The bat in the Vienna Woods

After a Wagnerian summer, the Seattle Opera opens its 2006 season with a Viennese-light confection: "Die Fledermaus" (The Bat) by Johann Strauss II, a delightful operetta filled with wonderful, lilting music.

"You ought to write operettas, Herr Strauss," he had been told by Jacques Offenbach, who was then enjoying triumphs in Vienna. The year was 1865, and Strauss, at 40, had never seriously considered following Offenbach's example by writing for the stage. With his dance music - polkas, galops and, above all, waltzes - Strauss had become famous; he was musical director of the court balls and conductor of an orchestra with which he had acquired a dazzling international reputation on tour. So what did Offenbach mean by sowing the seed of doubt in his mind, telling him that he "ought to write operettas"?

Certainly, there was success to be won on the operetta stage, since the genre was extremely popular; Offen-bach himself had already won great favor with Vienna audiences with his satirical, thinly veiled jibes against the nobility, financiers and even the court. Offenbach's remarks were taken up by the music publishers and theater directors to whom the name Strauss meant success and prosperity. They pressed the Waltz King to leave the ballroom and concert hall for a time and turn his attention to the theater; but he wasn't to be persuaded, protesting that he didn't know what would be effective on the stage. These objections carried little conviction, because he obviously knew exactly what was wanted in the ballroom even though he himself didn't dance!

Strauss was convinced that he knew his own limitations. He knew that, on the stage, words and action are of great importance, and that he had no instinctive feeling for either. Unlike Schubert, with his sensitive appreciation of the quality of words, Strauss derived his inspiration from the physical sensations of dance rhythms.

Behind-the-scenes maneuvers began. After a newspaper report to the effect that the score of a comic opera, "Don Quichotte," lay ready in his writing desk, the director of the Theater an der Wien, a quick-witted Hungarian named Max Steiner, passed the word that a dramatic work by the Waltz King would soon see the light of day. Ploys of this sort were encouraged by Strauss' wife Jetty, who had long resented the fact that her husband did nothing to challenge Offenbach's supremacy on the operetta stage. Finally, in league with Steiner, she overcame the resistance of her "Schani."

Two years after the appearance of "The Blue Danube" (1869), Strauss pro-duced the score of an operetta, whose libretto - by Josef Braun, Suppe's librettist - Steiner had given him: "Die lustigen Weiber von Wien" ("The Merry Wives of Vienna"). This first of Strauss' operettas was never seen by the public, because a bitter and irreconcilable dispute broke out over the question of which of the two "goddesses of the light muse" in Vienna, Marie Geistinger or Josefine Gall-meyer, should sing the principal role. Strauss angrily withdrew his piece.

Steiner was undeterred, however, and at once pressed him to set a new libretto, "Indigo and the Forty Thieves." The libretto was not good; it won early success only due to Strauss' music, and did not last. He wrote a new operetta, "Carnival in Rome," again with words by Josef Braun, but its subject made this essentially a romantic opera, offering little scope for Strauss' ability to bring dance rhythms vividly to life. The result was disappointing.

In 1874 came the worldwide success of "Die Fledermaus." Once again the libretto formed a link with Offen-bach's plot, which originated as a French comedy, "Le Reveillon," by Meilhac and Halevy, who had supplied Offenbach with many of his libretti. Steiner bought the play for his theater. What he didn't know, or initially overlooked, was that "Le Reveil-lon" is an example of the kind of exuberant entertainment that the French enjoy on Christmas Eve with fancy-dress dances, gay suppers and fireworks - the greatest possible contrast to the "silent, holy night" of pious tradition observed in Vienna, and which could very well antagonize Viennese audiences. There could well be a sign of strong disapproval from the Arch-bishop's palace if an attempt was made to give the Viennese such a frivolous Parisian Christmas. They solved the prob-lem by changing the action from Christ-mas Eve to Carnival time in Vienna.

Strauss was delighted with the libretto, and all his earlier doubts about writing for the stage were swept aside. He is said to have shut himself away at his home in a suburb of Vienna and composed the entire work, brimming over with genius, in six weeks. This may not be entirely true, but certainly Strauss' inspiration gave rise to an immense outburst of creative energy, and every bar in "Die Fledermaus" contributes to its irresistible charm, giving Strauss the opportunity to include all of his wonderful dance music in the score. This created the much-loved pro-duction that the Seattle Opera will be presenting on opening night, Jan. 14.

There have been many memorable Seattle Opera productions of "Die Fleder-maus," and many exciting parties such as a Viennese masked ball and dancing on the stage of the old Opera House. Several famous non-singing comedians have played the part of the jailor in the last act. In the '80s, during Glynn Ross' time, a particularly well-known New York comic (who shall be nameless) was remembered for his ungentlemanly behavior and bad language directed toward an artist's aide (one of many dedicated volunteers that the Seattle Opera is well known for, who act as drivers for visiting artists). Fortunately this in no way interfered with the production.

It is interesting to note that in the upcoming production, many of the stars of "The Ring" will be appearing; here's hoping they will enjoy the frivolous dessert after the heavy main course of Wagner. Jane Eaglen will be playing Rosalinda; Richard Berkely-Steele, Gabriel von Eisenstien; and Alan Woodrow, Alfred. Nancy Maultsby will be playing the pants role of Prince Orlofsky. There's a great supporting cast, and we are fortunate to have maestro Gerard Schwarz as conductor. Directed by Chris Alexander, the opera will be performed in McGraw Hall on Jan. 14, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 25, 27 and 28. The 15th and 22nd are matinees; the rest start at 7:30 p.m.

For detailed listings and tickets, visit www. or call 389-7676. To quote Speight Jenkins, "It's going to be a great show. Don't miss it!"

Incidentally, the story of Johann Strauss (Schani) is well told in a classic 1938 film entitled "The Great Waltz," featuring Fernand Gravet and the fabulous soprano Miliza Korjus (whatever happened to her?). sells it on videotape, and it goes by on Turner Classic Movies now and again.

Happy New Year! TTFN.

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