The salient difference between opera and musical theater is their relationship to fantasy. Operas are entirely sung (both the arias and the recitatives) and therefore squarely placed in the realm of the unreal. Grand costumes and scenery follow; so do melodramatic and overacted gestures. We accept these larger-than-life qualities because the genre itself is always already over the top.
But in musical theater, commonplace scenes are spoken, creating an expectation of realism and theatrical convention. When the emotion of a moment is so strong that it can no longer be expressed through speech, the actors burst into song. These moments of music and dance stand in for that which cannot be expressed otherwise; the interludes speak beyond speech.
Therefore, in opera we expect glorious singing and staging, and tend to overlook theatrical necessities like well-articulated speech and realistic dramatic style. So I’m content to blame Johann Strauss for the Yale College Opera Company’s problematic and often weak performance of his 1874 “Die Fledermaus” (“The Bat”).
Strauss’ recitatives were originally spoken, the arias the only moments of song. This musical strategy brings demands that a conventional opera company can rarely meet — beautiful singing and wonderful acting; luscious intonation and clear articulation; operatic success and dramatic success.
The YCOC’s production reveals the pitfalls of this strategy: the performance has excellent singers, excellent dancers, and excellent actors. Unfortunately, these talents are spread out among the cast; no one person shines at all three. Fine. That’s why Triple Threats are rare and so valued.
But I have to wonder, then, why this sort of production was chosen. Given the enormous vocal talent at Yale, a straight-up operatic production would have shown off the cast’s talents to a much greater degree.
The plot is a classic of early operetta: aristocrats and servants alike attend a ball, each disguised, each catching lovers and friends in awkward amorous scenarios. The entire matter is resolved amidst mildly humorous confusions. This opera exposes the bored machinations of aristocrats and could have been richly political in a different production.
The vocal prowess of Claire Owen ’03 in the lead female role of Rosalinde, for example, is paired awkwardly with the weak tone of Timothy Bradley ’03 (as her husband, Gabriel von Eisenstein). Duets between the two sounded like Owen’s strong, rich soprano with a slight whisper of tenor whine underneath.
However, Owen’s excessive hand gestures and nervous demeanor during spoken scenes detracts from her very fine vocal technique and appealing tone. She looks and carries herself like Bette Davis and does have the presence of a leading lady, but her spoken recitatives desperately needed more realism and textual subtlety.
Compare this to the physically nimble comedic performance of Edward Bailey ’03 as the prison warden (entirely in the spirit of an early silent film star like Keaton or Chaplin) which is undermined by his imprecise pitch and small sound.
And though Grace Kuckro’s ’03 energetic dramatic focus and dance abilities (in the role of Adele, the requisite flirtatious maid) are notable, she does not have an operatic voice; at its worst, it is painfully strident on her high notes. At best, it just sounds out of place.
Christopher Grundy ’04 and Jonathan Boschetto ’04 (as Dr. Falke and Alfred, respectively) fall into the same sad trap: terrific and able actors, fairly weak musicians.
Singers, especially young ones, are understandably vocally exhausted by the end of this three-hour work — tone falters, pitch wavers, articulation is muddied.
So then again, I ask: why this choice? A one-act would have been much more appropriate for a young cast, especially when few of them have voices that would suggest formal operatic training.
The performer who comes the closest to a complete performance is Andrew Osarchuk ’02 as Prince Orlofsky; his bright singing, nuanced acting, and comfortable movements are all believable and pleasant. But in a cruel twist of theatrical fate, he’s not on stage very much.
The same complaint with the delightful chorus: they make Act II engaging and lively, but Acts I and III are stiff and dull from their absence.
Farces tend to fail or triumph on the success of incidentals: minor characters, costumes, etc. And in this area, the YCOC does not disappoint; they bring in literature professor (and wonderful character actor) Howard Stern as the inebriated and ponderous turnkey. He’s simply adorable and could have held my attention for the entire three hours. Unfortunately for the rest of the cast, his rich projection and clearly trained body language reveals the theatrical shortcomings in the other performances.
Small but irritating problems with the performance (too-long pauses before musical numbers, hesitating or uncertain lines) might be irrelevant with a polished cast, but the joint demands of an operatic and theatrical performance are shockingly difficult to master here.
“Die Fledermaus” is a theatrical liability. The demands of opera alone or theater alone can test the best of casts; this one was fine, just not at everything it needed to be.
It often works the other way, but in this case this work truly did not do justice to its performers.