Let’s set aside the yard-sticks of excellence that critics use. I went to see Die Fledermaus tonight in its new immersive Opera 5 Production. Although I was the designated driver I was totally immersed. It was fun even though I only had one beer.
It was one of those nights when I was laughing so loud I got funny looks from the lady standing beside me. Hm, that’s odd isn’t it, that we were standing?
Let me phrase it differently, even though I did not get drunk but still am in an altered reality, a bit star-struck, and energized by lots of belly laughter.
You know you’ve had a good time when:
- You not only wish that you were in the show as a participant but somehow could slip into the world they’re representing onstage
- You are going back through the photos you took –and when was the last time you were at an opera shooting photos, let alone a hundred or so?—and are surprised by joy, recalling a moment from earlier in the show
- You wish you weren’t saddled with the role of designated driver, unable to take advantage of the free beer.
Ah yes let me repeat that last one. Yes there is free beer, courtesy of Steam Whistle Brewery. The cast sing their praises a few times (mini-ads?) during the operetta.
As one of the more sober persons present I promise you that our enjoyment was genuine rather than drunken, even if the beverages do help remove inhibitions.
I had heard of the premise: that after the exposition of Act I, we are (mostly) standing for Act II, chairs removed to encourage us to mingle with the show. And then when the cops show up for the last scene we’re put behind caution tape, a simple little device as modern as an episode of CSI.
For the last two acts we’re functioning in the round, with audience on all sides, watching performers fully exposed while singing, dancing and/or acting. There’s so much going on you never know where to look. In addition to a talented set of principals, we have a full chorus as well as a series of additional performers.
Oh my. The story is told well enough, the music is spectacular, joyous and full of life, yet it’s really a big happening. Yes Act II is meant to be a party but wow this was real, including aerials, burlesque and dance to go with a few performances from the players we’ve already met.
For the past five years a series of small companies have been competing for attention on the Toronto scene. For the most part Against the Grain have seemed to be the most accomplished, certainly as far as their ability to maintain a consistently high level musically & dramatically, including A Little Too Cozy, their most recent transladaptation. Now Opera 5 step up to the plate with Fledermaus, a show bursting with ideas, beauty, and charisma, that doesn’t just answer, but would be my choice for the most interesting show from a Toronto opera company this year even if it’s not precisely an opera: and that’s not just the free beer talking. And who would have expected it..? Operetta is really the same form as the musical, although no one would mistake Fledermaus for Assassins or Light in the Piazza, to mention two of the more adventurous examples of the form. What we saw and heard was something far more daring.
There’s plenty of credit to be had for the overall effect, a fun deconstruction of the space in the tradition of Brecht, even if old Bert might have some qualms about the show’s politics (as the only thing even a bit Marxist was the beer for all, a celebration of something capitalist). Opera 5 Artistic Director Aria Umezawa clearly knew what she was doing in her stage direction and in the translation she created. The bold choice to broaden the disciplines from just singing in Act II is totally legit (lest any purist claim that an operetta can’t include burlesque or aerialists), and one of the most sure-handed bits of stage-craft I’ve seen in a long time. While I admired what I heard coming from Johannes Debus, once you get past the pit & the musical presentation, there was nothing from the COC this year with the confident swagger of this show.
Alongside Umezawa I want to mention Jennifer Nichols, whose choreography goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen in an opera. The only thing I can compare it to is the few times in amateur musicals or a church choir where we’re working with people who don’t sing. Nichols creates a world populated by dancers and amateurs alike, graceful and empowered whether they’re in dancing shoes or not. I’m reminded of Pina Bausch whose wonderfully moral influence can be seen in Nichols’ willingness to work with bodies of every age, shape, and fitness level, a democratic world that’s genuinely representative of everyone and not just the elite few. [morning after addendum: recalling Madison Angus as Ida, whose party performance was one of my favourite moments in the show, a fit of choreography against choreography that was like an answer to anyone –like me– who finds virtuosity troubling. Conventional dance, emulating other sorts of romantic virtuoso display seems to proclaim “look at me, i’m better than you”. Nichols seems to offer a loving alternative, untroubled by any skills deficiencies, and using attitude above all. It’s the most curious mix of edgy (when Ida gets heckled for her faux dance) and forgiving (her response: because she can handle it) that i’ve ever encountered, but that’s not a contradiction. It’s adulthood.]
The small orchestra led by Patrick Hansen matched the theatre at 918 Bathurst beautifully. For Act I, most of which is played up on the stage at one end, the acoustics were at times a little difficult, the text sometimes lost in the space’s reverb. But once the show came into the middle of the space, my gosh what a difference, as everyone sang full out right in front of us, and fearlessly. Umezawa kept the different constellations of bodies moving to ensure that everyone played out in all directions, so that we were all included.
There were many splendid performances to enjoy. Rachel Krehm as Rosalinda enjoyed the comical oversize costume elements that were part of the Brechtian design scheme by Matthew Vaile. We’re put into a self-conscious self-reflexive sort of world at times resembling cabaret, yet the singing was full-out operatic, Krehm rising every time to the powerful high notes without losing her sense of fun. Julie Ludwig as Adele was every bit as good in her singing, while Michael Barrett as Eisenstein came into his own once he started to play several levels of inebriation at the party scene. It was great to hear Keith Lam’s warm baritone, camping it up as a flamboyant Dr Falke, alongside the brilliant physical comedy of Geoffrey Penar as Frank. Erin Lawson was a highly original Orlofsky, while Justin Ralph was a modern version of the foppish Alfred, complete with pop – song references.
I should mention, too, the ways in which Fledermaus flies free of the operetta tradition. There’s the persona of Pearle Harbour played by Justin Miller (must be Canadian with that spelling), aerialist Jamie Holmes and burlesque artist Rubie Magnitude. A pair of dancers—Drew Berry and Lily McEvenue—raised the bar (no pun intended) in several numbers.
There are two more performances of Opera 5’s Die Fledermaus at 918 Bathurst St. Friday & Saturday nights. Don’t miss it!