Move aside, Gilbert & Sullivan: Valley Light Opera offers its first-ever production of stage favorite ‘Die Fledermaus’

  • Members of Valley Light Opera rehearse at Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley for their upcoming performance of “Die Fledermaus” at Northampton’s Academy of Music. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Stage Director Thom Griffin, left, and Music director Aldo Fabrizi work with members of Valley Light Opera at a recent rehearsal for the upcoming production of “Die Fledermaus.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Heather Williams, left, and Becca Bly rehearse with other members of the Valley Light Opera at the Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley for their upcoming production of “Die Fledermaus.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Stage Director Thom Griffin, right, and Music Director Aldo Fabrizi oversee a rehearsal of Valley Light Opera’s “Die Fledermaus.” Griffin calls the operetta, which debuted in 1874, “one of the most popular in the world.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Elaine Crane, as Rosalinde, rehearses with other Valley Light Opera members for the group’s new production, “Die Fledermaus.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Phyllis Jordan, left, and Lorraine Fox work on costumes for Valley Light Opera’s new operetta, “Die Fledermaus.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Laura Green picks out costumes during the a recent rehearsal for Valley Light Opera’s new production, “Die Fledermaus.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Practice make perfect: Stage Director Thom Griffin works with Elaine Crane on her part as Rosalinde for Valley Light Opera’s “Die Fledermaus.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Coordinating Producer Kathy Blaisdell, in front, says Valley Light Opera has never previously produced “Die Fledermaus,” one of the the world’s most popular operettas, or light operas. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Frankie Bones adds piano accompaniment at a rehearsal for Valley Light Opera’s new production, “Die Fledermaus.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Elaine Crane as Rosalinde and Matthew Taylor as Eisenstein are at the heart of the plot in “Die Fledermaus” by Valley Light Opera. Photo courtesy Valley Light Opera

  • From left, Nicole Newell as Adele, Matthew Taylor as Eisenstein, and Elaine Crane as Rosalinde are key cast members of “Die Fledermaus” by Valley Light Opera. Photo courtesy Valley Light Opera

Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2022

A year ago, Valley Light Opera was trying something new: rehearsing for a new production that involved all the cast, chorus members, and many orchestra players wearing face masks through weeks of rehearsals, not knowing quite what they’d sound like when they finally took those masks off on stage.

This year, VLO is still taking some precautions due to lingering concerns of COVID. And once again the group is trying something new: After years of primarily staging Gilbert & Sullivan productions, VLO is taking its first-ever crack at “Die Fledermaus,” one of the most popular light operas, or operettas, around.

“It’s something we’ve talked about doing before,” said Kathy Blaisdell, the coordinating producer for the show as well as a chorus member. “It’s a really fun story that feels a little bit more like a musical, with spoken dialogue and a lot of comic moments ... you have people playing jokes on each other, tests of love, mistaken identity.”

And Blaisdell, a longtime member of VLO, says “Die Fledermaus,” also known as “The Bat,” has an appeal for younger performers, something the group has aimed to attract in more recent years. Among some of those younger performers in “Die Fledermaus” is University of Massachusetts Amherst voice student Matthew Taylor, who plays one of the lead roles.

“Die Fledermaus” will be staged at Northampon’s Academy of Music Nov. 5 and 6 and Nov. 11 through 13, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 5, 11 and 12 and at 2 p.m. on Nov. 6 and 13.

Another appeal is the operetta’s music, a particular attraction for Stage Director Thom Griffin, who directed a number of VLO productions in the 1990s; he’s been a cast member in some more recent ones, such as last year’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” one of the most noted Gilbert & Sullivan shows.

“The music is simply beautiful,” said Griffin, who previously directed a production of “Die Fledermaus” with a light opera company in Simsbury, Connecticut. “The overture is often played as a stand-alone piece in concerts.”

The music for “Die Fledermaus” was composed by Johann Strauss II, the son of Johann Strauss, for a German libretto written by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée; the operetta debuted in Vienna in 1874. The story itself has elements of farce, romance, flirtation, and the schemes lovers can get up to behind their partners’ backs.

A Viennese man about town, Gabriel von Eisenstein, is about to go for jail for several days for insulting a civil servant. Falke, Eisenstein’s friend, invites him to a ball before he must report for jail — but Falke has some light-hearted revenge planned for his friend after Eisenstein played an embarrassing practical joke on him a few years earlier.

Meanwhile, the police arrest a man named Alfred at Eisenstein’s home after Alfred, an old flame of Eisenstein’s wife, Rosalinde, goes there to serenade her. And at the ball, Eisenstein flirts with an alluring masked woman, supposedly from Hungary, who unknown to him is actually his wife.

When Eisenstein, a bit foggy with drink, proceeds to the jail the next morning, he finds Alfred there — and when Rosalinde suddenly appears, confusion erupts and charges and counter-charges of infidelity fly, though all is revealed as part of Falke’s elaborate joke on his friend.

“The storyline is basically a play within a play,” Griffin said. “Add that to the music and some really wonderful costumes and you have an operetta that’s been performed all over the world — it’s incredibly popular.”

Singing while masked

After COVID-19 wiped out VLO’s 2020 season, the group was determined to put on a production in 2021. But there were a number of hurdles to overcome to do that.

For one, the uncertainty of whether a production could even be staged last fall meant auditions were delayed until August, rather than taking place in May as they normally are; that also held down the number of candidates, Blaisdell said. And when rehearsals began, strict masking protocols were put in place — not an ideal situation for singers.

“It was a real challenge,” Blaisdell said, noting that singing with masks muffled everyone’s voices; she also struggled with her mask coming into her mouth when drawing a deep breath.

This year, with the worst of the pandemic having passed, auditions took place at the end of May again, and audition numbers increased (the VLO production of “Die Fledermaus” includes a cast of 11 and a chorus of 19, while the orchestra has 25 members). At rehearsals for the operetta, masks have been optional, though everyone who participates was required to be vaccinated.

At a recent rehearsal at the Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley, about one-quarter of the cast and chorus members were wearing masks. Griffin and the production’s music director, Aldo Fabrizi, were unmasked as they stood by music stands toward the front of the group.

Using masks is understandable, Griffin said, though he noted it can still create a problem with enunciation of lyrics and when singers are trying to work with the orchestra: “It can be hard for musicians to get their cues.”

Griffin joked that at some of the earlier rehearsals he was “starting to despair” with how things were going but that “after I browbeat everyone,” the production began to improve.

“It’s really come together very, very well,” he said. “And I will say that the quality of the chorus has improved immensely” from the VLO productions he directed in the 1990s.

Blaisell notes that VLO, which began in the late 1970s, has always been a community organization, and that community feel is at the heart of the productions. Counting cast, chorus, orchestra, costume and set designers, builders and volunteers, as many as 100 people can be involved in putting on a show, and some can come from a considerable distance, she says.

Elaine Crane, for instance, who plays Rosalinde and also wrote a new English libretto for VLO’s “Die Fledermaus,” lives in Worcester, where she serves as executive director of Greater Worcester Opera. Fabrizi, VLO’s music director, also conducts the Greater Worcester Opera, and Blaisdell says some other members of “Die Fledermaus” come from Holyoke and communities further afield (Griffin lives in Colrain).

“There’s just a real sense of commitment that brings us all together to put these shows on,” Blaisdell said. “And after the pandemic, that feels especially good.”

To find out more about VLO’s “Die Fledermaus” and to buy tickets, visit vlo.org. You can also purchase tickets at aomtheatre.com.

Though the Academy of Music no longer requires masks, the theater allows groups to add their own COVID protocols. As such, at the Nov. 6 matinee of “Die Fledermaus,” audience members will be required to be masked. In addition, the first two rows of seats will be kept empty to allow a little more distance between the audience and cast/chorus/orchestra members.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@ gazettenet.com.