Singing off the bat

"Die Fledermaus is the epitome of madcap, gloriously, nonchalant, caution-to-the-wind fun."

NEW MUSICAL numbers and dances are just some of the updates director Miklos Gabor Kerenyi brought to the opera. (photo credit: ANET KALAY -TOTI)
NEW MUSICAL numbers and dances are just some of the updates director Miklos Gabor Kerenyi brought to the opera.
(photo credit: ANET KALAY -TOTI)
Anyone who has been to one of the shows put on here by the Budapest Operetta and Musical Theater over the last couple of years or so has some idea of what to expect, in terms of pure entertainment, from the Hungarian company’s forthcoming production of Die Fledermaus (“The Bat”), by Johann Strauss II, at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv (February 11-20).
Last month a dozen or so of my fellow Israeli hacks and I were treated to a high-energy spectacle in the Hungarian capital, awash with thrilling numbers, relentless gaiety and a kaleidoscope of colors, not to mention some eye-catching agility. Unlike the previous couple of productions we caught in Budapest prior to their stint in Tel Aviv, this time there were surtitles – of a fashion – in English, so we had some idea of what was being said, and sung, on stage.
But, of course, we are not talking about a new work here. Die Fledermaus has been performed thousands of times, to packed houses the world over, since it premiered at the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna, in 1874. It is also pretty safe to say that quite a few of the operetta goers who will, no doubt, flock to the Opera House in Tel Aviv next month will have more than a sketchy idea of the plot and the score.
There are plenty of intriguing departures in the meandering storyline, replete with passion and betrayal and, naturally, some wildly comic routines.
One of the main comedic roles features a permanently inebriated crowd-pleasing character called Frosch. When the Hungarian cast comes here in February, the onstage team will include Israeli actor and comedian Israel Katorza in the aforementioned role.
“We perform Die Fledermaus all over the world,” notes the Hungarian theater director Miklos Gabor Kerenyi, “so we try to include some local interest in each production.”
Kerenyi says he was suitably impressed with the Israeli when they met in Budapest a few months ago.
“He came over here and we had a trial run. I asked him to improvise, and he just started doing some fantastic stuff on the stage. He was amazing.”
Betwixt all the romantic goings on, strife and comedy of errors, Strauss Jr. also wanted to convey some caustic social comment to the public. In fact, as we were advised, when we visited the brand new Strauss Museum in Vienna, the Strausses (the composer of the Die Fledermaus score was the son of Johann Strauss Sr., the famed composer of dance music, principally waltzes and polkas, while Strauss Jr.’s brothers Josef and Eduard were also renowned composers) made a habit of writing music to mark some momentous occasion, or impart some extra-musical message.
Die Fledermaus slams the social structure of the time, and the hypocrisy of the well-to-do.
The character of Alfred, the womanizing voice teacher, is a case in point.
Alfred does his best to seduce Rosalinde, the bourgeois housewife of Gabriel von Eisenstein, who has been sentenced to a few days in the slammer. Alfred and Rosalinde are old flames, and he urges his former lover to throw caution to the wind and to focus on the transient pleasures of the here and now. In another twist, when Frank, the governor of the prison, comes to Rosalinde’s house, to ensure that her errant husband is well and duly incarcerated, Alfred pretends to be von Eisenstein, so as not to compromise Rosalinde’s social standing.
The bright and breezy mood that blows through the operetta certainly makes for entertaining fare, but Strauss lived during an era when all was not always well with the Austro- Hungarian Empire, particularly after the mid-19th century Hungarian Revolution. Late 19th century Vienna may be depicted generally as the jolly and grand epicenter of a prosperous empire, but the reality of the time was far less sunny – in the same way as the Danube River, which flows through Vienna, was never of the hue noted in the title of Johann Strauss Jr.’s famous waltz, The Blue Danube, tending far more to a murky shade of brown.
The dancing, drinking, and merrymaking portrayed in operettas offered contemporary audiences a romanticized escape from the darker social, political, and economic realities of the time in Vienna. A closer look at plot of Die Fledermaus indicates that the characters in the operetta, just as the people who went to the shows in Vienna more than a century ago, are really looking for refuge from a grim reality, and are dancing and drinking to forget.
Be that as it may – and possibly for that very reason – Die Fledermaus is the epitome of madcap, gloriously nonchalant, caution-to-the-wind fun and games. Kerenyi also threw his directorial pennyworth into the production mix and adapted the original storyline and score, adding several numbers and dances, refashioning some of the dialogues and including spices and seasoning where he saw fit.
The show opener, curiously, features the character of Sigmund Freud, which, says Kerenyi, “is designed to reflect the fact that Die Fledermaus talks about the innermost thoughts and feelings of people.”
The mood pendulum swings that run through the operetta also chart the emotional ebb and flow of the characters.
“Their feelings burst out from time to time, and that is noted in the music,” continues Kerenyi.
In addition to the sumptuous score, and the dazzling costumes designed by Tunde Kemenesi, set designer Csorsz Khell has come up with a wonder to behold.
While the women twirl and whirl in their flowing frocks at Prince Orlofsky’s grand ball, and some of the leading characters continue to spin their webs of lies, the backdrop often offers an intriguing counterpoint. Some of the props appear downright surreal, and include a mammoth-sized bottle and similarly proportioned cutlery dotted around the stage.
“We like to give people something to think about,” states Kerenyi, when asked about the left-field scenic content.
Tailoring, adapting and tinkering notwithstanding the German-language production – with English and Hebrew surtitles – is a spectacle for the eyes and a joy for the ears.
Following its hugely successful performances of last year’s Bayadere and the 2014 production of The Csardas Princess, it is a safe bet that the Budapest company’s typically scintillating presentation of Strauss’s perennially popular operetta, with a 150-strong cast, ensemble and support team, should do the trick yet again. 
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and