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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 29,
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`Der Vampyr:’ Serious, Realistic Terror
Bill Fabris is wistful about his career path.
after graduating from Rowan College in 1981, he found work in the
theater and has been regularly employed ever since. He regrets not
having had to take the non-theatrical day jobs that so many theater
hopefuls endure. "I thought waiting and bartending would be fun,
but I never got to do it," he says in a telephone interview.
Fabris’ aunt and mentor, Broadway performer Evelyn McCauly, warned
him of the endemic unemployment in the theater, and Fabris assembled
a cornucopia of essential theatrical skills that have kept him
He mentions singing, dancing, stage management, directing, and
"I learned by doing," he says. "You don’t need experience
to become an assistant choreographer or director."
Fabris (pronounced Fab-ree) is now a faculty member at Westminster
Choir College of Rider University and his current project is a special
seasonal opera of the supernatural, Heinrich Marschner’s "Der
Vampyr." First performed in 1828, the libretto for "Der
is by Marschner’s brother-in-law, Wilhelm August Wohlbrueck. Fabris
directs the piece in two performances in the Playhouse on the
campus, on Friday, October 31, at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, November
2, at 3 p.m. David Rebhun is the musical director. The work will be
sung in German with dialogue and recitative in English. Attentive
to the Halloween timing of the opera, publicity materials list the
sponsoring organization for this show as "Westmonster Opera
The central character of "Der Vampyr" is Lord Ruthven, a
who has become a vampire and has been condemned to Hell. The Vampire
Master promises him another year of life if he agrees to kill three
young girls within 24 hours. The father of his first victim severely
wounds Ruthven. An old friend, Aubry, saves Ruthven and realizes that
he is a vampire. Aubry pledges to keep secret Ruthven’s vampire status
because Ruthven once saved his life.
Aubry is the beloved of Malwina. However, her father has arranged
her marriage to the Earl of Marsden, who is really the vampire. The
Vampire intends to kill Malwina. Aubry’s oath prevents him from
the Vampire. Aubry manages to delay the wedding, thereby delaying
Ruthven’s opportunity to kill Malwina. At the stroke of midnight a
lightning bolt strikes Ruthven dead. Aubry marries Malwina.
Fabris describes his "Vampyr" production as conveying
terror that will be realistic." It dramatizes the Vampire’s urge
to kill, Fabris says. "I’m not trying to do a Bela Lugosi
As Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi made his reputation as a purveyor of
horror on Broadway and in the movies at the beginning of the Great
Depression of the 1930s. "I didn’t want to be satirical,"
Fabris says. "Parody would have been fun but this music doesn’t
lend itself to it. All the characters are honest and real."
"The music is great," says Fabris. "It’s very romantic,
hummable but not popular." Responding to my invitation, he hums
a bouncy, jig-like tune into the telephone.
Composer Marschner’s obscurity in the 21st century is arguably
A leading figure in German opera in his day, he composed 22 theater
pieces. Fabris calls Marschner’s work a cross between Mozart, Weber,
and Wagner. "The lead in ‘Der Vampyr,’" Fabris says, "is
like Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He’s an anti-hero. After Don Giovanni,
Ruthven was the next leading man who is an evil character. ‘Der
has lots of Mozartean characters and voice types."
"Der Vampyr" follows the lead of Weber’s "Der
which premiered in 1821, seven years before Marschner’s opera. Both
deal with the supernatural. Wagner admired Marschner, Fabris notes,
and used a theme from "Der Vampyr" in "Die Walkuere."
Furthermore, the structure of Wagner’s "Flying Dutchman"
that of Marschner’s "Vampyr."
Marschner’s source for his "Vampyr" was a short
novel by John Polidori. As a literary piece, its pedigree is
In 1816, Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician, visited Byron, who was
on holiday, during a rainy spell in June. Among Byron’s guests were
Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft. Byron suggested
to his guests that each of them produce a ghost story to read to the
group. Polidori wrote his "Vampyre" immediately. Mary Shelley
began thinking along the lines that eventually resulted in the
tale of "Frankenstein."
Fabris learned about "Der Vampyr" from a friend who thought
it would appeal to him; right away he was intrigued. He listened to
the two recordings of the opera that exist, looked at a tape of a
full version of the opera broadcast by BBC television in the early
1980s, and read the Polidori novel on which the opera is based.
"I thought, there’s a lot of subtext I can use here," he says.
"The production is very visual and atmospheric. I decided to do
everything in black and white, with gray and bits of red. The
gifts are red; there’s a red rose and a red ring. All the Undead are
also dressed in red. We’ll turn the Playhouse into an environment
that envelops the audience. Black shreds of stuff will hang from the
ceiling. There will be black netting and the Vampire will enter
Musically, he says its also a good match. "The opera works well
for young singers," Fabris says. "I’ve cast it to take
of the performers’ abilities and considered whether they look like
the characters they play. The virgin, for instance, will look pure
and youthful and good. I’ve done a lot of Broadway as a singer and
a dancer. I like to bring that to opera. Opera performers can do more
than just stand there and sing."
Fabris was born in Saddle River in 1959. "Officially, my name
is William," he says, "but I’ve been Bill as long as I can
remember. I don’t want a formal name. It looks funny if you’re a
or a performer."
Fabris’s father, who died four years ago, used to work for the town
of Ramsey. His mother was a stay-at-home Mom who tended a large
"There were eight of us all together," says Fabris, the third
of the group. "That’s why my Mom had to stay home." His mother
has now become a serious photographer, whose first show earlier this
month was enthusiastically received.
The spinet piano that Fabris’s mother played before her marriage was
central in the life of her own family. Fabris remembers making music
at home, particularly at Christmastime. He played carols on the piano
while the rest of the family sang.
"My aunt got me involved with theater," Fabris says. "She
was a performer, and did Broadway shows and operetta. We went to see
her perform. You get the theater bug and there you are on stage."
Fabris’s first appearance was as Schroeder in "You’re A Good Man,
When he was in eighth grade, and eager to learn how
to sing, his theatrical aunt found him a voice teacher, her
Fabris considers voice his first musical instrument. He also played
saxophone, clarinet, and piano. He started piano in fifth grade, and
it became so much a part of his life that he sometimes forgets that
there was a time when he had not yet learned to play the instrument.
Fabris majored in voice at Glassboro State College (now Rowan
class of 1981. When still in college, he visited Europe for the first
time as a member of a Haddonfield community chorus. Fabris traveled
to Italy with the vocal ensemble and the Haddonfield Symphony
to perform the Verdi "Requiem" in Florence and Milan. The
trip was a peak experience for him.
From 1983 to 1985 he lived in Europe, working with the touring company
for the musical "Hair." "The Wall hadn’t come down
he says, "but we played most of western Europe, including Berlin.
Whatever country we were in, we tried to learn the language by
ourselves into it. I already had enough German and Spanish to get
by, and a little French."
"We put the show together four times during the two years,"
he says. "Very few performers were there for all two years. We
had to keep recreating the show with each new cast. So I became a
director. I had to know the movements and teach them. I was involved
in casting and in choreographing the show. I was part of the audition
process. It was a great learning experience."
Since then Fabris has directed and choreographed extensively in the
United States. Since 1987 he has been director and choreographer for
the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. Not counting his Gilbert
and Sullivan work, which is hard to classify, his credits for musicals
outdistance his credits for opera at about three to two. His Gilbert
and Sullivan could swing the ratio either way, depending on whether
one classifies it as musical theater or as opera.
A Manhattan midtown resident, Fabris has directed the Westminster
Opera Theater for five years. Fabris’s assignments at Westminster
have included teaching dancing and acting. His course, "Dance
for the Performing Arts," which he has presented for four years,
will be offered to senior majors in the new dance program that
is now assembling.
Early in his career he developed a battery of theatrical skills. Now
he seems to be developing a web of organizational know-how for the
— Elaine Strauss
101 Walnut Lane, 609-921-2663. Marschner’s seminal spooky opera,
Vampyr." $15 adult; $10 students & seniors. Friday, October
31, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, November 2, at 3 p.m.
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