Fledermaus Plot

Tresnjak’s Croatian Roots

Outdoor Settings

Corrections or additions?

This feature by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

October 21, 1998. All rights reserved.

Fledermaus: More Timely Than Ever

Several months before the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal

broke, Boheme Opera decided to mount Johann Strauss’s "Die

Fledermaus,"

and to engage Darko Tresnjak as director for the production.

Tresnjak’s

imaginative productions of Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly" and

of Mozart’s "Marriage of Figaro" had made previous Boheme

seasons sparkle.

When the presidential scandal became known, Tresnjak realized that

history was playing into his hands. The questions of marital fidelity

and deception raised in the piece suddenly seemed particularly

relevant, and some of the text seemed to allude to breaking news.

"The most exciting thing about `Fledermaus,’" he says in a

telephone interview from his home in New York, "is its timeliness.

It’s an interesting piece right now because the sexual mores of

19th-century Vienna were more relaxed than those of our own time. I

found that many of the lines seem particularly apt at the present time

because they comment on infidelity in marriage.

"When it comes to fidelity," says Tresnjak, "`Fledermaus’

goes beyond `The Marriage of Figaro,’ where the Count was the only

one who was philandering. Here Eisenstein, the husband, is delaying

his jail sentence so he can go to a party where there are the ballet

dancers, the wife is having an affair with the visiting tenor, the

maid is cheating on both of them, and Dr. Falke, the husband’s friend,

is setting everybody up."

"Fledermaus" opens the 10th season of Boheme Opera Company

with performances Wednesday, October 28, and Friday, October 30, at

8 p.m., and Sunday, November 1, at 3 p.m., in at Villa Victoria

Academy

in Ewing. Artistic director Joseph Pucciatti conducts. The opera is

sung in English. Tresnjak directs a cast that includes Barton Green

(Eisenstein); Suzan Hanson (his wife Rosalinde); Kristen Plumley

(their

maid Adele); Elias Mokole (Falke); Kathryn Moore (Prince Orlofsky);

and Richard Crawley (Alfred).

Top Of Page
Fledermaus Plot

"I love working with this group," says Tresnjak of Boheme

Opera. "They’re musically well prepared and theatrically

adventurous

and willing. The leading lady, Suzan Hanson, is particularly

wonderful.

She just finished a year as the student in a run of `Master Class’

with the national company."

The opera opens as Alfred, a tenor and former flame of Rosalinde,

is serenading her. She is so distracted by his singing that she is

unable to pay attention to her maid Adele, who begs for time off to

look after her sick aunt. There is no sick aunt; Adele needs time

off to go to the ball of Prince Orlofsky. Eisenstein, Rosalinde’s

husband, is about to go to jail for several days for a minor

infraction,

but his friend, Falke, persuades him to delay his jail sentence until

the following morning in order to attend Orlofsky’s ball.

Falke has arranged also for Rosalinde to attend the

ball in disguise. Falke harbors a grudge against Eisenstein because

at Carnival Eisenstein left Falke, sleeping in his bat costume, to

find his way home in broad daylight. Eisenstein, dressed for the ball,

departs, telling his wife that he is on the way to jail. Alfred

settles

down to dinner with Rosalinde, but is hauled off to jail when the

Frank, the Governor of the prison, comes to believe that he is

Rosalinde’s

husband. Frank, also, is intending to go to the ball.

Act II takes place at the ball of the jaded Prince Orlofsky.

Rosalinde,

wearing a mask, and pretending to be a Hungarian countess, is courted

by her husband, Eisenstein, who fails to recognize her. As morning

approaches, Eisenstein heads toward jail to begin his sentence. Frank,

the Governor of the prison accompanies him.

Opening Act III, Frosch, the drunken jailer, staggers about and makes

pointed comments about current affairs. The jailed Alfred is creating

a disturbance by singing loudly. Eventually, all the main characters

appear at the prison. Falke, Eisenstein’s friend explains that he

has engineered Eisenstein’s jail sentence out of revenge for his

grudge.

Finally, everyone is reconciled and sings the virtues of champagne.

"The piece is more provocative than how it is conventionally

staged,"

says Tresnjak. Even though Rosalinde is the only one who wears a mask

at the party, all of the main characters are wearing masks in the

sense that they are deceiving people.

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Tresnjak’s Croatian Roots

Tresnjak, 33, was born in Zemun, Croatia, now a part of Serbia. He

moved to the United States when he was nine, in 1975. Unlike most

people in her circle, his mother thought that there was going to be

a war. "People said she was insane," Tresnjak recalls.

"But

she said, `I know that there’s going to be a war and I want to get

my kids out of here.’" After Tresnjak’s sister, 11 years his

senior,

married an American diplomat, the family moved to the United States,

and Tresnjak attended schools in Maryland and the District of

Columbia.

Graduating from high school a year early, at 17, Tresnjak did not

want to go to college right away. And when his brother-in-law was

assigned to Cracow, Poland, Tresjnak tagged along. "Poland is

a fascinating country," he says. "It was the time of

Solidarity.

I saw lots of Polish theater, took French lessons at the French

Consulate,

and Polish lessons at the Polish consulate. I did ballroom dancing

and skiing. I applied to college while I was in Poland. It was a good

year. "

An English literature major at Swarthmore, Tresnjak finds the roots

of what he is doing now in his college studies. "I got to examine

English literature from a formal point of view. It’s not that

different

from working on opera. You analyze the score and get a sense of

character."

After graduation, Tresnjak studied dance at the Martha Graham School

in New York. In Philadelphia, where he spent five years, he danced

with several dance companies, including Mum Puppetheater which

combined

dance and puppet performances. Eventually, he founded a dance theater

company, Twitch Limit, which combined movement and text. "We did

good work for several years, and got good reviews," he says,

"but

we decided to move on. I always wanted to direct. I realized that

dance was mostly a vehicle for my theatrical ideas." In

retrospect,

Tresnjak is happy about his exposure to dance and puppetry. "Now

I feel that I have a lot more skills than most directors," he

says.

Tresnjak’s directing is buttressed by a master’s degree

from Columbia University, where he studied with Ann Bogart and Andrei

Serban. He moved to New York City six years ago, but finds that he

is frequently away on directing projects. He is a regular at the

Williamstown

Theater Festival, in Massachusetts, where he directs one show each

summer. On his plate for the current season are Gluck’s "Orfeo

ed Euridice" for Virginia Opera, and the American premier of

Rimsky-Korsakov’s

"May Night" in Sarasota.

Top Of Page
Outdoor Settings

Tresnjak feels no obligation to replicate conventional productions

of the works he directs, but he meticulously examines a score to find

support for diverging from tradition. "One of the big things I

decided to do in `Fledermaus’ is to set all three acts outdoors. It’s

a major change, but one that’s well-supported by the text." The

first act takes place on the verandah of Eisenstein’s villa; the

second

is an outdoor party at Prince Orlofsky’s; the third takes place

outside

of the jail. "I’ve set the operetta in late summer — Indian

summer. It’s often assumed that `Fledermaus’ takes place on New Year’s

Eve because it’s often performed or televised at that time. But

there’s

no reference to New Year’s Eve in the piece.

"The shift to outdoors gives the production a certain lightness

and air, a certain swiftness. Even if say so myself, they’re smart

decisions. There are three times when everyone goes on or off stage,

and it takes time to use the door to a drawing room. The virtue of

an outdoor setting is that swift action is possible. You can have

40 people on stage, whoosh; two people on stage, whoosh; one person

on stage, whoosh. It opens up a world of possibilities."

Trasnjak says Rosalinde is the core of the `Fledermaus’ plt, but she

is often often the most neglected character. "Suzan [Hanson] and

I have come up with a detailed characterization. Rosalinde is often

played as completely pure, but that’s not true. Even before she finds

out that her husband is cheating, she decides to dismiss the maid

so she can be alone with Alfred, the tenor. That’s one of the clues

that she has something in mind for him. I assume that many productions

have the idea that they would offend the audience if Rosalinde’s

sexuality

showed. Here, I show her as conflicted. Her struggle about her

feelings

for the other man is something to explore and have the audience

confront.

I want to make it funny. There’s a lightness to the operetta. It’s

not `Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’ Marriage is difficult and people

have to find their way through these issues. Frankly, I find exploring

them refreshing right now."

Tresnjak likes to work closely with the players he directs, letting

characterizations grow from the personality of the actor. "I

haven’t

met Frosch yet," he says, speaking about the jailer who

traditionally

makes satirical observations in Act III. "I’ll decide what to

do with his character when I meet him. But when it comes to leading

characters, it’s healthier to meet actors, hear them say their lines,

and be guided by their own personality."

"I want to have Frosch comment on current affairs and want to

find a way to make it funny," says Tresnjak. "Riding the New

York subway, I saw people reading the newspapers. There were headlines

about impeachment, and I looked at people’s faces, and thought,

`People

are tired; they’re jaded; they don’t want to go through with this.’

For developing Frosch I want to wait till the last minute and keep

it as spontaneous as possible. I want to do it with charm and

lightness,

not the kind of exhaustion we’re experiencing."

In contrast to the evolutionary style with which

Tresnjak

works out his characterizations for individual roles, he develops

ideas about the chorus in advance. The night before our interview

he was up late preparing for an impending chorus rehearsal. "I’m

totally not a morning person," he says. "I was up till four

working on `Fledermaus,’ and today’s the big chorus rehearsal. When

there’s a chorus, you have to be incredibly well-prepared because

you have to guide 40 people. It doesn’t leave room for spontaneity

or anarchy."

Just as he distinguishes between the effort required for planning

an individual’s on-stage behavior and the stage activity of a chorus,

Tresnjak also makes a distinction between directing drama and

directing

opera. "With drama you can do a third of the work in advance,

and two-thirds in rehearsal," he says. "With opera, it is

the opposite. Every four-hour rehearsal requires eight hours of

thinking."

Besides solving staging problems, Tresnjak also solves programming

dilemmas. This summer the Williamstown Theater Festival canceled its

run of a Calderon play because a nearby theater had also scheduled

it. Tresnjak came to the rescue by writing a play for the occasion.

He based his play on the Hunchback’s Tale from "The Arabian

Nights,"

a story in which a Jew, a Christian, and a Moslem are all falsely

accused of killing a man and each is required to tell a story. The

man whose story is best will live.

"I come from Yugoslavia, where there are Serbs, Croatians, and

Bosnians," says Tresnjak, "so the tale was of special

interest.

It gave me a chance to work in three different styles with three

different

ethnicities. It works on a variety of levels." Tresnjak was able

to write the play in three weeks and it immediately went into

rehearsal.

"Williamstown is a wonderful town. It has 300 people, and I have

80 students there. Everybody helped. To this day it’s the piece that

I’m proudest of."

— Elaine Strauss

Die Fledermaus, Boheme Opera, Villa Victoria

Academy,

Route 29 North and West Upper Ferry Road, 609-683-8000. $20 to $40.

Pre-performance lecture one hour before curtain. Wednesday, October

28, 8 p.m.; Friday, October 30, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, November 1, 3

p.m.


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