November 11, 2012

Fledermaus 3: Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

Martha Colleen O'Hara - MY Adele
(photo by Tomas Gering)
Here in that corner of Southeastern Virginia known as Hampton Roads, there has been a weekly radio program called Gemütlichkeit on the air since 1971. Hosted by Inge Fischer-White, Gemütlichkeit played light German popular music and announcements about local events catering to the als Deutsch crowd. As recently as 2011 it was on WFOS in Chesapeake, but I just checked the Web and, alas, didn't find any current listings.

No worries! Virginia Opera's Die Fledermaus is set to open in Norfolk, and since Strauss's operetta is pretty much the mother lode of Gemütlichkeit, I thought I'd offer a few reflections on this notoriously untranslatable word.

Google's translation page gives us "coziness" as the English equivalent, but one English word alone doesn't really convey the full sense and Gestalt of Gemütlichkeit. You really need an entire arsenal of synonyms such as these:
  • friendly
  • open
  • informal
  • unhurried
  • leisurely
  • fellowship
  • good-natured
  • easy-going
  • homey
I could keep going, but by now you get the idea. Formal state dinner at the French Embassy? Uh .. not so much. Four college roommates sharing pizza in a messy apartment at 2 in the morning? There you go. 

Actually, if you're familiar with American television, you already have a great model for this concept. Remember the theme song to the classic 80's sitcom Cheers?

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name

If that ain't Gemütlichkeit then my name is Donald Trump.

As it happens, there is a moment in Act II of Die Fledermaus which (in my opinion) is unsurpassed in absolutely nailing the feeling of Gemütlichkeit. It's a moment that summons up extremely personal memories for me dating from my having been cast in a festival production of Fledermaus in Rome in 2010.

It's also a moment that gives us the possibility of a theatrical miracle - yes, a MIRACLE! - and shows why you're better off seeing the show at a company like Virginia Opera than a star-studded production at the Met.

The moment I have in mind is the ensemble begun by Dr. Falke beginning Brüderlein und Schwesterlein. This number begins shortly after the rowdy ode to "King Champagne". By this point, the party at Prince Orlovsky's has been going on for hours; it's around 3 or 4 in the morning. All the characters have paired off into boy-girl couples (Frank with Adele, Eisenstein with the "Hungarian Countess", etc.) and the liberal consumption of champagne has put everybody in a mellow state of huggy-kissy chumminess. Falke points out the good vibes in the room, suggesting everyone drop the formal German word for "you": Sie, and adopt the informal du. This is all sung to a gently rocking slow waltz in 3/4 which the entire cast and chorus takes up: a mass crooning of music that approaches Mozart (no, really!) in its near-sublimity.

And what is this "miracle"? Allow me to explain.

As I mentioned above, it was my privilege to be cast as the prison warden Frank in Die Fledermaus as presented by the 2010 Operafestival di Roma. I kept a journal documenting my experiences there in my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates (see below for info on purchasing a copy). I'm no opera singer, but the role of Frank doesn't really require a Sherrill Milnes-level baritone; it's more geared towards a comedian. 

We of the Festival cast and crew were in Rome for a four-week period, a span of time during which we lived together at the same modest residential-style hotel, ate our meals together, went sight-seeing together, and worked hard at daily rehearsals of singing, dialogue, choreography, and staging. In essence, we lived together as a temporary family, getting to know one another very well, and forming friendships that, in some cases, will last permanently. All this chemistry made for an excellent performance of the Brüderlein und Schwesterlein ensemble for a very important reason:

The Gemütlichkeit was REAL. It wasn't acting. If we were German speakers, all of us would long since have replaced Sie with du. We'd worked, played, argued, and made up over a month's time. Cozy, relaxed, informal friendliness? You bet your Hinterbacken, baby.

The artist portraying Adele in my cast was the young soprano Martha Colleen O'Hara, a Florida native now residing and singing in Berlin. Martha was a fabulous Adele with a brilliant top and bucketfuls of charisma onstage, but she's an even cooler person. Funny, smart, friendly, with a can-do attitude, Martha was pretty much your ideal colleague in a show. She's someone I'm happy to remain in touch with through Facebook. The memory of sitting with my arm around Martha on a big circular sofa in the center of the stage, singing Strauss's lilting vocal lines, basking in the general air of happy cast-wide closeness, everyone aware of the experiences we'd all shared to bring us to this moment - ...well, that was a good day in my life. You'd better believe it.

And the miracle? In my opinion, when a Fledermaus cast experiences genuine Gemütlichkeit; when it's not acting, but a visceral feeling, there exists the possibility that this phenomenon will ooze off the stage and waft out into the audience, more or less infecting all the spectators with their own Gemütlichkeit. Suddenly, hundreds of strangers can now look around the theater, regard their fellow ticket-holders, and think mushy thoughts like this: "Isn't this great? Aren't we all glad we're here? Don't you love Strauss, neighbors? Gee whillikers, I do! Don't we all wish this evening could just last forever? We do! We do!"

Like that. A roomful of strangers suddenly feels a music-induced bond and kinship with one another, and that's a miracle in my book.

Now understand: at a big house like the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the odds that this infection of the Gemütlichkeit virus will strike you are a lot longer. Obviously, the artists at the Met do not co-habitate for a period of weeks prior to opening night of Fledermaus. They are stars, see, and star singers lead a different existence. Your Eisenstein may have just arrived from Zurich two days before the show; his Rosalinde may be coming from San Francisco; and so on. Everyone in the cast has likely sung their roles dozens of times in dozens of productions around the globe. When they sing the Brüderlein und Schwesterlein number, it's ... acting. Yeah, they're professionals, and yeah, they're good at their jobs. However (I stubbornly maintain), it's still... acting. It's polished, stylish, vocally "all that", and about as real as an artificial Christmas tree.

This is why I have high hopes for Virginia Opera's staging. One of the upsides of being a regional opera company is that we don't engage opera's super-stars! We present young, gifted professionals still building their careers. And our productions rehearse over a period of nearly four weeks before the curtain goes up on opening night; plenty of time to bond and let the good vibes build up.

Are these warm fuzzies guaranteed? Of course not; live opera is like the circus: sometimes the tiger declines to jump through the damn hoop, and sometimes the trapeze artist falls into the safety net. I haven't spent much time around our cast, but who knows? Maybe one of the artists has chronic halitosis; maybe there've been spats and hurt feelings; maybe they just don't mesh.

But I'd put my money on the chance - the excellent chance - that the Gemütlichkeit will be flowing like honey and sweeten the atmosphere at the Harrison Opera House.

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.


  1. agreed - Bruederlein und Schwesterlein is one of the great moments in opera. Glad you like it as much as I do! Die Fledermaus is a lesson in living well. You have got to love those Viennese.

  2. I recently purchased a collection of Mrs White's vintage 78 opera records. Some dating back to the 1930's if anyone is interested in them