In July, seven months in advance, Opera New Jersey first announced its planned February performances of Johann Strauss’s comic opera, “Die Fledermaus.” The big news was that Metropolitan Opera star Ruth Ann Swenson would sing the leading role of Rosalinde, who is torn between the appeal of a former boyfriend and her loyalty to her husband. By September ONJ’s quarterly newsletter announced the complete cast, and revealed that Ira Siff would direct the opera. The January edition of the newsletter included an invitation to meet Swenson at a reception in a private home on Friday, January 30, the weekend before rehearsals began.
When I talked to director Siff on Thursday, January 29, he was preparing to start rehearsals on Monday, February 2. Having directed a powerful semi-staged version of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” for ONJ in 2007 (U.S. 1, February 28, 2007), Siff envisioned a “Fledermaus” that he described in a telephone interview from his New York City studio as “a full show minus a set.”
“This ‘Fledermaus’ is more staged than semi,” he says. “It’s more staged than ‘Turandot.’ The chorus is staged and fully costumed, unlike ‘Turandot,’ where the chorus was on bleachers. ‘Fledermaus’ is fully choreographed. The chorus dances to the extent that room is available. There are four couples of solo dancers. There are set elements, furniture, and props. The orchestra will be on stage behind the performers.”
Tailoring his conception to the precise situation, Siff says, “In this production, since our Rosalinde is an opera star with many years at the Met, I want to make it a showcase for her. It’s Swenson’s first Rosalinde.”
Well, the comments above were made on January 29. And now we know it won’t be Swenson’s first Rosalinde. Within the roughly 24 hours between when I talked to Siff and the scheduled start of the gala private event, Swenson’s doctor ordered her to take a temporary, but complete, vocal rest. The reception did take place in a private home with three other members of the “Fledermaus” cast, and Scott Altman, ONJ’s artistic director, began a 24/7 search for a soprano who could instantly take over Swenson’s role.
Altman networked with singers, agents, and people in every facet of the opera world, and quickly developed a short list of candidates. To play Rosalinde, he was looking for “a singer with vivacious exuberance, commanding stage presence, and incredible panache,” he says.
Before that last weekend in January was over, Altman had found her. Plucky Lisa Vroman, Broadway star, flew in from the west coast in time to begin rehearsals with the rest of the cast on Monday. According to a press statement from Opera NJ issued on Wednesday, February 4, Vroman enjoyed a record-breaking run of Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera,” and has the unique distinction of being among the first to play both Fantine and Cosette in “Les Miserables.” She sang the role of Johanna in the Emmy Award-winning production “Sweeney Todd in Concert” with Patti Lupone, George Hearn, and the San Francisco Symphony.
She can be heard (and seen) on YouTube, miked, singing “The End of Summer” from “Simply Sondheim.” Her YouTube clip is an affair of subdued passion. Vroman’s subtle, restrained body language enhances the tension of the piece. She moves just enough to transmit her meaning; nothing is superfluous.
The slender, striking soprano is also at home in unamplified surroundings. On separate occasions she has performed for Queen Elizabeth, former President Clinton, and former Vice President Al Gore. Among Vroman’s early accolades is the praise she received for a 1999 performance in a Stravinsky festival of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. The now-discontinued 2000 Debussy recording on the Arabesque label, where she sings with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under Emil de Cou has risen in price on Amazon.com to just under $50.
Vroman will have her first performance as Rosalinde with Opera New Jersey on Friday, February 13 at McCarter Theatre. Additional performances take place on Friday, February 20, at Morristown’s Community Theater at Mayo Center; and on Sunday, February 22, at the State Theater in New Brunswick.
The cast includes Allan Glassman as Eisenstein, Tonio DiPaolo as Alfred, Rachel Gilmore as Adele, and Anthony Laciura as Frosch and Blind. Mark Flint conducts. Quade Winter provides custom dialogue. The production is in English with English titles.
Two days into rehearsals with Vroman as Rosalinde, director Siff appears to have modified his original vision of the production. In an E-mail, he writes, “I am able with Lisa Vroman, who has both Broadway and operatic experience, to do MUCH more of the physical comedy and sharp dialogue delivery that I feel is essential to keep ‘Fledermaus’ hilarious and not too arch and too mannered. Her delivery is natural, and she gets my take on both Rosalinde and comedy in general. Wish we’d had more time! But, she’s VERY fast.”
Commenting on the perils of last-minute replacements, Siff writes, “It depends on the replacement. In this case we lucked out, but the entire situation cost us precious time. In a comedy and shtick-heavy show like ‘Fledermaus,’ it’s much tougher to put someone in than in a ‘park and bark’ sort of opera. Lisa is doing brilliantly.”
In “Die Fledermaus” Rosalinde, about to say goodbye to her husband, Gabriel von Eisenstein, is distracted by the voice of tenor Alfred, a former boyfriend, whose high “A” she finds irresistible. Husband Eisenstein is about to leave to serve a jail sentence. The short incarceration is a by-product of Eisenstein’s having left his friend, Dr. Falke, dressed for Carnival as a bat, to find his way home in daylight in his bat costume.
“Fledermaus” means “bat” in German, and Falke has hatched a scenario to avenge himself on Eisenstein for having humiliated him while he was in his bat costume. Falke persuades Eisenstein that he should not go directly to jail, but should stop first at a party given by Prince Orlofsky. They leave for the party. Rosalinde gives her maid, Adele, the night off, and Adele borrows one of Rosalinde’s dresses to wear to Orlofsky’s party.
Alfred visits Rosalinde, who is now home alone. He settles down to eat the dinner prepared for Eisenstein. When the prison’s governor appears to take Eisenstein to jail, he imprisons Alfred instead.
Rosalinde, masked and pretending to be a Hungarian countess, turns up at Orlofsky’s party. Eisenstein flirts with both his masked wife and with her maid, Adele.
The morning after Orlofsky’s party all of the principals appear at the jail. Frosch, the jailer, delivers an entertaining soliloquy. The opera ends as Rosalinde praises “King Champagne” in song.
“‘Fledermaus’ is about sex and infidelity,” director Siff says. “But it’s a funny kind of sex and a funny kind of infidelity. Dr. Falke, the avenger, sets up Eisenstein to flirt with his own wife; Rosalinde is in love, not so much with Alfred, as with his voice. By the way, I re-named Alfred ‘Alfredo.’ I think that being an Italian tenor makes the role funnier. Alfredo has to have a big personality and a good Italian accent. He has to feel organically Italian, rather than accurately Italian.
“For the satirical scene in Act III with jailer Frosch I wrote in some contemporary references, everything from hair replacement systems to Bernie Madoff. I tried to keep it brief; the scene can go on for too long. It’s better to have a tight Frosch scene with a few good punch lines than to let it drag on.”
“Really, though,” continues Siff, “‘Fledermaus’ is Rosalinde and Adele’s show.
“There’s a lot of movement and wildness, especially in Act II. The singers have to get their cues from the monitor since the Maestro is behind them. Adele is all over the place. She gets carried around; she’s on top of the furniture. In comedy, choreography is essential; the movement must make you feel that it made the music happen.”
Since Siff’s “Turandot” gig for ONJ he has joined Margaret Juntwait as the regular co-host of the weekly Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (which can be heard locally on 89.1 WWFM). “It’s a huge research project, commenting on 22 operas during the season,” Siff says. As co-host, the results of Siff’s research spill out with ease, and his enthusiasm for opera as a medium is palpable.
Born in New York in 1946, Siff graduated from Cooper Union and made his debut as a tenor in 1970. He maintains a studio for teaching and coaching voice in New York City, and tucked in our latest conversation between students. In demand internationally, he gives a master class for the Dutch Royal Conservatory in Amsterdam in August.
He has allowed the satirical opera company, “La Gran Scena,” which he invented in 1981, to remain defunct, but continues impersonating “Madame Vera,” its diva, in farewell recitals. Madame Vera’s 20th annual farewell recital took place in 2006. This year Siff appears as Madame Vera at New York’s Symphony Space in May. Soon to be released is a third DVD from the “Gran Scena” milieu: “Vera, Life of a Diva.” It joins the earlier-released “La Gran Scena Live in Munich,” and “Madame Vera’s Farewell Recital.”
As a director for Opera New Jersey, Siff participates in an unusual partnership, now in its second year, between the opera company and PHS Senior Living Foundation, a non-profit organization providing senior living facilities in New Jersey. Meadow Lakes, in Hightstown, and Stonebridge, in Montgomery, are among the PHS communities.
Under PHS Foundation’s Encore Artists in Residence program, performers in “Fledermaus” live and rehearse on the Meadow Lakes campus and take meals with the residents, who are invited to drop in on rehearsals and to attend special presentations. The special presentations are open to non-residents on a space-permitting basis.
Meadow Lakes events open to the public include a costume presentation on Tuesday, February 17, at 2 p.m.; a master class on Thursday, February 19, at 2 p.m.; and an artists’ roundtable on Thursday, February 19, at 6 p.m. Space can be reserved by calling Sarah Damiano at 609-720-7304.
Die Fledermaus, Opera New Jersey, McCarter Theater. Friday, February 13, 7:30 p.m., $35 to $125; and the State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Sunday, February 22, 3 p.m., $35 to $95. Opera New Jersey presents a concert-staged production with a live orchestra and chorus in English with English surtitles. Lisa Vroman, soprano, sings the leading role of Rosalinde. www.opera-nj.org. For McCarter, 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org; for the State Theater, 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.