Die Fledermaus (The Bat) will fly thanks, in part, to 34 instrumentalists and a whole lot of preparation.
On the weekend prior to the opening of UWOpera’s performance of Johann Strauss’ sparkling operetta, the pit was filled with concentration as the orchestra fine-tunes the score.
“To be successful, it has to sound light and entertaining,” said Geoffrey Moull, music director. “It takes a lot of effort and hard work to make it light.”
Die Fledermaus revolves around typical elements of farce – disguises, fake identities, revenge and jealous lovers. This comedic glimpse of Viennese society runs Feb. 3-5, 10-12 in the Paul Davenport Theatre.
While most adults recognize Strauss’ dance tunes, they’re all new to the students. Moull must familiarize them with the music, style and role of accompanying singers in just a few rehearsals.
“Conducting opera is thoroughly different from conducting an orchestra,” he said. “I have to lead 34 people and also give and take with the soloists and chorus on stage. We lead and accompany at the same time.”
Both Moull and the production’s director Theodore Baerg have years of experience doing it. Moull has 80 operas in his repertoire, mostly conducted in Europe. Baerg has sung Die Fledermaus in New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto, and directed it several times. It’s clear they love passing on that expertise to the students.
“Performing with the orchestra makes it professionally relevant,” Baerg said. “We do it with costumes, orchestra and conductor under the same circumstances as a professional cast. It’s a benefit for the orchestra because some may do this as a career.”
Violinist Erin Martins Santolupo is excited by her first experience in the pit.
“You have to use your ears a lot more. You have to be aware of what’s going on behind and watch professor Moull in front. It’s very different accompanying singers than being a player with an orchestra. This is my first year in the opera orchestra and I really like it. I have not had a lot of exposure to opera so it’s really exciting being part of it.”
Moull thinks the orchestra has a lot of work during the performance run.
“I have to anticipate possible challenges. The players are used to listening to each other, but they have to watch the conductor,” he said. “If it starts to wobble, I have to get them back on track. It’s a fine line between being a traffic cop and a musician.”
It’s also a great experience for the singers.
“It may be their first and only opportunity to sing with an orchestra and conductor,” Moull said. “A pianist reacts totally differently – one brain and 10 fingers. But if a singer’s future is in opera, they have to be able to sing with an orchestra.”
To give the opportunity to as many Don Wright Faculty of Music vocal students as possible, Baerg double casts the production.
Christopher Dunham, who plays one of the leads, Eisenstein, said when rehearsals start with the orchestra, there is a big change. “The orchestra fills a large hall with sound, so they bring a lot more energy to the performance and you have to learn to control the energy. I like the whole process. Every step is exciting.”
The process of bringing voices and instruments together began in mid-November when Moull started to work with the singers. He conducted rehearsals with the singers and pianist, then added the chorus later. The orchestra read through the music once before Christmas. Since the break, they’ve had six rehearsals, plus four on the weekend. This week, they had two with each cast.
In addition to an intense rehearsal and performance schedule, the orchestra members must get the style right.
Moull lived in Germany for many years, and his understanding of the language is also passed on to the students. “It’s useful for coaching,” he said. “Coaches have to know their way around languages. The meaning of the text is important. Strauss was a genius of a composer at setting text, and understanding how it fits with the musical structure is important. Otherwise, they are just singing notes and syllables.
“This is a real theatrical piece – Strauss himself was very theatrical. And the texts are very theatrical.”
Watching the singers, it’s clear some of them revel in the drama.
“In a way it’s a chance to be a kid and play professional dress-up,” Dunham said. “My career will be a stream of playing dress-up and entertaining. This preparation is as close to professional as we can get. Costumes are from the Stratford Festival, for example. But we still have the warmth of the teachers involved. It’s not so much sink or swim.
“They ease you into the process.”
And Die Fledermaus is also a great way for audiences to ease into the world of operetta.
“It’s a piece of entertainment,” Moull said. “It’s very amusing. Many serious composers, such as Brahms, all admired Strauss. People will recognize the waltz and polkas. This operetta is incredibly intricate to put together. We all have to be well versed in our parts and ready to turn on a dime – and the two casts do not sing in identical ways.”
IF YOU GO
What: Johann Strauss’ operetta Die Fledermaus by UWOpera
When: Feb. 3, 4, 10, 11 at 8 p.m.; Feb. 5, 12 at 2 p.m.
Where: Paul Davenport Theatre, Talbot College
Tickets: $30 adults, $25 seniors and students. Grand Theatre box office at 519-672-8800 or tickets.grandtheatre.com.