Classical V: Opera Night!

Tonight we celebrate Opera Night with the return of the University of Denver’s Lamont Opera Theatre performing Johann Strauss’s hilarious and timeless Die Fledermaus.

Johann Strauss, Jr.
(October 25, 1825-June 3, 1899)
Die Fledermaus (The Bat)
(1874)

The oldest and most prolific son of Johann Strauss Sr., Johann Jr. wrote his first waltz at age six. Though his father was against his pursuing a career in music, the younger Strauss received formal musical training while growing up in Vienna, studying violin and music theory. By 1844, he was already giving public concerts that included some of his own compositions. In short order, he and his orchestra became his father’s chief rival, but after Johann Sr.’s death in 1849 the son merged both groups to create the most important dance orchestra in Vienna. So began one of the most prolific and distinguished musical careers in the history of Western music, one that is usually looked down upon because of the context in which the music was created and performed. In reality, however, Johann, Jr., can be seen as a sort of pop icon, and he traveled all over the world to conduct his own and many other works. Of course, most of his huge output is dance music, e.g., the Blue Danube Waltz (1867), but he expanded his work as public taste called for it. When operettas became popular in the 1860s, he produced some of the most famous in history, such as Die Fledermaus (1874), where he worked with librettist Richard Genée to create a stage work still popular today.

According to scholars, the original sources for Die Fledermaus are Das Gefängnis (The Prison), a farce by German playwright Julius Roderich Benedix, and the French vaudeville play Le Réveillon (a New Year’s Eve supper party), by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, which was first translated by Karl Haffner into a non-musical play to be produced in Vienna. Since the setting was to be in Vienna, the supper-party was eventually replaced by a Viennese ball, and Haffner’s translation was handed over to Genée for reworking. The operetta was premiered on April 5, 1874 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna and has been immensely popular ever since. “Operetta” is another term for what we now call musical theatre, and it indicates that the production includes sung and spoken passages. The story of Die Fledermaus centers on a masked ball, given by a Russian prince, that brings together the main characters in various disguises. The merry mishaps that occur present an interesting combination of farce, genuine human emotion, and realistic insights into urban life that feel relevant even today.

Synopsis (adapted from various online sources)

Act 1: New Year’s Eve. Gabriel von Eisenstein has been sentenced to eight days in prison for insulting an official, thanks in part to his incompetent attorney, Dr. Blind. Adele, Eisenstein’s maid, receives a letter from her sister inviting her to the social event of the season, a ball hosted by Prince Orlofsky. She pretends the letter is from a sick aunt and asks for a leave of absence. Falke, Eisenstein’s friend, arrives to invite him to the ball, and subsequently encourages him to put off going to jail for a day and go to the ball for one last night of fun. Falke tells Eisenstein to bring along his infamous pocket watch to charm the ladies. While Eisenstein changes, Falke invites Rosalinde to the ball as well, telling her that if she comes in disguise she’ll be able to observe her husband flirting with other women.  Eisenstein bids farewell to Adele and his wife Rosalinde, and after he leaves Rosalinde is visited and serenaded (apparently not for the first time!) by her former lover, Alfred, the singing teacher. Frank, the governor of the prison, arrives to take Eisenstein to jail, and finds Alfred instead. In order not to compromise Rosalinde, Alfred pretends to be Eisenstein and accompanies Frank to the jail.

Act 2: It turns out that Falke, with Prince Orlofsky’s permission, has arranged for this ball as a way of getting revenge on Eisenstein. The previous winter, Eisenstein had abandoned a drunken Falke dressed as a bat (thus explaining the opera’s title) in the center of town, exposing him to ridicule the next day. As part of Falke’s scheme, Frank, Adele and Rosalinde arrive in disguise: Rosalinde pretends to be a Hungarian countess, Eisenstein goes by the name “Marquis Renard,” Frank is “Chevalier Chagrin,” and Adele pretends she is a Russian actress. The ball is in progress and the Prince welcomes his guests. Eisenstein is introduced to Adele, but is confused by her striking resemblance to his maid. Angry to spot her husband flirting with her maid, Rosalinde sings an impassioned ode to her betrayed homeland. Then Falke introduces the disguised Rosalinde to Eisenstein. During an amorous tête-à-tête, she succeeds in extracting a valuable watch from her husband’s pocket, something which she can use in the future as evidence of his impropriety. Midnight is approaching, and Falke entertains the guests with the story of how he earned the nickname of Dr. Fledermaus: one drunken evening, when he was dressed as a bat for a costume ball, his best friend Eisenstein played a practical joke on him that made him the laughingstock of Vienna. The crowd toasts drink, love, and brotherhood until the stroke of midnight, when the new century begins. The guests dance through the night. As the clock strikes six, Eisenstein, whose attempts to retrieve his watch from Rosalinde have failed, rushes off to jail.

Act 3: Frosch the jailer is vexed by the late arrival of his boss, Frank, and by the nonstop singing of Alfred in cell number twelve. Frank finally appears, tipsy and enraptured by memories of his magical evening posing as an impresario. Ida and Adele arrive, per Falke’s instructions. Adele hopes Frank might further her stage aspirations. Frank sends them off and then admits Eisenstein, who says he has come to serve his sentence. He is surprised to learn his cell is already occupied by a man who claims to be him and who was found in his apartment with Rosalinde. Blind arrives, claiming he was summoned by the man in cell twelve to handle a case of false arrest. Determined to get to the bottom of the matter, Eisenstein snatches Blind’s cloak, glasses, and wig to disguise himself as the lawyer and confront the impostor. At that moment, Rosalinde rushes in. She tries to secure Alfred’s release and asks “Blind” to press divorce charges against her errant husband, but she is offended when the “lawyer” seems to take Eisenstein’s side. Dropping his disguise, Eisenstein accuses his wife of promiscuity, at which point Rosalinde produces his watch. Both lament the impasse at which they’ve arrived, admitting that divorce would be a shame, since they really do love each other. Falke arrives to gloat over the success of his plan—only to find the couple falling into each other’s arms and to discover Adele, Frank, and Frosch happily embarking on new careers. As Falke bemoans that all his efforts were in vain and his life is a failure, Orlofsky arrives with his guests in tow just in time to hear the story—and breaks into hysterical laughter. All sing a final paean to the joys of champagne.