Die Fledermaus at Opera San Jose

I should probably mention what I’ve been working on. Opera San Jose is doing a production of Die Fledermaus in the near future, and they want to do all the singing in German but all the spoken dialogue in English. But the director, Marc Jacobs, dislikes all the English translations he’s been able to find. (And rightly so, in my humble opinion — I know of only two that manage to be better than godawful, and even those two, though they do capture the spirit of the original, are wordier and less sharp in the writing than they should be. And don’t get me started about the horrible, horrible version the Metropolitan Opera did in the 1940s or whenever it was.)

So Marc read my Bat out of Hell, an adaptation of Die Fledermaus set in Berkeley in 1998 at the end of the dot-com boom. He loved it, but of course he can’t use it because the company insists that the production must keep the story in late-19th-century Vienna and keep the singing in German. So Marc asked me if I’d write a new translation of the spoken dialogue.

Ordinarily I say no to this sort of thing — this stuff just doesn’t pay well enough for me to take time away from the projects that interest me more. But in this case I’ve had it in the back of my mind for some time that I might want to write a more or less traditional English-language version of Die Fledermaus. Alas, though Bat out of Hell has been produced more times than any of my other librettos, it has not been produced as many times as I’ve been told “We’d love to do it, but we’re committed to a traditional production.” And as I said, none of the existing English-language versions are first rate, so a really good one might well catch on and bring in some extra income for me.

So writing the dialogue is one step in that direction, and this production gives me a motivation to get that done.

Another thing that interested me about this production is that, though they’re keeping the story in Vienna, they’re updating it from 1870 to 1890. I gather that the reason has more to do with wanting to give the production a Belle Epoque look and feel than anything else, but Marc mentioned that he was also going to make Dr. Falke a psychoanalyst à la Sigmund Freud, and that caught my interest.

So I’m having some fun with the idea that Gabriel, Rosalinde, and Adele all have secret fantasies and desires that they’ve been repressing in various ways, and that come out at Orlofsky’s ball — sort of a tongue-in-cheek take on Freudian psychology.

I’ve finished my first draft of the whole thing, and I’ve done the final polish on the first act — with the one exception of the beginning of the third act. It’s become traditional to build up the part of Frosch — a small part in the original — into a star turn for a good non-singing comic. (This was first done by Max Reinhardt for his lavish, all-star 1929 production in Berlin, and it was so widely imitated that practically everybody now thinks it was written just that way in the original.) Marc has asked me to do the same thing here, as he’s got a good comic for the role.

The way this is usually done, though, is to give Frosch a big comic solo drunk scene. I dislike that approach, partly because drunk scenes seem facile and not all that funny to me, but more importantly because it steals the thunder from Frank’s drunk scene that immediately follows it. Two drunk scenes in a row is two too many for my taste, but Frank’s is important to the plot and embedded in the music, so it pretty much has to stay. So whatever Frosch is given to do right before it shouldn’t make it seem like a weak echo.

Hence, in Bat out of Hell I wrote an entirely different sort of comic turn for Frosch at the start of act three. I can’t use anything like that one in this production, though, because the things it satirizes are modern. So I’m trying something very different. But still, not a drunk scene. I’m hoping to finish it tonight. We’ll see how it comes out.

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