by Suzanne Vanstone, Senior Communications Manager, Editorial at the Canadian Opera Company
It is always a great moment for our company to have the opportunity to create a new production for our audience, and it has been Alexander Neef’s goal, since his arrival, to regularly introduce new productions to the COC’s repertoire. This fall we present Johann Strauss II’s delicious Die Fledermaus, which has not been performed here since 1991.
Set designer Allen Moyer (Nixon in China) and costume designer Constance Hoffman (Julius Caesar) discuss a few of the visual aspects of this production as well as what influenced some of their design choices. All the members of the creative team were interested, from the start, in presenting a well-known work in a fresh, relevant way. They felt there was great potential in delving further into Strauss’s Vienna as well as subsequent periods in Viennese history.
Moyer was delighted to hear that Neef had chosen director Christopher Alden (The Flying Dutchman, Rigoletto) for this project. “The only person I would really want to do Fledermaus with would be Christopher. I enjoy doing ‘pretty’ things but Fledermaus has been done so much, and we wanted to take a new look at it. It’s like mounting Così fan tutte – you can do a production that is completely lighthearted and slightly flippant, or you can do a production that also acknowledges the pain and betrayal that is part of being an adult and falling in love.” The team wanted to see what lay behind the froth and fluff and champagne.
Moyer says that at the core of the opera are the real, the imagined, and the “almost” infidelities amongst several of the characters, with the primary focus on the relationship between Eisenstein and his wife Rosalinde. As such, one of the dominant pieces of furniture onstage is their marriage bed, and although it shifts during the course of the opera, it is always present. Even in the prison in Act III, Alfred, Rosalinde’s paramour, is cuffed to it!
Upon further exploration of Eisenstein and Rosalinde, Dr. Falke began to figure more prominently and he became a crucial underpinning to the story. Falke, Eisenstein’s friend, was mortified when Eisenstein left him drunk, alone and dressed as a bat in the town square the previous winter. By throwing a masked party at the home of Prince Orlofsky, where disguise and deceit are the order of the day, Falke begins to exact his revenge upon Eisenstein. The creative team sees him as a pseudo-therapist, a Sigmund Freud. Moyer says, “He brings a sexual aspect to the forefront of Eisenstein’s and Rosalinde’s reality and the problems with their relationship become more obvious.”
Hoffman, too, is interested in the fantasies of infidelity. “When you strip away the sitcom aspects of the situation and just look at the relationships, that’s where the story starts to take hold. Who is Dr. Falke? What is his relationship to this couple and particularly his experience of being humiliated and abandoned in the street? It is a potent, horrible experience. And then his desire for vengeance? It all starts to get nice and complicated – a lovely messy feeling.”
The set has a very simple but stately presence with high ceilings and a sense of elegant, sophisticated space. Act I takes place in a Victorian bedroom coated with heavy wallpaper, which eventually “cracks” into a more open, stylized space for the party in Act II with a grand staircase, and then transforms again to a slightly enclosed feeling in the prison in Act III. Hoffman elaborates, “The Eisensteins have a repressive household where everybody has suppressed the sexual desires that they want to act upon, yet have these fantasies about other people. They go to Orlofsky’s party to express that – it’s an invitation to enter the forbidden. When viewed that way, then the jail scene at the end is a shutting down of all those fantasies and the repressive force returns.”
“We are fortunate that the COC has a wonderfully large theatre because we wanted to use really broad brushstrokes,” Moyer says. “The costumes will be amazing. They are so personalized, fanciful, sexy! We always thought that Orlofsky’s party in Act II was similar to the one in the film Eyes Wide Shut.” The fact that the role of Orlofsky is a woman playing a man further informed their treatment of this scene. There is a bit of a throw-away line in Act I that often gets ignored when Falke encourages Eisenstein to attend the party because there will be ballet dancers there. “That is rarely addressed, but in our production there are a lot of ballet dancers – even the men cross-dress, wearing tutus, etc. It’s fantastic! We didn’t want the party to be an orgy, but still something that was overtly sexy, ever so slightly seedy, and over the top. So that when the festivities are disrupted by the police, it is slightly more frightening.”
Hoffman elaborates, “Because Orlofsky is a pants role, we have an interesting mixture of gender messages. The party is largely about cross-dressing, exchanging roles, experimenting – allowing everyone to explore their inhibitions and partner up with people that they wouldn’t necessarily meet anywhere else. It’s meant to be very playful, but with a slightly dangerous feel to it. I played with both women dressed like entertainers with elaborate headdresses (a Weimar version of Busby Berkeley), as well as women who are experimenting by trading places and taking clothes from the men. And also, of course, the bat and the bat image flits through the whole design. There is always this consciousness of that memory of Falke’s – his agenda and his embarrassment iterated in different ways.”
The creative team took their inspiration from several different sources including movies by Ernst Lubitsch. Hoffman says, “We were also very drawn to Surrealist Max Ernst and his work ‘Une semaine de bonté’ – collages that Ernst took from Victorian engravings and transformed into fantasy pictures with creatures and phantoms of the unconscious. Also Edward Gorey became an interesting illustrator to look at for archetypes of both the turn-of-the-century and id-fueled archetypes of the early 1920s which often played on that theme. All these artists were guideposts for us. In terms of costume design, I also looked at a work called Voluptuous Panic. It’s a book of photographs of the whole Weimar time in Berlin, both in cabaret and in private parties.”
As director Alden sums up in an interview in our fall house program, “Die Fledermaus is one of the most famous and beloved operettas written. And that’s not just because of the totally brilliant and inspired music, nor just because of the crazy, frivolous New Year’s Eve entertainment. It is a wonderful story with terrific characters and situations that resonate with audiences down through the ages and has a lot to say about society, relationships and marriage. We look forward to presenting this work in a new light to our audiences.”
This article is published in our Fall 2012 issue of Prelude magazine. Click here to read the issue online.
Photos: (top) Laura Tucker as Prince Orlofsky, Mireille Asselin as Adele and Michael Schade as Gabriel von Eisenstein; (middle) David Pomeroy as Alfred, James Westman as Frank and Tamara Wilson as Rosalinde; (bottom) A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Die Fledermaus, 2012. Photos: (top) Michael Cooper; (middle) Michael Cooper; (bottom) Chris Hutcheson.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001