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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
and to engage Darko Tresnjak as director for the production.
imaginative productions of Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly" and
of Mozart’s "Marriage of Figaro" had made previous Boheme
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
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
maid Adele); Elias Mokole (Falke); Kathryn Moore (Prince Orlofsky);
and Richard Crawley (Alfred).
"I love working with this group," says Tresnjak of Boheme
Opera. "They’re musically well prepared and theatrically
and willing. The leading lady, Suzan Hanson, is particularly
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
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
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
husband. Frank, also, is intending to go to the ball.
Act II takes place at the ball of the jaded Prince Orlofsky.
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
Finally, everyone is reconciled and sings the virtues of champagne.
"The piece is more provocative than how it is conventionally
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.
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.
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
married an American diplomat, the family moved to the United States,
and Tresnjak attended schools in Maryland and the District of
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
I saw lots of Polish theater, took French lessons at the French
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
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
from working on opera. You analyze the score and get a sense of
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
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,
we decided to move on. I always wanted to direct. I realized that
dance was mostly a vehicle for my theatrical ideas." In
Tresnjak is happy about his exposure to dance and puppetry. "Now
I feel that I have a lot more skills than most directors," he
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
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
"May Night" in Sarasota.
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
is an outdoor party at Prince Orlofsky’s; the third takes place
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
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
showed. Here, I show her as conflicted. Her struggle about her
for the other man is something to explore and have the audience
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
met Frosch yet," he says, speaking about the jailer who
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,
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
not the kind of exhaustion we’re experiencing."
In contrast to the evolutionary style with which
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
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
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
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
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
It gave me a chance to work in three different styles with three
ethnicities. It works on a variety of levels." Tresnjak was able
to write the play in three weeks and it immediately went into
"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
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
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