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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 29,

2003

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

`Der Vampyr:’ Serious, Realistic Terror

Bill Fabris is wistful about his career path.

Immediately

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

working.

He mentions singing, dancing, stage management, directing, and

choreography.

"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

Vampyr"

is by Marschner’s brother-in-law, Wilhelm August Wohlbrueck. Fabris

directs the piece in two performances in the Playhouse on the

Westminster

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

Theatre."

The central character of "Der Vampyr" is Lord Ruthven, a

nobleman

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

exposing

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

"serious

terror that will be realistic." It dramatizes the Vampire’s urge

to kill, Fabris says. "I’m not trying to do a Bela Lugosi

performance."

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

undeserved.

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

Vampyr’

has lots of Mozartean characters and voice types."

"Der Vampyr" follows the lead of Weber’s "Der

Freischutz,"

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"

parallels

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

impeccable.

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

enduring

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

Vampire’s

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

through

the audience."

Musically, he says its also a good match. "The opera works well

for young singers," Fabris says. "I’ve cast it to take

advantage

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

director

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

family.

"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,

Charlie Brown."

When he was in eighth grade, and eager to learn how

to sing, his theatrical aunt found him a voice teacher, her

son-in-law.

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

University),

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

Orchestra

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

yet,"

he says, "but we played most of western Europe, including Berlin.

Whatever country we were in, we tried to learn the language by

throwing

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

Westminster

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

theater.

— Elaine Strauss

Der Vampyr , Westminster Opera Theater, The

Playhouse,

101 Walnut Lane, 609-921-2663. Marschner’s seminal spooky opera,

"Der

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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