Having a Ball
By Philipp Brieler
Jeremy Sams, creator of the Met’s hit Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island, returns to the company this month to direct a new English-language production of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus, opening New Year’s Eve. He explains why the piece “dances from beginning to end.”
Die Fledermaus is identified with the city of Vienna like few other stage works. Tell us about your production and the idea behind its setting.
The setting is Vienna, the place in which it was written. It has always been a New Year’s Eve piece—that’s when it’s traditionally performed—so I decided that’s when I was going to set it. And not just on New Year’s Eve, but Millennium’s Eve, as it were, in 1899, leading up to 1900. The feel of it, therefore, is on the cusp of fashion and art, when the new Vienna and the old Vienna were just overlapping. By the new Vienna I mean people like Klimt, Schiele, the Vienna Werkstätte—all those people who did beautiful furniture designs that are gorgeous but very spare and cut back. They belonged to the beginning of the new century. And the other Vienna, which was sort of dying out, is the place of the big balls, gowns, opulence. Klimt, interestingly, since he’s the painter who’s at the heart of many of these things, embodies both. He’s a stripped-back, beautiful, elegant, modern painter, and yet the surface is gold and deep and full of color.
How does the look of your production reflect these ideas?
The way we’ve designed it is really quite clear. Act I is a bourgeois setting, so it’s warm and cozy. I like to think it’s snowing, because it’s Vienna and it’s New Year’s Eve. But inside it’s warm, there are soft furnishings, and everything’s red, a red room with a red piano, so it feels velvety and plush. Act II is gold. It’s a huge setting, because it’s a Met show— you can’t stint on these things! In the middle of it, we have something that’s based on the dome of the famous Secession Building in Vienna, which is made out of gold leaf. Act III could not be more cut back and modern. It’s a jail, a room made up of black-and-white bars, basically. So we go from red to gold to black-and-white. The nice thing is that, at the end of Act III, the party guests from the previous act all turn up at the prison. So by the end of the show, the middle class, the upper class, the lower class are all as one. Everything blends into one gorgeous mess, which of course life is.
Apart from the artistic background and the historical setting, what drew you to this piece?
The music! First, foremost, in every which way, it’s the most astonishing score by a great composer. The essence of it is melody. All of Strauss has huge melodic drive, but here the tunes just keep on coming, and they are his very, very best tunes. It’s a piece that dances from beginning to end, like that Matisse painting, where everyone just dances round and round and round. It’s a waltz opera and it doesn’t stop moving. And at the center, driving all this beauty, is a message: that in this melting pot of life, high, low, rich, poor, man, woman, Jewish, gentile, gay, straight can all, through music, through dance, get along together. By the end of it, problems are solved, friction is avoided, and people manage their way into a new morning.
How did you work with Douglas Carter Beane on the new English text?
He’s an amazing playwright, and he’s brought a playwright’s ear to the piece, because it has a great deal of dialogue. It’s a comic operetta, as much spoken as sung. I’ve done the singing translation and he’s been working on the spoken elements. And what he’s done is to actually make sense of the piece. That sounds strange, because it’s been around for well over 100 years. But there are bits of it that really don’t make sense. So we’ve managed to make some really clear plot points—the main one being that Falke, Eisenstein’s friend, is the éminence grise. He’s the puppet master. He’s the man who’s organizing this whole thing and pulling the strings. And in our version, he gets his comeuppance at the end, which is extremely satisfying.
Some people consider Fledermaus a lightweight piece by operatic standards. Is that fair?
I don’t think it is. Terrible revenges are wreaked and marriages go to the brink. People fall in love and fall out of love. People realize their own shortcomings and failings by the end of the piece. It is light and frothy, because the music is all about the hope of happiness. But for me there’s a deep strain of melancholy at the heart of it, which works itself out during the piece. By the end of the show, they’re singing happy music and meaning it.
Die Fledermaus runs through February 22.
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