Strauss in the house 

Die Fledermaus is opera at its best and most wicked

To this day, I vehemently deny the allegation that I snored through most of the first opera I ever saw. The accusation came from none other than my dear mother. I can’t say that I can defend myself; I was asleep, after all. And, in all fairness, I was only six, a little slip of a thing in a velvet dress and maryjanes that, from the crushed velour seat in which I watched (or slept) did not reach the floor. What is clear, however—no soporific confusion here—is that no one will snore during this week’s production of Die Fledermaus.

Now, I can only imagine what you are thinking: Opera is for old fogies, for men who wear ascots, for women who want to be seen, like some Henry James character, in their latest taffeta evening gowns, fanning themselves with gloved hands too delicate for the song-told story unfolding before them.

Well, think again. This English translation of the German opera, composed by Johann Strauss, is nothing less than wicked and witty and full of herky-jerky fun. Produced as a debut collaboration between the University of Montana’s Department of Music and MCT Community Theatre, Die Fledermaus brings together the emphatic, crystal-shattering voices of opera with the added dialogue of operetta, and the comic, sexy story line of revenge and mistaken identity of which Voltaire and the best from Vaudeville would have been proud.

Here’s how it starts: Gabriel von Eisenstein’s old college buddy, Falke, convinces him to come to a costume ball as a way to postpone turning himself in for his eight-day jail sentence for a minor offense. Falke has been cooking up a little revengeful scheme to “repay” a joke Eisenstein once played on him: After another night of decadence and debauchery at a masquerade ball, Eisenstein abandoned Falke on a public park bench, leaving him inebriated and passed out in his bat costume, only to awaken to the sniggering of Sunday morning passersby.

Once they arrive at the ball at the palace of Prince Orlofsky—a bored, spoiled and effeminate prince, and, not surprisingly, performed by a woman with a mezzo soprano voice—all hell breaks loose. It has already come to pass that Rosalinda, Eisenstein’s wife, has been invited to the ball and told in a letter that her husband will be there drinking and shamelessly flirting with the long-legged young beauties. She arrives, striking and irresistible in costume and mask, allegedly a Hungarian countess. She gets to observe her husband and play the coquette, while he has no idea that he is shamelessly flirting with his own wife.

We know, too, that before she arrived, her old flame, Alfred, is arrested at her home, mistaken for her husband, Eisenstein. The story continues to twist and turn with much flirting going on, and even more champagne imbibed. The policeman who mistakenly arrested Rosalinda’s old admirer befriends Eisenstein at the party, where they both drink more than their share, then meet up again at the jail when Eisenstein finally staggers in before the clock strikes midnight to commence his term behind bars.

By the end of the final act, masks are removed, identities are revealed, truths are told, maids are again maids, spouses are forgiven (maybe!), and the thick, unpleasant fog of a champagne hangover settles upon many a skull. More than that I cannot say without spoiling all the secrets.

“One of the biggest challenges in putting this show up has been trying to give each cast enough time to get comfortable, enough time to work together to bring the opera to life,” says MCT Director Joe Martinez, about the 35 roles and ensemble cast members who had to be double cast. Die Fledermaus is his first opera, though he has worked with the UM Music Department before on several shows and presentations. “I had to get used to not wanting to block everything, to be OK with the fact that a performer is just standing there and singing. Opera is not like musical theatre where the actors sing and move and dance and push the story along all at once.”

“I am really excited about this show. We’re hoping this sort of collaboration with MCT will grow and we can do something like this yearly,” says Professor Stephen Kalm, acting chair and director of Opera Theatre for the Music Department. “The MCT Theatre is perfect for opera,” he adds, pointing to the full orchestra pit and all around him to the walls and ceiling and floor, the space that makes for good acoustics. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the students, and I think Missoula is a community that loves opera, if the recent packed house when the Utah Opera came to perform Cinderella was any indication.”

As it turns out, the rehearsal process for Die Fledermaus had some of the same flavor as the show itself. A week before opening, the actor playing Alfred, Rosalinda’s old flame who was mistakenly carted off to prison instead of Eisenstein, won an opera competition and was temporarily away from rehearsal, singing in Seattle. Ironically, the role of Alfred was one of only two that had not been double cast, so his understudy was to fill in during his absence. The understudy, however, mysteriously lost his voice. So, during the rehearsal, Professor Kalm was off-stage singing and speaking the role, while the understudy lip-synched the words. There was a sense that some cousin to Cyrano de Bergerac was trying to elbow his way into the performance.

When asked if there is some significance to why Falke’s costume was a bat, a “flying mouse” that lends the opera its name, Martinez laughs. He says he doesn’t know, but a smile slides across his face that makes me wonder otherwise.

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