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Johann Strauss: Die Fledermaus

Champagne, masks and intrigue: the essentials of the cult operetta by waltz king Johann Strauss.

What »Dinner for One« is to television, Johann Strauss’s »Die Fledermaus« is to the stage: a classic that is played all over the country on New Year's Eve, and where the main focus is drinking. A »cult operetta« that contains something for everyone. Strauss wrote a score full of wit and terrific tunes that holds up a mirror to champagne-slurping »high society«. Not without reason has it maintained its reputation as the pinnacle of the golden era of operetta: to this day, »Die Fledermaus« is the only work of its genre to be performed in the venerable Vienna State Opera.

Bo Skovhus (Gabriel von Eisenstein) / Astrid Kessler (Rosalinde)
Bo Skovhus (Gabriel von Eisenstein) / Astrid Kessler (Rosalinde) © Daniel Dittus

Eindrücke aus dem Elbphilharmonie-Backstage:

The Story

Gabriel von Eisenstein has been sentenced to a few days in prison for insulting a government official, and his friend the notary Dr Falke persuades him to be merry one more time before he goes behind bars – at Prince Orlofsky's ball. But Falke is actually planning his revenge on Eisenstein: some years ago, his friend let him wander home drunk after a masked ball wearing a bat costume, which made him a laughing stock all over town. Now it is time for Eisenstein to pay.

So Dr Falke invites Eisenstein, his wife Rosalinde and her maid Adele to the ball. As everyone is in fancy dress, Eisenstein does not recognise the masked guests and does not hesitate to flirt with one person after another, making a complete fool of himself in the process. But the other people at the ball are not without fault themselves: everything gets mixed up, with some guests swearing eternal friendship, while others pretend to be someone they are not. And at the end of the evening there is general agreement that the champagne was the real culprit.

Theresa Dlouhy (Ida) / Katharina Konradi (Adele) / Markus Butter (Gefängnisdirektor Frank)
Theresa Dlouhy (Ida) / Katharina Konradi (Adele) / Markus Butter (Gefängnisdirektor Frank) © Daniel Dittus

If another drinker can't keep up with me, what a drip! I just grab the bottle and hit him over the head!

Prinz Orlofsky, Act 2

The Background

But for all the superficial fun and games, the operetta was written during a time of social tension. After the great stock market crash of 1873, the old order in the Austro-Hungarian capital of Vienna began to totter. The workers' movement grew stronger, and more importance was allotted to the individual. The musical world, hitherto the province of the nobility, sought contact with the bourgeoisie.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss

Music literally pours out of him – he has one new idea after another.

Johannes Brahms on Johann Strauss

Johann Strauss recognised the sign of the times, and composed music that was accessible to everyone and had an emotional impact. In keeping with the principle that good music is what people enjoy hearing, he wrote clear, catchy tunes with spirited rhythms, and his Blue Danube Waltz brought him worldwide fame as the »waltz king«. In his late forties, Strauss decided to try something new again, and composed his first »comic operas«, as he himself called his operettas. »Die Fledermaus« was premiered in 1874, and was a resounding success; to this day, it is probably his best-known work.

Adrian Angelico (Prinz Orlofsky)
Adrian Angelico (Prinz Orlofsky) © Daniel Dittus

The Music

Over 140 years since they were written, Strauss’s many catchy melodies have lost none of their appeal. Many numbers from »Die Fledermaus«, such as Adele's laughing aria »Mein Herr Marquis« or the »Watch Duet«, have made a career for themselves on the concert stage independent of the operetta they come from. And it goes without saying that the dashing and sophisticated overture, which sums up (or anticipates) many of the work's musical highlights, is an absolute must on the programme of any New Year's concert worth its salt.

Of course, a ball also features dance music: among the highlights here are Rosalinde's »Hungarian« csárdas and a ballet intermezzo that varies from one performance to the next. Last but very definitely not least, there is the waltz itself, which Strauss adds to many passages, creating the very special Viennese flair.

'Tis a happy man who manages to forget what cannot be changed.

Die Fledermaus, Act 1

Caroline Peters (Frosch)
Caroline Peters (Frosch) © Daniel Dittus

The Frog

True cult status is enjoyed not only by the music, but also by the spoken role of the court usher Frosch (Frog), who comes on stage at the beginning of Act 3 – in a tipsy state, needless to say – with the aim of reporting to Frank, the prison governor, on everything that has happened in the meantime. But Frosch turns his report into a more or less improvised satire on real events. Originally designed as a small role, Frosch has gained increasing importance over the years, and nowadays the part is usually spoken by well-known actors and cabaret artists; in the Elbphilharmonie production, Frosch is played by Caroline Peters.

Perhaps it is precisely this mixture of timeless truths and references to the present that has ensured »Die Fledermaus« a lasting position in the repertoire as one of the most popular of all stage works. Not to mention the immortal music of the great Johann Strauss.

Text: Simon Chlosta, last updated 21.12.2018

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