Saturday, January 2, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/2/16: Die Fledermaus

The Met Broadcast today is the ultimate New Year's Opera: Strauss's Die Fledermaus (The Bat). It's the most adult opera ever written: it's about the joys of infidelity, alcohol, corruption, and lying.
Latin countries fall in love and have romances, but the Viennese have affairs. Infidelity, like neurosis, is a Viennese art. The Viennese spirit has complicated relationships with sex and love, it's true love is for lying, sneaking around, keeping secrets. Italian operas have paean after paean to love, Die Fledermaus has paean after paean to the thrills of lying, getting drunk, and partying.
Johann Strauss was no stranger to any of this, and the biography is a bit like a proto rock star's. His father was a dance band leader and composer whom, after having six children, left his wife for his mistress, whom he never married, and caused a particular scandal when he died in her apartment. Johann married a woman who already had five illegitimate children. Whenever he tired of one wife, he would inevitably marry a younger wife, and the wife often wouldn't care that much, because she had already long since taken up with some other man and often left Strauss before he had a chance to leave her.
It's customary around here to do the opera in English and get a playwright to completely revamp the script to make it more topical. I don't particularly care for that tradition. If you're going to make it more topical, why not do it with more contemporary music?
The opera is contemporary enough as it is. There was a famous production fifteen years ago that caused a scandal because of characters going on (gasp) cocaine binges. The truth is that it doesn't need to be updated, just directed well. This performance I'm linking to is a fantastic, very funny, and very realistic production with amazing Viennese singers like Gundula Janowitz, Erich Kunz, and Eberhard Wachter who'd been singing together their whole careers. I wish that there was a more animated conductor than that old Nazi, Karl Bohm, who clearly doesn't get the pop nature of this opera the way younger conductors like Herbert von Karajan and Carlos Kleiber did. But it's more than made up for by the amazing production of it's stage director, Otto Schenk, who also gives a hilarious performance himself in the speaking role of the drunk jailor.

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