This fall, just in time for Halloween, CU Boulder’s Eklund Opera Program is set to bring Johann Strauss, Jr.’s glittering masked ball operetta to Macky Auditorium.
“Die Fledermaus,” consistently popular with audiences for a century and a half, follows a group of Viennese friends from boudoir to ballroom to jail as they party the night away dressed in disguise, learning lessons about themselves and each other along the way.
Saturday, Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 23, 2 p.m.
“It’s a light, fun piece that anyone can enjoy,” says Eklund Opera Director Leigh Holman, who also directs the production. “It’s perfect for this time of year, right when everyone is getting ready for the holidays, because it feels very festive.”
“Die Fledermaus” premiered in Vienna in 1874, at the height of a prosperous era for the Austrian city. The Habsburg reign was in full swing, Vienna was nicknamed “the city of dreams,” and its cultural goings-on were the envy of every other city in the Western world.
Perhaps that’s why “Die Fledermaus” was the “Hamilton” of its time, selling out shows in every city to which it traveled: Its frothy, funny, champagne-soaked plot captured the period zeitgeist so well that the Viennese saw themselves in the characters on stage.
“Operettas were as popular during that time period as they are today,” Holman says. “People loved “Die Fledermaus” because there was dancing, lots of good jokes, physical humor and colorful sets”—a welcome break from the era’s increasingly serious and dramatic grand operas.
It may be surprising to learn, then, that Strauss never intended to write operettas. Nicknamed the Waltz King and famous for his dances, he was content to stick to what he knew, says Nicholas Carthy, Eklund Opera’s Music Director—that is, until his wife and a theatre director gave him a little push by spreading false rumors around town.
“In 1870, much to Strauss’s surprise, a newspaper report appeared to the effect that the score of a comic opera was sitting, finished, on the desk of the master, waiting to be performed,” Carthy says. “It took him three attempts to get it right, but in 1874 came the piece that was to establish him once and for all in the world of operetta: ‘Die Fledermaus.’”
Holman says she’s never directed “Die Fledermaus” before, but she fondly remembers playing Prince Orlofsky in a production of the operetta at the University of Tennessee at Martin. The part of Orlofsky—a nobleman so comically cosmopolitan that no scandal shocks him anymore—is what’s called a trouser role, meant to be sung by a woman playing a man.
“In Strauss’ time, the trouser roles would have been considered very risqué and alluring to men in the audience,” Holman says. “Back then, most women were wearing full-length ball gowns, and it would have been exciting to see a woman’s ankles and a clear outline of her body.”
Seeing a woman in pants may not be cause for excitement in 2016, but “Die Fledermaus,” with its festive atmosphere, famous Straussian waltzes and funny one-liners, is just as thrilling as it was a century and a half ago.
There’s an extra thrill in it for anyone involved in the performing arts at CU, as they may recognize several prominent guests on stage—including Theatre & Dance Director Bud Coleman, Eklund Opera program namesake Paul Eklund, College of Music Associate Dean for Graduate Studies Steven Bruns and a handful of CU Boulder board members. On opening night, CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano even makes an appearance.