have been few times which a score has come to almost single-handedly embody an entire era. It is impossible not to be swept up in Strauss’ brilliant recreation of Vienna at the height of its glory. It is Vienna. The waltz, in Strauss’s hands, isn’t some old fuddy-duddy of a dance, but a dazzling example of unbridled revelry. The character pieces aren’t just mindless bits of slapstick, but strike a perfect balance of being ironic, witty, and hilarious.

And the music is completely infectious… I remember as the curtain closed on Act II, I wished that party could just keep going.

Another reason to go is to see the staging of the opera. Over the past few years, the Minnesota Orchestra has perfected its own unique style of presenting operas—a style that is unique by necessity. Because it was built primarily for acoustic orchestra performances, Orchestra Hall is a difficult space to present stage works. It lacks space in the wings or backstage, and it is impossible to move fully-designed sets onstage. But over the last few years, director Bob Neu has worked miracles with a less-is-more approach, using minimalist props and sets to bring the operas to life in only a few deft strokes. And the results have been spectacular. Anyone who saw the Orchestra’s staging of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, done in partnership with In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, will know what I’m talking about—those performances were absolute wonders that again drew gasps from the audience. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, using these same forces, was equally astonishing. And who can forget Deborah Voigt’s hair-raising suicide at the end of Tosca, handled simply by a brilliant trick of light and shadow.

The Orchestra’s staging (or semi-staging) of operas over the last few years has been an absolute triumph of maximizing minimal resources to create breathtaking productions. And, coincidentally, they have completely undermined assertions made by Peter Gelb from the Met—Gelb seems to feel that opera only works when it’s presented in extravagant, over-the-top stagings. Well, the Minnesota Orchestra’s productions prove that, again, sometimes less is more.

So go!  Visit the Orchestra’s website and get your tickets if you haven’t done so already.  Don’t miss hearing this brilliant score—one that evoked pangs of jealousy from such composers as Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss (not related). And see it in a wonderful rendition that will match the music’s effervescence. You’ll even get to see my friends and colleagues from the Minnesota Chorale as drunken party guests… and let me tell you they are loving every moment of it.

Go!  I guarantee you will have a most enjoyable time!

Xochipilli

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