James McNamara, stage director at the Frankfurt Opera in Germany, is on a mission to introduce opera to more Americans.
He continues his mission next weekend by directing Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” at the Wichita Grand Opera.
“Opera can be beautiful, funny and sexy,” said McNamara, a native of Minneapolis who has directed opera throughout the U.S. and Europe. “I’m really glad to bring this piece to the heartland.”
“Die Fledermaus,” translated to “The Bat,” takes place in Austria in the late 1800s. One year before the opera takes place, the lead, Gabriel von Eisenstein, pulled a prank on his best friend, Dr. Falke. After attending a masquerade ball, von Eisenstein left the doctor drunk and in a bat costume on a park bench. Since that time, the townspeople refer to the doctor as Doctor Fledermaus — or Doctor Bat. After enduring a year’s worth of name-calling, the doctor has decided to pull a practical joke on von Eisenstein by planning a new masquerade ball and throwing in a few pranks.
First performed in Vienna in 1874, “Die Fledermaus” was a success. It continues to be one of the most performed operettas on the international stage.
International opera star tenor Michael Hayes is performing the role of von Eisenstein for WGO. Last fall, Hayes played Roscoe on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” which featured Bernadette Peters. This Broadway musical will reopen with Hayes and Peters in Los Angeles in May. Hayes also has performed leading roles from Amsterdam to France and from Cleveland to Portland. In 1996, he was seen as Count Danilo in Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” on a television broadcast of New York City’s “Live From Lincoln Center.”
Hayes appeared with WGO as Don Jose in “Carmen” in 2003 and Radames in “Aida” in 2005.
Hayes said that although his role in “Die Fledermaus” is a comic part, the music is deceptively difficult because of the lyrical and comic styles. Although Hayes is proficient in German, he is excited to sing “The Bat” in English. WGO is using a 1997 English translation by Marcie Stapp.
“I think it helps the audience pick up the comedy,” Hayes said. And the comedy is central in this Strauss operetta. “It’s fun to play a character that is sincerely flirtatious. He enjoys the chase of the women rather than catching them.”
Hayes’ wife on stage, soprano Mary-Jane Lee, unbeknownst to her husband, portrays a Hungarian countess at the ball. Von Eisenstein flirts with the countess. Rosalinde von Eisenstein is upset when she catches her husband flirting with another woman — herself.
“But in the end, they love each other,” Lee said. “I think she’s a likable character. She’s a clever lady.”
Lee, a recent graduate of Rice University graduate school, has appeared with Santa Fe Opera and Aspen Opera Theater. Emily Truckenbrod, Paul Smith, Patrick Greene, Charles Turley and Michael Nansel also appear in the cast. Truckenbrod portrays the maid and is set up to obtain needless garments, frivolous delicacies and lots of laughter.
Behind the scenes, Dr. Falke, played by baritone David Settle, is also orchestrating mischief.
“It’s an opportunity to be the bad guy,” said Settle, a voice professor at Sterling College and native of Lyons. “It’s kind of like a college prank.”
Parvan Bakardiev, Wichita Grand Opera’s general director, said that by choosing a comedy, the organization wanted to introduce more people in Wichita to opera. This fun-loving operetta features 19th-century costumes, professional opera singers, a masquerade ball, a variety of waltzes and a full orchestra.
McNamara called the music perfect.
“It’s like a Mozart opera,” McNamara said. “Nothing is out of place.”
Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) was born in Vienna. He was both a composer and a violinist and was known as the “Waltz King.” His father, the elder Johann Strauss, also was a violinist and well-known for his compositions — including the waltz, a form of Austrian folkdance. Strauss II’s most famous works include “The Blue Danube” and “Die Fledermaus.”
Along with the beautiful melodies, “Die Fledermaus” contains many waltzes and polkas.
“They’ll love this show,” Settle said. “The music is wonderful, the voices are marvelous, and it’s very funny and entertaining.”