Die Fledermaus. Music by Johann Strauss. New English translation and musical arrangement by Ian Gledhill of Pavillion Music. Directed by Karyn Tisdell. Canberra Opera. Belconnen Theatre. May 5–14. Tickets $20-$35. Bookings: 0410 094 908 or canberraopera.org.au or trybooking.com/book/event?embed&eid=263647.
As operettas go, Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus is a Grand Cru. This champagne-fuelled frolic has been a perennial favourite ever since its premiere in Vienna in 1874. Its melodies sparkle, and, like a good glass of bubbly, it leaves the audience light-headed, slightly giddy, and wanting more – but, unlike champagne, without any risk of a hangover the next morning.
"It's 19th century music theatre," explains Karyn Tisdell, who is directing the opera for Canberra Opera. "It's light, frothy fun."
The stars of the show are Andrew Barrow and Keren Dalzell as Gabriel von Eisenstein and his wife Rosalinde, and Madeline Anderson as their perky maid Adele, who dreams of becoming an opera singer.
"It's the first lead role for all of them," Tisdell says, "so this is a big step up for them, but that's what Canberra Opera is all about: training young singers."
The company was founded five years ago as the Canberra Opera Workshop (COW), partly to give young singers the training and performance experience necessary to become a professional.
"There's not much opportunity for opera singers in Canberra," Tisdell says, "so our main mission is to provide those opportunities and to help train up young singers. A lot of opera companies these days need you to perform lead roles before you can even get a look in for a chorus position. It's hard to get those opportunities in Australia; it's not like Europe where there's an opera house in every town."
All three singers graduated from the Australian National University's School of Music. Barrow studied performance arts at Wollongong and classical voice at the ANU. Dalzell graduated from the ANU, and studied in Vienna with Barbara Daniels, a soprano at the Met in New York. Anderson majored in classical voice at the ANU and sang with the university's choir in in the US.
"They're all local," Tisdell says; "they've all done music degrees, and they're all young singers who are potentially looking to become professionals."
This is Barrow's first role with the company, but Denzell and Anderson both sang in the company's last two productions: Puccini's La Bohème in 2015 and last year's Suor Angelica (in which Tisdell sang the title role).
Die Fledermaus is a comic change of direction.
"We wanted a contrast," Tisdell says. "The Puccini operas are pretty heavy; both main characters die in horrible ways. We thought: 'Let's do something lighter, more fun.' We settled on Fledermaus because it's one that audiences love, but it's also one we love."
Tisdell fell in love with the operetta when she saw Lindy Hume's production for Opera Australia starring Anthony Warlow and Gillian Sullivan in the 1990s.
"It was like a screwball comedy. She'd set it in Manhattan in the 1930s; it was fast-paced, it was over the top, it was just so much fun and I loved it."
With its married couple at loggerheads, mistaken identities, disguises, and cast of merry drunkards who end up in prison, it's not a million miles removed from the great screen comedies of the day like Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story.
Tisdell's production moves the operetta from Vienna in the 1870s to London in the 1950s, when Britain was putting its party frock back on after years of war and austerity.
"Fourteen years of rationing had finished; luxury goods became available; you could buy champagne; and you had the beautiful Dior New Look dresses. It was such an exciting time that I thought why not?"
Tisdell thought that setting the operetta in Strauss's Vienna would slow down the action.
"Operetta can sometimes look staid. Putting it in Vienna in the big dresses and the costumes would make it a bit ho-hum. The 1950s aren't so modern that audiences will find it jarring; they'll still be able to relate to it, but it's more modern than 1874."
One thing that doesn't age is Strauss's music.
"It's full of those beautiful waltzes," Tisdell says. "It's very hummable, and there are lots of famous arias – the Laughing Song, the Audition Song. You can't hear the Champagne Chorus and not come away singing that for hours on end. It's such relatable music. Whether or not you've got a voice, you can hum it."
The production has an eight-piece orchestra plus piano. Because Belconnen Theatre doesn't have an orchestra pit, Tisdell has placed them onstage. They're the entertainment at the party in the second act, given by a dissolute Russian prince; and in the third act, set in a prison, they're in a jail cell, wearing convict hats.
"They love the fact that they're not stuck under the stage, wearing all black," Tisdell says. And, of course, they get to play Strauss's delightful score.
"It's not something you need to concentrate on too hard or emotionally invest yourself in like La Bohème or Suor Angelica, where you end up in tears as the character dies at the end," Tisdell says. "It's a fun show that you can watch, have a laugh and come away feeling really entertained."
In the spirit of the opera, operagoers can get a free glass if they dress in 1950s style to see the Saturday night performances or bring their mum to the Mother's Day show.