Fledermaus - Program Notes
About the Composer
Johann Strauss Sr., the father of our composer, was born in 1805, during a generally exuberant time for Europe. His father, Franz, was a tavern owner, whose tavern had, as did most at the time, its own band. Growing up in this environment, and teaching himself on a found violin, it was inevitable that Johann Sr. would be a musician. What also appeared inevitable would be his inability to remain faithful to a wife who produced five children, or to be an available father to those children. Johann Sr. had an additional eight children with mistress, Emilie. Awkwardly, the eldest son from both of these women would be named Johann. The legitimate Johann Jr., born in 1825, is the son who grew to be the great waltz writer and composer of Die Fledermaus.
When his father died in 1849, young Johann proposed to take over conducting his father’s orchestra. His comparative youth, coupled with his past political sentiments (he had sided with the opposition in a series of political skirmishes in 1848) brought criticism and attacks as he took over as the orchestra leader. The naysayers were quickly won over by his talent and grace in front of the orchestra, however. Concertizing over the next decades was a musical and financial success. It was also a time of personal fulfillment, as Johann met, courted, and married the mezzo-soprano Henriette Chalupetzky (whom he called “Jetty”) in 1861.
The Vienna of the late 1800s was a culture of dance and of theater. It was in this setting that operetta became hugely popular. Operetta had lightness both in its music and in its story. None of the trauma and complexities of operatic productions—operetta was a night’s whimsical entertainment. Viennese impresarios knew that they needed to cash in on the success of operetta, and naturally turned to Johann. His first operetta, Don Quichotte, did not come to fruition, and his Die lustigen Weiber von Wien (The Merry Wives of Vienna) met with only mild success. But he’d become intrigued, and the seed that would become one of his greatest works, Die Fledermaus, was planted.
Die Fledermaus, 1874
The original production was inspired by Max Steiner, co-director of the Theater an der Wien, with copious assistance from Strauss’ wife Jetty. At the time of Die Fledermaus’ inception, the French composer Jacques Offenbach was the king of operetta. Steiner believed that Vienna should have its own master work of operetta, and believed that Strauss was the composer who could create that masterpiece. Offenbach, himself an admirer of both Strauss Jr. and Sr., remarked to Strauss that he should write operettas. Strauss, however felt a foreigner to the stage, and to the value of words. To convince Strauss, Steiner had lyrics set to Johann’s own music. Jetty secretly brought some of Strauss’s earlier compositions to Steiner, who had libretti set to them. He then sent singers to Strauss—who was astounded to hear his own music sung to him with strange words. But, convinced he was.
Steiner had bought the rights to a French play, Le Réveillon, but was unable to produce it himself or sell it. Gustav Lewy, Strauss’s music publisher, urged Steiner to turn it into an operetta for which Strauss could compose the music. Steiner hired librettists Karl Haffner and Richard Genée. They modified the setting for Viennese sensibilities (the play’s masked ball on Christmas Eve would have shocked) and refined the characterizations. Strauss was entranced by the libretto, and wrote the entire score to Die Fledermaus in forty-three days.
After initial difficulties at the Theater an der Wien, during the spring of 1873, Die Fledermaus had a more glorious opening the following fall. The part of Dr. Falke was played by Alexander Girardi, who would rise to become the most famous operetta star in Vienna. Strauss’s operetta was a brilliant success, opening in the summer of 1874 in Berlin, and then touring across the continent.
With the money made from Die Fledermaus, Jetty purchased a large parcel of land, and had an estate built, so that Johann could entertain and receive the most important musical guests of the day. Although Jetty died before they moved in, the estate did eventually provide Johann with an elegant setting to welcome the likes of Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, and Giacomo Puccini.
The edition of Fledermaus you will hear performed today was Americanized and updated for the Metropolitan Opera in 1950. The music is all Strauss’s, and the intricate plot presented is the same as in the original libretto by Haffner and Genée. But, the lyrics by Howard Dietz and dialogue by Garson Kanin are new, and are not even close to literal translations of the German text.
The 1950s Met production owes its existence to the stormy Sir Rudolph Bing. Bing took over operations at the Met in 1949 shortly after moving to the U.S. Many of his decisions were rash, and seemingly cavalier—he hired Garson Kanin to write the script after a 30 minute phone call, having never seen any of Kanin’s Broadway productions.
Bing strongly believed in the virtues of both the Broadway theater and opera, and saw a new production of Die Fledermaus as a perfect melding of these art forms. But an array of drama and difficulties was encountered along the way. Bing and conductor Fritz Reiner (later replaced by Eugene Ormandy) both worked and argued furiously to fill the cast from both the operatic and stage worlds. Reiner suggested the comic speaking role of Frosch to be played by Danny Kaye. Bing did not think him right for the part, and as negotiations progressed, Kaye was cast in a film whose production schedule conflicted with the Met’s. Ultimately, comic actor and Broadway legend Jack Gilford (who many remember fondly for his 1960s Cracker Jack commercials) was cast in the role.
Once production was under way, Reiner had clashes with Kanin regarding staging and production changes. A particularly heated battle arose over Kanin’s proposed staging of a scene in Act II where Kanin wanted the principal singers to be reclining on pillows. Steiner insisted that singers “can only sing standing up…and they must watch me…”
Reiner’s dismissal, however, arose from conflicts with a long-term and exclusive
recording contract he had signed with RCA. By replacing Reiner with Eugene
Ormandy, Bing also helped to stanch conflicts with Kanin, as Ormandy had no
prior knowledge of Die Fledermaus.
The production received excellent reviews—both as a stage production and as an operatic production. Risë Stevens, in particular, received accolades for her performance in the pants role of Orlofsky. Kanin’s staging, the cause of much stir during production, was praised for “not being dull…or highbrow…”
— Marsha Turin
Tickets and Information
Performances are June 9 and 10 at 8 PM, and June 11 at 2 PM.
Tickets can be ordered on line here or by calling 51 Walden at 978-369-7911.