Johann Strauss and Die Fledermaus

The operetta Die Fledermaus comes out of a period when Vienna, Austria was experiencing significant change. Vienna was one of the most important capitals in Europe during the nineteenth century and was often called the 'city of dreams'. This was the golden age of the Hapsburgs, the most prosperous royal family in continental Europe, and Vienna was their capitol. This atmosphere was perfect for the growth of the entertainment industry, such as it was and in the midst of this, the need for entertaining music: party music, dance music and theatre music.

It's fascinating that the production of virtually all of this music ended up falling into the hands of a single family of musicians: the Strauss family who had no fewer than six members involved in part of a musical dynasty that lasted from the 1830s to the 1960s. The most important Strausses were the two Johanns, Johann the elder who was the first Strauss to be described as 'the waltz king', and his eldest son Johann who single-handedly codified the dance form which we now know as the Viennese waltz. Johann Strauss, Jr. gave us such famous waltzes as the "Tales of the Vienna Woods", "Wine, Women and Song" and "On the Beautiful Blue Danube".

The younger Strauss would have gone into the music history books for only having created these beautiful masterpieces, but he did one other thing. He took what was once a French theatrical form, dressed it up with plenty Austrian flavor and created the Viennese operetta, an entertainment that audiences all over the world began to clamor for after the premiere of his most beloved work: the charming and hilarious comedy, Die Fledermaus.

An operetta is like an opera in that much of the story is told through song with characters dressed in period costumes, surrounded by beautiful sets and accompanied by the orchestra. But the big difference between operetta and opera is that in operetta the style of the music is much more popular, and there is often more spoken dialogue in an operetta than what you'll ever get in grand opera. The operetta is rather like today's Broadway musicals, like Cats, Phantom of the Opera, The Producers or Rent.

The origin of the operetta was actually Paris, France where, in the 1850s, the composer Jacques Offenbach was having great success with short, one-act comedies that poked fun at the politicians, aristocrats and wealthy merchants, as well as the social mores of the day. Night after night his theatre was stormed by audiences starving for evenings of light musical entertainment. For these audiences, the opera companies in Paris were getting far too serious and pretentious for their own good and Offenbach seemed to hit on a formula that proved to be successful. Offenbach and his operettas traveled throughout Europe, and it wasn't too long before his works were also the center of attention in Vienna where young Austrian composers began to try their hand at writing similar works.

But it wasn't until 1871 that the Viennese operetta found its most natural expression in the music of Johann Strauss. Born in 1825 the young Johann was the eldest of six children. His father didn't want him to go into music: he wanted him to go into banking and stay away from the 'family business'. But under the watchful eye of his mother, he took violin and music theory lessons secretly until 1842 when his parents separated. After this Johann took formal musical instruction and eventually wound up establishing himself with his own orchestra. It wasn't long before he was his father's only rival in the composition and performance of dance music, especially the waltz.

After his father's death in 1849, his and his father's orchestras were merged into one and he became the Waltz King in the hearts of all Viennese. He was even given a royal position for his accomplishments. But it must be remembered that this was Habspurg Vienna and virtually everything was accompanied by the infectious rhythms of the waltz. And no one, not even his father, could write a waltz quite like Johann Strauss.

Like the creation of many great works of the theatre there is a lot of legend around the composition of Die Fledermaus. We do know that the composer Jacques Offenbach was a great admirer of the music of Strauss, and he told his fellow composer that his musical style could easily be adapted to the stage. Strauss was flattered but not entirely convinced. It was Strauss' wife, who was herself a singer of some importance in Vienna, who tipped the scales by secretly having words set to some of his already existing waltzes and giving them to the director of the Theater an der Wien, Max Steiner.

The Theater an der Wien was one of Vienna's most important theaters. Steiner was a clever producer, and sensing that he could make a lot of money by producing stage works from the pen of Vienna's most popular composer, he did his best to find poets who could do justice to his music. With these poets Strauss wrote a few early operettas, but these didn't do too well. It wasn't until the theatre director Steiner offered Strauss a text that had been discarded by Offenbach that he found the inspiration to begin Die Fledermaus. This was a play (Le réveillon) written by Offenbach's official poets, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Steiner handed the French original over to an experienced man of the theatre, Richard Genée, whose work with the material made the story more truly Viennese. According to legend, Strauss wrote steadily for 43 days, neglecting food and sleep until the work was finished. We now know that this is probably not true. The work was certainly outlined within a six week period, but it actually took six months before the work finally hit the stage in April, 1874.

The other myth that surrounds the first production of Die Fledermaus is that it was unsuccessful, running only 16 performances before closing. We now know that another traveling opera company was booked for the Theater an der Wien and the operetta closed out of necessity, not due to lack of popularity. Its next production was in Berlin, where it was extremely successful. Back at the Theater an der Wien for a revival later on the same year it was a runaway hit. Since then Die Fledermaus has never left the active repertory.