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.
The Music of Die Fledermaus
The overture of Die Fledermaus perfectly captures the spirit of the entire score, because virtually every note of this operetta is inspired by the rhythms of the dances which were wildly popular all over Europe in 1874. Although we think of Strauss as the Waltz King, he was just as prolific in the composition of other dances like the polka and the galop or can can. The polka, a Bohemian dance introduced in Prague in 1837, became so popular that the term 'polkamania' was coined to describe the phenomenon. And in fact there are almost as many polkas in Die Fledermaus as there are waltzes, for example the polkas that appear in Act I accompanying Adele's reading of her sister's letter inviting her to Orlovsky's party and as the trio for Rosalinde, Adele and Eisenstein. Rosalinde gets her own polka at the very end of Act I, as she diffuses the suspicions of Frank the jailer and sends Alfred off to prison in the place of her husband. Act II begins with a polka and most famously the finale of Act II is centered on another polka, the so-called 'Champagne Trio' and chorus, the text of which celebrates the inebriating effects of this sparkling beverage.
But it is the lilt of the Viennese waltz that gives Die Fledermaus its soul and each waltz is fabricated by the composer to match the sentiments of the text. When Alfred invites Rosalinde to drink away their cares as he attempts to seduce her, Strauss accompanies the seduction with a waltz. In Act II, the disguised Eisenstein approaches the similarly disguised Adele, absolutely sure that this woman is his wife's maid; Adele puts him off with the famous waltz, "My dear Marquis". (Strauss seems to be pioneering a compositional method later used by Richard Strauss [not of the same family, by the way!] in his opera Der Rosenkavalier, in which the composer uses the waltz as a musical symbol of deception…in Rosenkavalier, whenever we hear the waltz rhythm, a character is lying about something. One almost wants to say that whenever one hears a waltz in Die Fledermaus, a character is involved in the seduction of another!) There are even waltzes that we don't consciously think are waltzes such as the lovely Brüderlein introduced by Dr. Falke at the climax of the ball to toast brotherhood and love. Suddenly we realize that the waltz is capable of being melancholy, sentimental and wistful, not just danceable. But then, of course, we have the sparkling exuberance of the Fledermaus waltz itself, first heard in the overture and then again as the culmination of the masked ball at the end of Act II.
This score is infectious. The tunes and rhythms seep into your very soul and carry you away. That is, of course, what the producers hoped in 1874 at the Theater an der Wien when Die Fledermaus premiered. The "Black Friday" Stock Exchange crash had occurred the year before (in 1873), the Imperial house of Hapsburg was beginning to crumble and already the elements that would bring about the First World War were appearing as microscopic rips in the glittering fabric that was Vienna. In the same way that the Busby Berkeley film musicals of the 1930s helped Americans deal with the Depression, operettas like Die Fledermaus gave contemporary Viennese audiences a way to escape their very real fears about the decaying world around them.
Rosalinde von Eisenstein is being serenaded through the windows of her home by Alfred, a former suitor who is a singer. As she listens, her maid Adele enters the salon, reading a letter from her sister Ida, who has invited Adele to join her at a party that night in the home of Prince Orlofsky. Adele asks Rosalinde for the evening off, creating a story that she needs to attend to a sick aunt. Unfortunately, Rosalinde's husband, Gabriel von Eisenstein, is due to spend a few days in jail for fighting with a police officer, and Rosalinde will not grant the time away, for she does not want to be alone, and she insists that her husband have a good meal before he leaves (duet: "Ach, ich darf nicht hin zu dir!"). After Adele leaves, Alfred tells Rosalinde that he is aware that Eisenstein will be away for a few days, and that he will visit again that night. She is shocked by his intentions to call on a married woman, and she sends him away.
Eisenstein enters with his lawyer, Dr. Blind, whose tactics have managed to get Eisenstein a longer jail sentence than originally planned. Blind leaves, followed by Adele, who is sent off to get dinner, and Rosalinde who is off to look for old clothes that her husband might wear to jail. In the absence of the two ladies, Dr. Falke arrives and invites Eisenstein to that evening's party at Prince Orlofsky's villa. He suggests that Eisenstein start his jail sentence the next day, and even mentions that he should bring his repeater stopwatch that is known to charm the ladies ("Komm mit mir zum Souper"). Eisenstein agrees and dons appropriate evening attire for the occasion. When Rosalinde returns she is puzzled about her husband's wearing formal attire to jail, but pays little attention, as she is looking forward to Alfred's visit. With her husband gone and Alfred on the way, she grants Adele the night off, and serves Alfred the dinner that had been prepared for her husband. However, their evening is only to be interrupted by Prison Warden Frank, who has come to take Eisenstein away. Unable to admit that she was dining at such an hour with a man who is not her husband, she claims that Alfred is indeed Eisenstein, and Alfred is taken off to jail by the warden.
Upon her arrival at Prince Orlofsky's party, Adele joins her sister, and learns that Ida was not the person who sent her the invitation. Falke has actually invited her as a part of his scheme that he calls "The Bat's Revenge." This night he hopes to get even with Eisenstein for abandoning him in a park after a party at carnival, where Falke woke up the next morning alone, still dressed in his bat costume from the night before. Prince Orlofsky also hopes to be amused by this prank, and informs his guests that boredom will not be tolerated at his party ("Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein"). Eisenstein arrives and is announced with the alias of "Marquis Renard;" Adele is presented as the actress "Mlle. Olga." When introduced to each other, Eisenstein swears that he recognizes her as his maid wearing his wife's dress, but he is assured by the other guests that she is not an imposter. She then turns the tables and challenges his alias ("Mein Herr Marquis"). Frank also arrives at the party, disguised as "Chevalier Chagrin." Rosalinde arrives next, announced as a Hungarian countess, just in time to see her husband flirting with their maid. Eisenstein does not recognize the mysterious Countess as his wife when they are introduced, but tries to charm her with his watch (duet: "Dieser Anstand, so manierlich"). Just as he thinks that his charm is working, she takes his watch and then performs a Czardas to prove that she is Hungarian ("Die Klänge meiner Heimat"). Orlofsky proposes of toast of champagne, and suggests that everyone address each other casually and enjoy the spirit of the occasion. Eisenstein befriends Frank, and tries to unmask Rosalinde, but soon the clock strikes six, and he must report to jail.
Alfred passes the time in prison by singing, while Frosch, the drunken jailer, attempts to quiet him. Frank, who is also rather unsteady, arrives during this distraction, and is soon asleep, thinking of the night's events. Frosch brings in two visitors, Ida and Adele, to see the warden. Adele, believing that Frank is a wealthy nobleman, has come to request his help in establishing an acting career, and she shows off her talent ("Spiel' ich die Unschuld vom Lande"). Frank escorts the women to a waiting room as "Marquis Renard" arrives. The men reveal their true identities, but Frank does not believe that this man could be Eisenstein, for he has been accounted for in jail all night. Rosalinde arrives next, and as Frank leaves to bring her in, Eisenstein exchanges clothes with his lawyer Blind. The disguised Eisenstein questions Rosalinde and Alfred, and is enraged to discover that Alfred was apprehended during an intimate dinner with Rosalinde. Rosalinde retorts that she is the victim of a husband who lies about being with other women ("Es scheint mit fast, als empfinden Sie"). Eisenstein can bear this charade no longer, and reveals his identity to his wife ("Ja, ich bin's, den ihr betrogen"). As Rosalinde shows the watch she had taken, Eisenstein realizes that he has been caught in a scheme as well, as she was the "Hungarian Countess." Falke enters with the other guests from the previous night's party, and the plan of "The Bat's Revenge" is explained at last (ensemble: "So rächt sich die Fledermaus"). Believing that the dinner between Alfred and Rosalinde was also part of that plan, Eisenstein forgives his wife and asks her forgiveness in return. Orlofsky pledges to support Adele's career, and Rosalinde leads the merriment with a toast to King Champagne.