Human Weaknesses, Set to the Waltz
Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat) was premiered at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on April 5, 1874. One hundred and forty years later, the work continues to sparkle with a spontaneity and universality that shout “now.” Such freshness generates from a libretto that focuses sharply on the weaknesses of human nature—the shallowness of desire, the superficiality of the rich, and the pleasure of revenge—and a score filled with familiar tunes and dances that cut directly to the viscera. At the heart of the score is the waltz, once considered lascivious, but here an icon of post-Franco-Prussian-War Vienna, a period of enormous expansion marked by the building of the Ringstrasse and a growing middle-class culture that discovered in operetta not only mass appeal, but also a reflection of new and modern Liberal values.
Operetta originated in 19th-century France, distinguishing itself from more serious entertainments by its emphasis on melody, spoken dialogue, dances, and references to politics, class, and other art forms. The most successful composers of the form in its infancy were Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss II, known as the “Waltz King” because of the hundreds of waltzes, quadrilles, and polkas he composed for the ballroom. In 1871, Strauss stepped out of the dance hall and onto the stage with works such as Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice, 1883), Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron, 1885), and, of course, Die Fledermaus (The Bat, 1874).
Strauss’s librettists, Karl Haffner and Richard Genée, drew on a number of literary sources for Die Fledermaus, most notably Le réveillon, by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (famous for their collaboration on Bizet’s Carmen). The French play is about the goings-on at a New Year’s Eve supper, which was transformed into a ball for the Austrian reworking of the story. Vestiges of the original idea remain in the practice of many of the world’s opera houses, notably the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, where Die Fledermaus is frequently offered on New Year’s Eve in a delightful mash-up of theater and reality.
The role of comedy in the theatrical spectrum has always been to teach a lesson, make moral judgments, and provide a victorious moment by proxy for spectators, in particular those of lesser means. Common avenues to such pleasures are most often a result of the triumph of a servant over a master. In Die Fledermaus, that victor is Adele, whom Strauss endows with some of the operetta’s best music as well as her mistress Rosalinda’s best ball gown. But, as it turns out, Adele is but one actor in a “con” that is played out among equals, and it is precisely this facet of the story that is so modern. As is to be expected, the target is a wealthy fool, Eisenstein, who has already been sentenced to prison for disrespectful behavior. But crime and punishment are clearly not enough to chasten Eisenstein’s arrogance. Falke, whom Eisenstein had once abandoned in a town square, drunk and dressed in a bat costume, seizes the opportunity of the ball to give his friend a long overdue comeuppance.
There are many layers of social commentary in Die Fledermaus, as the boundaries between masters and servants are blurred, identities obscured by masks, costumes, and even voice (as in the role of Orlovsky, traditionally sung by a mezzo). Remarkably, the eponymous “Bat” is but one in a succession of references in the libretto to doves, squirrels, butterflies, rats, frogs, and other wildlife, surely equated in this stunning farce with the human race.