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In addition to the performances of La Traviata, in December Ádám Fischer will also be conducting La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra in Johan Strauss’ magnum opus Die Fledermaus, a comic operetta about the desire to escape the reality of everyday life and momentarily forget one’s cares in the intoxication of love and seduction. This very Viennese work is traditionally staged there on New Year’s Eve, but the countless melodies and light-hearted escapism give it a much wider appeal and account for its huge popularity even after 140 years. Working with director Guy Joosten, Ádám Fischer presents a Brussels version of Die Fledermaus.
Strauss’ Die Fledermaus is the Viennese operetta par excellence, but is it really the cheerful work it is usually taken to be? What in your view are the main themes of this work?
Die Fledermaus can be seen as an allegory of Art in general, because it momentarily takes us away from the daily grind and carries us off in a whirl of excitement into a world of intoxication! In this work, the dream is beautiful and daily reality is bad! All the characters try and escape into a dream world as a way of making the daily reality more bearable or as a way of forgetting it. The duet between Rosalinde and Alfred at the beginning of the first finale sums this up beautifully: “Glücklich ist, wer vergisst, was doch nicht zu ändern ist!” (Happy is he who forgets what cannot be changed.) Other works from the opera repertoire also address this theme. Take, for example, the way Mozart’s Così fan tutte interweaves daydream and reality… Though perhaps this work provides the very proof that the two are totally irreconcilable? A Midsummer Night’s Dream also displays an interesting parallel with Die Fledermaus. In Die Fledermaus all the characters are unhappy and seek temporary solace in champagne. Neither the higher class, represented by Eisenstein and Rosalinde, nor the lower class, represented by Rosalinde’s maid Adèle, are satisfied with life, but the champagne dispels tedium and allows them to brush unhappiness to one side for a while. Afterwards, life – as you can well imagine – continues as before, as melancholy and as frustrating as ever. I have always been fascinated by this bitter-sweet ending in Die Fledermaus. There is only one happy character in the work: the jailer Frosch, a typical Viennese, working-class figure! This carefree comic character has life sorted. Boredom and frustration are the downfall of all the others, except when champagne opens the door to another world, momentarily…
Die Fledermaus was premièred during what was a difficult period for rich Viennese. In 1873, immediately after the opening of the World Fair in Vienna, the stock market collapsed and hundreds of well-to-do citizens were ruined from one day to the next. Is this tragic background reflected in the opera?
Yes and no, not in the piece itself, because Strauss composed Die Fledermaus before those dramatic events took place, but of course they did play a role in the way the work was received because the effect of the situation on the public was immediate. The realization that you can suddenly lose everything heightens the sense of insecurity and brings home to us just how dangerous and how threatening the situation was. And what is more attractive than being able to escape that situation for a while?
Does this piece say anything else about us and our time?
The theme is timeless. Today life is not always a bed of roses either, so we still like to daydream. Everyone has his share of misfortune and the art is not to dwell on it. To escape reality for a moment, one needs a bit of the Fledermaus mentality: go to the ball or drink champagne [laughs].
Is it really possible to stage this piece outside Vienna? Isn’t it so closely bound up with everything ‘Viennese’ that it can only really be fully understood there? Take, for example, the dialect spoken by Frosch.
I fear that this is the case to some extent.... When you live in Vienna and you know the Viennese dialect and the local mentality, it is difficult to imagine how it can be exported! But the music is so powerful and the piece so good that we must at least try! It has been done successfully with other equally difficult works. If you ask an Englishman if, for example, Pygmalion can be translated [Cockney English is a feature of George Bernard Shaw’s play, which also inspired the musical My Fair Lady] he, too, will claim that it is impossible because the different London dialects are key. And yet – with the necessary compromises - that play has been staged all over the world. The same applies to Die Fledermaus: it can be done, albeit with a number of compromises, and I firmly believe that Guy Joosten’s textual adaptation will work well.
Doesn’t that apply to operetta in general? Isn’t Offenbach as closely bound up with France as Gilbert & Sullivan with England or Strauss with Vienna?
Yes, by transposing it through translation or by performing it in a different culture you always lose some of the meaning. “Lost in translation”, it’s called! But so long as it retains enough of its qualities, it is worthwhile. I think the most important challenge for us, directors and conductors, is to find a way that proves that it can be done!
You are staging a concert version of this work. So are the emphases different from in a scenic version?
My task consists in making the music sound even more beautiful than it does in a scenic production, because much more attention is concentrated on the soloists, chorus and orchestra. Do you approach an opera differently from an operetta? No, for me there’s no difference. I approach an operetta like Die Fledermaus, or a Singspiel like Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail or Die Zauberflöte, or an opera with spoken text like Beethoven’s Fidelio with equal respect. For a conductor all these works are like his children and you really can’t ask a father which one he loves most! When I’m conducting Die Fledermaus, I will no doubt say that it is my favourite work, but deep down in my heart I will know that I am being unjust to so many others…
Why is it that Die Fledermaus is still so popular after almost 140 years and still part of the repertoire?
First and foremost it has to do with the countless melodies, but also with escapism. There is nothing new under the sun: 140 years ago people chose illusion rather than recognize the truth, just as they do today. And then of course there is the ‘secret’ of all works of art: they portray fundamental human emotions and conflicts. Love, hate, jealousy, envy and joy are basic emotions which have always moved people and art has always fostered those moments…. He who portrays those crucial moments is immortal. And that’s what Strauss does in Die Fledermaus!
Recorded by Reinder Pols