The Met rang in 2014 with the gala premiere of a new production of Die Fledermaus, directed by Jeremy Sams and featuring new English dialogue by playwright Douglas Carter Beane. Together with set and costume designer Robert Jones, they describe what it took to create this sparkling new version of Johann Strauss’s beloved work.
Jeremy Sams This piece and the music are so ineffably Viennese, so the setting is Vienna, the place in which it was written. But I’ve decided to set it a little later. It has always been a New Year’s Eve piece—that’s when it’s traditionally performed—so I decided that’s when I was going to set it. And not just on New Year’s Eve, but Century’s Eve, as it were, in 1899, leading up to 1900.
Douglas Carter Beane Peter Gelb and Jeremy had had a discussion, and that’s when my name came up. I’m sure they must have had the lists mixed up—people they must never work with and who to call first. But I got a call from Peter Gelb out of the blue, so I met with Jeremy, and we hit it off. I remember I had decided that I wanted to set it in the world of Gustav Klimt, that Vienna. So I walked in ready to pitch this. And Jeremy says, I want to set this in 1900. It was that remarkable thing where you hope you can convince someone and then you find out that they’re already there.
JS The feel of it is on the cusp of fashion and art, when the new Vienna and the old Vienna were just overlapping. By the new Vienna I mean people like Klimt, Schiele, the Vienna Werkstätte—all those people who did beautiful furniture designs that are gorgeous but very spare and cut back. They belonged to the beginning of the new century. And the other Vienna, which was sort of dying out, is the place of the big balls, gowns, opulence. The first act is a bourgeois setting, warm and cozy. There are soft furnishings and everything’s red, so it feels velvety and plush. Act II is gold. It’s a huge set, because it’s a Met show—you can’t stint on these things! In the middle of it, we have something that’s based on the dome of the famous Secession Building in Vienna, which is made out of gold leaf.
Robert Jones This the grandest party in Vienna. Everyone’s fighting to get a ticket. I think the audience has to experience the spectacle of going to that party. Prince Orlofsky is incredibly wealthy and he would say to everyone, You’ve got to wear black and gold. It’s a theme party. So it’s incredibly opulent. By the time we get to Act III, we’ve got a monochrome, black-and-white space, which is the prison. It’s a room made of bars, quite severe and again with a strict color palette.
JS So we go from red to gold to black-and- white. It’s almost like we’re moving into modernism, if you like, as the centuries progress. The nice thing is that, at the end of Act III, the party guests from the previous act all turn up at the prison. So by the end of the show, the middle class, the upper class, the lower class are all as one. Everything blends into one gorgeous mess, which of course life is.
DCB Writing the libretto, I wanted, as much as I could, to create what the experience must have been like the first time people saw Die Fledermaus. Not recreate what was there, but to see how funny it must have been, how contemporary and alive it must have felt. Vienna in 1870, when it was written, and in 1900 was an incredibly cosmopolitan place. It was really the Muslim world and the European world coming together. If you look at photographs of the period, you see different hats and different ethnicities and different garb. It does feel very much like New York, this mixture of worlds. That was very influential for me. I wanted this to be a show that New Yorkers would get the rhythm of. The pauses and the turns of phrase are very New York, as it must have been for Vienna in that period. This is our hometown show.
JS Doug’s an amazing playwright, and he’s brought a playwright’s ear to the piece. It has a great deal of dialogue. It’s a comic operetta, as much spoken as sung. I’ve done the singing translation and he’s been working on the spoken elements—the book, you might say, in musical theater terms.
DCB It became incredibly collaborative. And after a while, I’d trust Jeremy so much that I would just write sections of a scene and send it to him and he would send stuff back. And I would write a joke here or a little image there and it would wind up in the lyric, and that was very satisfying. There’s playwriting and then there’s musical comedy book-writing. And then there’s just libretto, which is not my training. It’s even sharper and tighter. I feel like I’m writing haiku, it’s so concise. And operetta is very different from opera in that there are huge passages of talking. But you’re always feeling the need for a song, so you have to keep it at a brisk pace.
JS What Doug has done is to actually make sense of the piece. That sounds strange, because it’s been around for well over 100 years. But there are bits of it that really don’t make sense. So we’ve managed to make some really clear plot points—the main one being that Falke, Eisenstein’s friend, is the éminence grise. He’s the puppet master. He’s the man who’s organizing this whole thing and pulling the strings.
DCB We have a little moral at the end, a kind of sweet, touching reunion, because that’s just who we are as a people. I said to Jeremy, if this were an American musical theater show, we would have to have a reprise of a love song as the couple gets together in the third act. That’s just a rule. And it doesn’t happen in this operetta. Maybe it does now, I’m not saying. But I think it will be satisfying.
JS My hope is that people will be touched by it, as well as amused. The production is contemporary, and I hope it’ll make sense and chime with people’s lives, and they’ll recognize their neighbors and their own behavior at parties, their home life, the things they’ve done in their youth or maybe even are about to do that night.
DCB Fledermaus is maybe one of those five titles that your average New Yorker knows. Maybe they’ve heard the waltzes or they know the overture. And I feel I have a contract with these people to give them a really good, heartfelt show that will make them feel that they’re seeing something special and satisfying. When the curtain goes up, you just want them to say, “I love these characters. I love that maid. I feel sorry for that wife who’s going to have an affair with the opera singer.” It’s all identifiable. Even the jerks are kind of identifiable. That’s what I want. And we’re trying to make that happen.
JS This piece isn’t a million miles away from The Marriage of Figaro. It’s all about class and machination. But within that, marriages survive. By the end, Eisenstein and his wife work out what’s been wrong with their relationship. People discover, through disguise, the truth about themselves. For me, that’s the beauty of it. High and low, rich and poor, through actually owning up to their lust and their greed and their cupidity, discover that now that they know the truth about each other, they can get on. And, in our production, they can start a new life, a new century, with some hope. —Edited by Philipp Brieler