In Focus

Johann Strauss, Jr.
Die Fledermaus

Premiere: Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 1874

The supreme example of Viennese operetta, Die Fledermaus both defines and transcends that genre. Its story centers on a magnificent masked ball, given by a Russian prince, that brings together all the main characters in various disguises—a wealthy bourgeois couple with marriage issues, the wife’s maid, the maid’s ambitious sister, and a prison warden. Also involved in the proceedings is the wife’s would-be lover. Unknown to them all, the husband’s best friend, who is also a guest at the ball, is pulling the strings in the background to avenge himself for a humiliating prank played on him in the past. The three-act journey from boudoir to ballroom to jail provides ample opportunities for farce and humor, but also for genuine human emotion and a surprisingly realistic view of urban life. The themes of jealousy, disguise, adultery, and revenge are the components of tragic grand opera, but here served up with a lightness of touch that pays homage to the more serious art form even while offering graceful parody. (Rosalinde’s admirer, for example, is an opera singer named Alfred, recalling the iconic tenor role in Verdi’s La Traviata and lampooning the clichéd persona of an operatic tenor in general.) The unique achievement of Die Fledermaus lies in combining these various elements into a delightful theatrical vision all its own.

The Creators

Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825–1899) was the most successful member of a Viennese family of composer-musicians that also included his father and two brothers. He is best known for his dance music, particularly waltzes and polkas, which he performed with his own orchestra, touring extensively throughout Europe (and visiting the United States in 1872). The libretto to Die Fledermaus was written by German dramatist Karl Haffner (1804–1876) and German-born author and composer Richard Genée (1823–1895). The story is based on an obscure comedy, Das Gefängnis (“The Prison”), by German playwright Roderich Benedix and the vaudeville Le Réveillon (“New Year’s Eve”) by the prolific French team of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, who also created libretti for composers including Jacques Offenbach, Jules Massenet, and Georges Bizet. The Met’s new English-language production features dialogue by playwright Douglas Carter Beane and lyrics by director Jeremy Sams.

The Setting

The action takes place in Vienna in the late 19th century. The Met’s production is set on New Year’s Eve, 1899.

The Music

The score of Die Fledermaus is a rare blend of the sparklingly entertaining with the substantial. It contains some of the most infectious and irresistible melodies ever written for the stage, and several of the solos are vocally challenging even by operatic standards, including Rosalinde’s Act II Csárdás (a traditional Hungarian dance form) and Adele’s two songs in Act II and III. The fascination of the music has long outlasted the dance forms from which it emerged and at which Strauss excelled. These are not only present in their own right, as in the dances at the ball in Act II—extended in this production into a ballet that incorporates music from other Strauss works—and the famous overture, which has long been a concert standard. They also form the basis of much of the vocal music, including the first of the Act I trios (a gallop) and the choral “Champagne” polka and rhythmically complex “pocket watch” duet in Act II.

Die Fledermaus at the Met

The work had its Met premiere, sung in German, in 1905 with Marcella Sembrich as Rosalinde. Over the course of two seasons it received ten performances (five of them on tour), then disappeared from the repertoire until an extraordinary new English-language production was unveiled in 1950. Playwright and screenwriter Garson Kanin directed and provided the translation of the dialogue, with lyrics written by Howard Dietz. The cast included Ljuba Welitsch, Risë Stevens, Set Svanholm, Richard Tucker, and a memorable turn by Patrice Munsel as Adele, with conductor Eugene Ormandy making his Met debut. The non-singing role of Frosch was played by Broadway and film star Jack Gilford, who performed it 77 times over the following seasons; he also directed the 1962 revival. Other artists who appeared in this production include Maria Jeritza (a single performance in 1951), Hilde Güden, Dorothy Kirsten, Regina Resnik, and Anna Moffo as Rosalinde; Roberta Peters as Adele; Jarmila Novotna and Kitty Carlisle as Orlofsky; and Theodore Uppman as Eisenstein. Otto Schenk directed a new production in 1986, designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen and conducted by Jeffrey Tate, which starred Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos, and Håkan Hagegård. Schenk, who also played Frosch, revised the dialogue, which was translated into English, with the musical numbers sung in German. Later casts included Carol Vaness, Sondra Radvanovsky, Judith Blegen, Harolyn Blackwell, Neil Shicoff, Siegfried Jerusalem, Hermann Prey, Thomas Hampson, and Sid Caesar and Dom DeLuise as Frosch. Jeremy Sams’s new production opens on New Year’s Eve 2013.