The Last Waltz of the Gilded Age

“Perhaps he thinks I’m unfaithful; perhaps he thinks I love another, but I’m merely married!” –  Rosalinde
Act I:  Die Fledermaus

“Hofball in Wien” by Gause

As illogical as it is, the Zeitgeist of Western culture seems to take a perverse cue from our passing from one century into the next. Of course, there is no logical reason for this. The moon spins around the earth and the earth around the sun and the sun spins around the Milky Way, and the Milky Way spins around… you get it.  It’s all in one long series of circles with only our ever-changing view of the stars to mark the passage, but Europeans seem to make a change, and a radical change, just because a page is to be torn from a calendar.In the last decade of the 1400s Columbus sailed for India and changed the future of several continents forever, and at the same time Michelangelo changed sculpture and painting forever. In the last decade of the 1500s, a group of men in Florence created opera and changed the course of music forever; at the same time, Shakespeare was creating a new direction for drama and Caravaggio was turning perspective painting inside out; they changed theatre and art forever. By the end of the 1600s Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu unified France and established an absolute monarchy inherited by Louis XIV. In the last decade of the 1700s the French executed their king and queen and reversed the relationship between the governed and the government, changing all of Europe forever. And in the last decades of the 1800s there was one last sigh of the two-thousand-year-old idle class. It sighed to a waltz and died in a war.

The 20th century seems to have been predominantly occupied by a series of wars and financial disasters and that, unfortunately, didn’t change with the passing into the 21st century. However, the Internet did make its presence felt in the last decade of the 20th century and one might accurately predict that it changed the world forever. Today, at least from my perspective, it is difficult to conceive the lifestyle of the 19th-century upper crust, brittle with elegance, rife naughtiness, and numbed by ennui. While reading A Picture of Dorian Gray, I can’t imagine myself living that life, where the day began by pulling a cord to summon a valet who would arrive with tea and the morning’s invitations to dinners and balls, when afternoons were spent accepting the most promising of those invitations, and evenings were spent, if nothing else was on, dining at private clubs with intimate friends, attending the second act of an opera or play, and meeting friends for supper at midnight, before going home with one’s mistress(or dancer from the second act), only to begin it all again the next afternoon. There is no alarm clock to shatter the early morning, no traffic to suffer through on the way to the office, no office…  Truly, I can’t imagine it (or can’t admit to imagining it).

It is said that Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow were the very last gasp of that idle class, a last hurrah before catastrophe. Both are very fine examples of the lightness of this existence and of its bold extravagance that supported by investments, rents, or ruinous loans and lines of credit. But it was a house that would not stand. It was called a house of mirth by Edith Wharton (“The hearts of the wise are in the house of mourning; but the hearts of fools are in the house of mirth.” Ecclesiastes 7:4).

Composer Johann Strauss II

Baron von Eisenstein and his lovely young wife live in a house of mirth in Vienna, but no one would have guessed that at the time.It seemed that the dancing would go on forever. Die Fledermaus is entirely concerned with happy music and comic timing. Their lives kept in motion by the waltz and ruled by a new king, “Long live Champagne the First!”The Gilded Age was a giddy world for the robber barons, given over to pleasure. By the time Die Fledermaus was on the boards (1874) in Vienna, the conventions of marriage had become even less respected than they were in the 18th century. However, in the 19th century the Queen Victoria cast a long shadow and the conventions of matrimony were strictly observed, socially, and ignored privately, but only as long as the secret was closely kept. A husband or wife who was discovered on the wrong side of these conventions was cast out of society along with the children, and only enormous wealth could redeem their descendents. Marriage was in a display case, and on a marble and gilt pedestal that was just tall enough to put marital fidelity a bit out of reach in this rarefied world of dinner parties, grand balls, and midnight suppers. Courtesans and brothels were thriving.

We live in a different world. After the swinging 1960s, some of us are challenged by even the idea of adultery. This was not the case in 1870s Vienna, where the grand façade of Marriage stood as proudly as a bank on Wall Street today. In 1870s Vienna, the few who were banking on marital fidelity were thought naive. Thus Die Fledermaus, a comedy based on attempted adulteries, could and did have its world premiere on Easter Sunday. Rosalinde expresses a different worldview from ours when she remarks about her old lover: “Maybe he thinks I’ve been untrue; maybe he thinks I love another, but I’m merely married!”

Still, the book and lyrics are widely recognized as absolutely masterful, and so much so as to be crowned the epitome of the genre. In this salon farce, neither husband nor wife are truly blameless; both are up to their ears in sexual temptation and cover-up lies, rather like Lucy and Ricky, but with infidelity rather than an appearance at the Copacabana in the balance.

Opera San José’s 2004 production of Die Fledermaus at the Montgomery Theater. Photo by Bob Shomler.

It has been eight years since Opera San José last produced Die Fledermaus. We bid our farewell to the Montgomery Theater with those sentimental waltzes and bouncing polkas and all’s-well-that-end’s-well finale. Thinking that it’s high time to create a new production of Die Fledermaus for San José, we assembled a brilliant team to do just that. David Rohrbaugh, our music director, who has conducted dozens of Fledermaus productions, will be on the podium, keeping the myriad waltzes sparkling and lively.

Our stage director, Marc Jacobs, is making his OSJ debut with this production. He is widely experienced in musical theatre and is adept at both subtle and broad comedy, both of which weave through the entire texture of Die Fledermaus. There is not a single serious moment in this operetta, and Marc understands sight gags, high-kicking dances, and the surprising use of Mylar to add that sparkle unique to musical comedy. His approach to this project has been to please the audience, nothing more or less, and his first request was that we commission a new English version of the book. He wanted to go back to the German text of the world premiere, which he found engaging, comical, and never silly. That commission was given to David Scott Marley, who has previously created two modernized versions of Die Fledermaus in English, and who knows the original German book all but by heart. His English version of the original dialogue is crisp, dramatically well structured, and strips some of the accretions that have barnacled this timeless comedy over the past century. It is also efficient and to the point, which modern audiences will appreciate.

OSJ crew painting the Die Fledermaus show drop, designed by Charlie Smith.

Beginning in the von Eisenstein home then moving to a great Vienna ballroom, and ending in jail, this production traces Baron Gabriel von Eisenstein and his lovely wife from lovebirds to jailbirds by the end of the performance. And it’s all in good fun. The scenic design by Charlie Smith, who recently located to Sonoma from New York, and who is designing three productions for OSJ this season, was inspired by the great iron-and-glass flower conservatories of the 19th century. Furniture and ornament in the settings were inspired by the paintings of Gustav Klimt, with its swirling art nouveau decoration, which will be most evident in the ballroom scene.

Jacobs finds that Rosalinde, who recently retired from the stage to marry the baron, a well-to-do banker, is a bird in a gilded cage, thus the golden bars of the conservatory. He also believes that Rosalinde misses the creativity and adventure of her old life (and maybe her old lover, too), so that when the opportunity arises to get into a costume and perform a part, she instantly joins the fun. Unfortunately for her, she accepted the part without having read the “script”. Rosalinde is certainly in for an adventure; she is snared by this practical joke every bit as much as her husband.

Cathleen Edwards’s costume sketches for Die Fledermaus.

The joke is played out at a fabulous party in the Vienna home of a Russian, Prince Orlofsky, an enormously wealthy nineteen-year-old suffering from that malady particular to teenagers: I’ve-already-seen-it-all syndrome. This 19th century party scene is greatly dependent on summer ball gowns, and Cathleen Edwards has designed some really lovely things to float over the ballroom floor. Her costumes have been derived directly from art of the period and will shimmer when they need to, then bring us back to earth for the final scene, at least until Orlofsky and his entire party invades the jail for a bit of spontaneous fun and the final salute to champagne.

What 19th-century ball would be complete without waltzing? Not one. Choreographer Robyn Tribuzi will be working with dancers and chorus to create the beauty of the waltz as well as the vitality of the Thunder and Lightning Polka. Of course, some of these dancers will be a bit tipsy, but don’t blame them, blame it on too much champagne.

Of course, lighting will play an enormous part in creating the atmosphere that will support the lively, sparkling music, and Pamila Gray, with years of experience at lighting opera, musical comedy, and legitimate theatre ensure that you will always be aware of the emotional content as well as the dramatic direction as it develops during the course of each scene.

We have assembled a brilliant team of veteran theater-bloods who have been putting together this new production of Die Fledermaus for the past year, and as it begins to come together we are all very much looking forward to seeing this new production on stage, breathing fresh life into this classic musical comedy.

Why is that girl on stage dressed like a boy?

Former resident mezzo-soprano, Betany Coffland, as Idamante in Opera San José’s Idomeneo, photo credit: Pat Kirk, 2011

Opera San José: If you happened to see Opera San José’s productions of Idomeneo or Faust last season you might be pondering this very question, so we asked General Manager Larry Hancock to offer his insights on the evolution of trouser roles, roles that refer to any male character that is sung by a female singer, most often a mezzo soprano.  Opera audiences are asked to suspend disbelief and accept the character as male even if the singer is not, but how did the practice begin? According to Larry, we have to go back a few hundred years…

Hancock: Sexual ambiguity was rampant in opera for its first two hundred years. Opera began its history when Catholic churches were maintaining choirs with men who had been surgically altered to preserve their treble voices (women were not allowed to sing at mass, and it must have seemed a shame to lose closely trained and gifted boy sopranos just because they were turning into teenagers.) At any rate, Italy was entirely at ease with male sopranos and altos. It was then no stretch for these beautifully trained singers to make the short step from cathedrals to theatres and take on the roles of adolescent males as well as females of all ages. Except in France, where mutilating boys was thought horrific, castrati became the rock stars of the Baroque all over Europe. Even Baroque heroes sang in the treble range, from Orlando to Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great to Nero.

In modern times, Marilyn Horne and other important mezzo-sopranos brought these roles originally sung by castrati back to the stage.

(Marilyn Horne sings the title role in Vivaldi’s Orlando furiouso, San Franciso Opera, 1989)

Today we have a large number of countertenors (falsettists, not castrati), such as David Daniels, Brian Asawa, Terry Barber and many others, who are popular in the Baroque repertoire.

This practice of trouser roles has come down to modern audiences not only in Baroque operas but in many 19th-century French operas, and some others, as well. To mention a few, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro features a mezzo-soprano in the role of fourteen-year-old Cherubino, while Gounod’s Faust features a mezzo-soprano as the adolescent Siébel.

(Frederica von Stade as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, The Glyndebourne Festival in 1973)

Mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos as “Octavian”

The same is true of Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, which features a mezzo-soprano as Octavian.

Opera San José’s upcoming production of Johann Strauss’s operetta, Die Fledermaus, features a mezzo-soprano in the role of the oh-too-bored teenager, Prince Orlofsky. I have a suspicion that the reason for the 19th-century pants roles was more about seeing a woman’s legs than the quality of her voice… but that’s just an opinion.

Opera San José: And what about contemporary opera companies like Opera San José continuing the tradition of casting female singers in male roles?

According to writer Karen Finch of the reasons are largely historical:

Where the role was originally played by a castrato, the options are to cast a woman dressed in male costume, use a countertenor, or to drop the pitch of the role by an octave and cast a male tenor. Using the latter choice means that the dynamic and color of the role changes considerably. Countertenors are comparatively rare, so casting them is not a common solution. Using a woman offers the most authentic sound that is closest to the castrati of the time.

A second practice dates to the mid 1800s, when it was common to write leading male roles for high voices. This was after the decline of the castrati in the early 1800s, so it is thought that these parts were always intended as pants roles.

The other common tradition, which continues into contemporary operatic composition, is the casting of women as children and young adolescents, so again these parts were always intended to be played by women.

Regardless of tradition, trouser roles continue to be both a wonderful opportunity and challenge for female opera singers.  We hope you will suspend disbelief and join us for Die Fledermaus opening November 10th as resident mezzo-soprano, Nicole Birkland, and affiliate artist, Rebecca Krouner, alternate in one of the most famous trouser roles, Prince Orlofsky.