A party piece? A masterpiece? A piece of 19th-century confection that resists staleness?
All of that, and more, even if The Bat (Die Fledermaus) and Johann Strauss II’s melodious waltz-weighted music are familiar to many, says Grammy Award-winning singer Daniel Belcher. Known for his big bright baritone and theatrical wit, he will sing the central role of Gabriel von Eisenstein in Portland Opera’s season opener 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Keller Auditorium. Other performances are 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and 15, and 2 p.m. Nov. 9.
In addition to ending with a Champagne toast (in jail, no less), the production celebrates the 50th anniversary of Portland Opera, which sang its way into the Portland arts scene in 1964 at Madison High School with Die Fledermaus. The title translates as The Bat, or sometimes as The Revenge of the Bat for an incident the naughty Eisenstein orchestrated that prompted Prince Orlofsky’s extravagant ball, where much of the action takes place. But forget figuring out the title; it’s a sideline to the fun piece about mistaken identity and borderline bad behavior.
In late 19th-century Vienna, Die Fledermaus WAS the operetta of its day. Spoken language alternated with lilting tunes, certainly hallmarks of musicals and light operas. Strauss II’s 1874 piece brought theatergoers back to their seats after a long recession in Austria. Audiences responded to catchy up-tempo music, the comic fury of mixed identity, a whirlwind of elegant ball gowns, and an everything’s-OK reconciliation between the somewhat wayward Eisenstein and his real-yet-disguised wife, Rosalinde, a role played this time by soprano Mary Dunleavy, who sang Donna Elvira in PO’s 2012 Don Giovanni.
“They’re not the nicest people,” Belcher says about the operetta’s superficial characters. “They treat each other rather poorly,” but as in most romantic comedies, the ending ties up pleasantly with no one getting badly hurt.
With a warhorse, even a lightweight one, audiences demand fresh takes, and this Fledermaus is making promises to dish them up. “Every number, aria, etc., has a change of tempo and transitions,” says music director George Manahan. “In some music, there are traditional ways that notes are held and Die Fledermaus has twice as many of those traditions with its Viennese style and the operetta approach. So it has a lot of baggage. To make it fresh you have to wash a lot of that away and get back to what is on the page. If you did every Viennese lilt and ritard [tempo slowdown], it would be stretched out.”
To keep things moving, director Chas Rader-Shieber, who directed PO’s Rinaldo in 2013, has tightened up the dialogue. The freshness factor increases with choreographer Matthew Ferraro’s creative movement designed to heighten the humor, and a handsome cast that also includes lovely lyric soprano Susannah Biller as the maid and mezzo Jennifer Rivera as sexually ambiguous Prince Orlofsky. Belcher is a Rossini regular, and performed a hilarious Figaro at PO in 2010, so expect him to pump up the giddiness. “I have a bit of a brash personality,” he says. “I’m energetic and outgoing. My vocalization reflects who I am, sort of like owning my own skin. There’s a natural brightness to my sound. My repertoire (Mozart, Rossini, Strauss) has always matched my voice.”
That voice helped him earn a Grammy in 2011 for Best Opera Recording for his part on contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. Though Belcher made international waves in 2004 with his interpretation of Prior Walter in Angels in America, and recently performed the role of Robert Kennedy in Waiting for Miss Monroe at the Netherlands Opera, he credits his vocal growth to the training he received from apprentice opera programs, especially Houston Grand Opera, where he studied in the mid-1990s.
A number of this production’s singers are PO’s Young Resident Artists, who take on secondary roles, and sometimes larger parts in smaller operas. Belcher, who’s previously worked with Alexander Elliott (Dr. Falke) and Ian Jose Ramirez (Dr. Blind), is an ardent believer in young artist programs. PO’s Resident Artist program began 10 years ago and continues to add up-and-coming voices to almost every opera. “In five years, they are going to be the next stars,” said Belcher, who teaches voice at Florida State University. “It’s my turn to pay back.”
This production of Strauss’s three-act operetta runs two hours and 45 minutes and shares some costumes with the Washington National Opera and scenery with Seattle Opera. Dialogue and singing are in English, so no excuses, other than a glass of Champagne, for missing the point.