All three disappointed him and went into music. Well, he had rather disappointed them, too, having abandoned the family and run off with a milliner. When he sent money back to his wife, it arrived with the proviso that the sons not take music lessons — which strengthened her resolve to help the boys do precisely that. Johann II started gaining notice as an orchestra leader when he was nineteen, and before long he emerged as a rival to his father. The awkwardness of this situation was overcome, and when Johann I died in 1848, Johann II merged his father’s orchestra into his own. From 1863 to 1871 he served as director of Vienna’s court balls, following in his father’s footsteps, and when he gave up that position he simply passed the baton to his brother Eduard. The waltzing Strausses would persevere for a further generation, with Eduard’s son, Johann III, carrying on the waltz profession until his death in 1939. The German word Strauss has several meanings, but the most common is a bunch or spray of flowers. It seems appropriate, as there certainly was a generous bouquet of them — not even counting other, unrelated musical Strausses: the horn player Franz, his composer son Richard, and the operetta composer Oscar (who changed the spelling of his surname to Straus to avoid confusion).
ohann II established his renown as a master of the dance hall before he became a creature of the theater. Musical comedy was popular in Vienna, to be sure, but its reigning figure was not an Austrian. It was Jacques Offenbach, born in Cologne but long a resident of Paris. It was not unusual for him to launch an operetta in Paris (often to a libretto by wordsmiths Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy) and, if it proved successful, mount a new production in Vienna. We think of Offenbach’s operettas as quintessentially French, but, translated into vernacular Viennese German, they landed with native grace. “In the make-up of the Viennese population,” wrote Strauss biographer Heinrich Eduard Jacob, “there are two apparently unconnected elements. The one is sentimentality to the point of untruth; the local chauvinism that approves people and things merely because they are Viennese. The other is a spirit of malicious criticism directed against the objects, a kind of underground negation that may erupt in spurts of derision.” Offenbach’s parodistic sensibilities fit perfectly.
They had met when Offenbach traveled to Vienna in 1863 or 1864 to help plan a concert for an association of newspaper journalists; for that gathering, Offenbach wrote a waltz titled Abendblätter (Evening Papers), and Strauss countered with one called Morgenblätter (Morning Papers). The two enjoyed getting to know each other, and that is when Offenbach presumably told Strauss that he ought to consider writing operettas. There was no pressing need for it. Offenbach had the Viennese market pretty well covered, and the Dalmatian composer Franz von Suppé was starting to gain a following there, too. But a Viennese impresario agreed with Offenbach’s assessment of Strauss’ capacities: Maximilian Steiner, the manager of the Theater an der Wien and later the grandfather of the Max Steiner who would write such Hollywood scores as Casablanca and Gone With the Wind.
Steiner convinced Strauss to try his hand at a stage work, and, after some rough patches, he unveiled the Strauss operetta Indigo und die vierzig Räuber (Indigo and the Forty Thieves) in 1871. It scored a tremendous success, and a second followed in 1873, Der Carneval in Rom (The Carnival in Rome). Strauss was on a roll. For the next season, Steiner proposed adapting Le réveillon (The Midnight Party), a somewhat racy French comedy authored in 1872 by none other than Offenbach’s librettists Meilhac and Halévy. It needed to be “Viennafied,” a task that was entrusted to translator Carl Haffner and adapter Richard Genée, who made it respectable enough for the Austrian censors to give it a green light. A new name was attached to it: Die Fledermaus (The Bat).
The title is curious. It refers to something that happened considerably before the action of the work at hand. Dr. Falke, a notary, attended a costume party with his wealthy friend Gabriel von Eisenstein. Eisenstein went costumed as a butterfly, Falke as a bat. The evening — by then morning — ended with Falke being dumped in the town square to make his way home in his bat costume. Although we don’t realize it until we are some distance into the operetta, Die Fledermaus is the story of Falke’s revenge, the elaborate practical joke he orchestrates with the assistance of Prince Orlofsky. Through the device of a fancy-dress ball, his scheme will reveal not just that Eisenstein is a philanderer but that his wife (Rosalinde) is, too, and will also rope in her maid
(Adele) and various other persons in their orbit. By naming the work as he did, Strauss (and his associates) shine the spotlight on Falke, who is more of a background character in the action, the puppeteer of this real-life marionette show. When Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger turned the operetta into a film version in 1955, setting it just after World War II and making the main protagonists representatives of the three occupying powers, they retitled it
Oh, Rosalinda!, thereby confirming Mrs. Eisenstein’s primacy in the cast.
It is, frankly, a story of remarkable unkindness, one that very much reflects Jacob’s comment about the Viennese penchant for “malicious criticism.” It doubtless reflects something of the mood of its moment. The Viennese had been devastated by a market crash in May 1873, an economic crisis brought on by financial speculation, stock manipulation, and the unmonitored cooking of books. Vienna was where the bubble burst first, and the collapse soon spread, if not quite as virulently, throughout Europe and North America. By the time Die Fledermaus opened the following year on April 5, the Viennese must have viewed the characters — which is to say themselves — through a chastened lens. The unbridled jollity, and the recommendation that people float through life on waves of champagne, must have seemed ironic in a city whose high rollers suddenly found themselves on a beer budget.
Nonetheless, Strauss enveloped it all in a delectable score rich in dance rhythms. Waltzes (and arias in waltz-meter) are well represented, to be sure, but so are other popular musical species of the period’s dance halls: the polka, the quadrille, the czardas. The original score includes an Act 2 ballet sequence that wends through a series of national dances (Spanish, Scottish, Russian, Polish, Hungarian), although that is very often cut in modern productions. At Santa Fe Opera, it will be replaced by Strauss’ polka-schnell
Unter Donner und Blitz (Thunder and Lightning), which would seem a clever site-specific solution that is sure to tie in with atmospheric behavior on some nights. If the libretto was perhaps a year out of date in 1874, the music nonetheless offered a balm for troubled souls. Reviewer Ludwig Speidel reported from the Theater an der Wien:
[Strauss’ music] invades the ear and streams through the blood into the legs and even the most lethargic man in the theatre unknowingly begins to nod his head, rock his body, tap his feet. Looking down from a box one could get seasick watching the audience weaving to the fascinating tones which Strauss elicits with his baton from the orchestra. … Triumph, victory on all fronts. Oh, how the Viennese applauded Strauss. As was to be expected, the house shook with raging applause.
Some reviewers, however, were muted in their response. The much-feared Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick dismissed it as “a potpourri of waltz and polka motives,” but the piece grew on him as time passed. Years later, Hanslick lamented that most of Strauss’ stage works — he would end up writing 19 — “were victims of bad librettos and vanished quickly, despite many musical beauties.” But he found the work at hand to be an exception. “His masterpiece,
Die Fledermaus, certainly owed its enduring and extraordinary success to its charming music, but the latter would have been unthinkable without the gay plot and the Viennese setting.”
Die Fledermaus ran for only 16 performances in its initial production. Steiner’s schedule did not allow it to continue longer, as he had another show already booked for ensuing dates — Verdi’s opera Ernani, with the star soprano Adelina Patti. Perhaps he had felt it wise to hedge his bets and release Die Fledermaus in a limited run rather than hope for a larger public that might not materialize. The sense that it was ill-fated was reinforced when the singer playing Dr. Falke died onstage. Nonetheless, Die Fledermaus opened in Berlin that July, and then in Hamburg. Performances resumed in Vienna. By November it was also running in Budapest and New York, bringing its total performances in 1873 to 68. Its popularity only increased from there. In 1885, Strauss traveled for a three-day festival of his music in Berlin, where he conducted the 400th performance of Die Fledermaus. The champagne corks have continued to pop ever since.
“Die Fledermaus” opens at Santa Fe Opera at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, June 30, and continues with performances at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 5, July 8, and July 14; and at 8 p.m. on Aug. 1, Aug. 7, Aug. 14, Aug. 19, and Aug. 26. Devon Guthrie plays Rosalinde. Jane Archibald sings Adele. Susan Graham is Prince Orlofsky; Paula Murrihy sings the part on July 14 and Aug. 1. Kurt Streit is Gabriel von Eisenstein. Joshua Hopkins plays Dr. Falke. Dimitri Pittas sings Alfred. David Govertsen is Frank. Kevin Burdette plays Frosch. Santa Fe Opera is seven miles north of Santa Fe on U.S. 84/285. Visit www.santafeopera.org or call 505-986-5900 or 800-280-4654.