Bats Left, Sings Right
With help from Esther's Follies, Austin Lyric Opera turns Strauss' Viennese waltz into a Texas two-step
The Marx Brothers had their shot.
The Three Stooges did, too.
Bugs Bunny took several.
Even the Little Rascals got one.
So it's only fitting and (im)proper that our own masters of mockery at Esther's Follies get to poke opera in the eye with a sharp stick.
Now they have their chance. What Groucho, Harpo, and Chico did to Verdi and the wascally wabbit did to Wossini, er, Rossini, a trio of longtime Follies mirthmakers has done to Johann Strauss. And you can relish the results this week when Austin Lyric Opera premieres a new version of Die Fledermaus, titled simply The Bat. Though it preserves the music of the original and the basics of the plot, this adaptation by Lyova Rosanoff, Steve Saugey, and Shaun Wainwright-Branigan transports the popular operetta from the capital of Austria to the capital of the Lone Star State, where one may easily find a "flutter-mouse" (to translate the German literally) or two million making their summer home under the bridge of the city's main avenue. Aristocrats of the 19th century are now technocrats of the 21st, a masquerade ball at a prince's palace is an Eeyore's Birthday-style costume party at the Driskill Hotel, and Rosalinde, the female lead, has become a yellow rose of Texas, hailing from Luckenbach. Arias pay tribute to the restorative qualities of the frozen margarita and the singular pleasures of boot-scootin' and the twilight flight of Mexican free-tails. This is opera, you ask? You bet your bats it is. As the saying goes, no place but Texas.
In a sense, the Follies' night at the opera was destined to be. The first star at Esther's was an opera singer: Dame Della Diva, the alter ego of the dearly departed William Dente, who would rumble, honk, and roar through arias like a runaway 18-wheeler, scattering pitches, notes, and rhythm in his wake. Parodies of classical music have been part of the Follies since its earliest days, most of them concocted by the classically trained Rosanoff and Saugey. Over her 28 years of tickling the ivories at Esther's, Rosanoff penned such musical delights as "Canon in D," which sends Pachelbel down to the "Octopus' Garden" of the Beatles, and the classic "Jalapeño Chorus," which shifts Handel to a Tex-Mex joint. In his 19 years with the troupe, Saugey made Beethoven roll over with his "Ode to Joy (Detergent)," gave Bach a shiner with his "Brackenridge Concerto," and tossed Debussy in a blender with his "Prelude to the Clair de Lune of a faun with a little flaxen-haired girl thrown in for good measure." Saugey and Rosanoff would also showcase their ingenious (and hilarious) pastiches in independent projects such as the Austin Flops Orchestra and Forbidden Classics. With so much history and skill involved in spoofing the music of the concert hall, a collision with a real opera company was inevitable.
The funny thing is, it was the opera's idea. Two years ago, when Austin Lyric Opera conductor Richard Buckley, in his former role as ALO artistic director, was considering what might make for a splashy debut in the Long Center, he had the inspiration for an opera set in Austin – created by taking an existing work and rewriting its libretto to spotlight local landmarks and traditions. As he pondered who might craft this musical portrait of the city in all its quirky glory, he thought of the folks who, for three decades, have made it their business to make light of every idiosyncrasy, tradition, and trend in Austin – often by stitching new lyrics to old melodies. Why not Esther's? For the leader of a highbrow cultural institution to want to collaborate with a lowbrow comedy troupe might seem curious, unless you happened to see ALO's take on The Barber of Seville last year. The production was awash in more schtick than a Catskills comics reunion tour, and right in the thick of it – literally center stage – was Maestro Buckley himself, joining in the tomfoolery and even making himself the butt of some jokes. His willingness to take part in the riot of gags amply demonstrated his appreciation of a good laugh. So it was not such a stretch for Buckley to contact Follies co-founder Shannon Sedwick, who liked the idea and suggested Esther's vets Rosanoff and Saugey, along with current writer/performer Wainwright-Branigan, to take the assignment.
Die Fledermaus was the work that Buckley wanted to adapt, and it's a work with a long history of changes being made to it. From the first performances in 1874, the second-act ball has included a showcase for special guests to perform for the merrymakers. Early on, these guests were singers serving up selections of Strauss' other material. As the tradition grew, however, the cameos became increasingly elaborate, luring in bigger and bigger stars from the operatic firmament – Enrico Caruso, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland – doing nontraditional material (folk songs, pop standards, show tunes) and even celebrities from beyond the world of opera – ballet dancers, comedians, magicians, politicians – doing, well, whatever. (Rudolph Giuliani singing "O Sole Mio"? It happened.) In time, the novelty appeal of these guests and the element of surprise associated with them grew so huge that they practically eclipsed the opera's story. That, in turn, seemed to encourage more playing around with the original lyrics and dialogue. As companies commissioned new translations, they gave writers a freer hand in altering the libretto. Among the noteworthy American adaptations were two done by some old hands in musical theatre: Garson Kanin (Born Yesterday) and Howard Dietz (The Band Wagon) penned a version in 1950, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, Applause) wrote one in 1998 – one in which they turned the pivotal character of Dr. Falke into Sigmund Freud!
But just because Die Fledermaus has been altered more times than Pavarotti's trousers doesn't mean that adapting it is a breeze. "It's not like a Broadway musical, where it was written with English in mind, and you can make new sentences with that exact same rhythm," notes Rosanoff, who worked with Saugey on the lyrics for The Bat. "It was written for the German language, so the German words flow nicely, but you have to think of English words that will do that exact rhythm."
"And have the accent in the right place," adds Saugey.
"This was a lot harder," says Rosanoff.
Still, Saugey says, "It was the best kind of difficult project you can imagine."
"Oh yeah," Rosanoff agrees. "It was great fun because we often found wonderful solutions."
"It was like a puzzle," offers Wainwright-Branigan.
"Yeah, a huge New York Times crossword puzzle," says Saugey.
As they tackled the task of which words fit exactly where, the Follies writers had in their favor a level of experience – in dealing with this very specific job of penning parody, with writing this sort of Austin-oriented comedy, and with working with one another – that allowed much of the material simply to fall into place. Of course, just having a bat in the original – it's a nickname Dr. Falke acquires after his friend Eisenstein pulls a prank in which he's forced to wear a bat costume – made it easy for the team to start transposing Vienna to Austin. Rosanoff, always with the ear for music, heard in the operetta's polkas a link to the German and Czech heritage in Central Texas. Wainwright-Branigan, who did the heavy lifting on the book and dialogue, found the original's stock characters translated handily to the latter-day Lone Star State. "The character archetypes are so broad that it's easy to bring them up to date and make the blowhard into an industrialist or an oilman," he notes. "They're all very easy characters to write in the here and now."
"Once the characters were set, that kind of limited us, and it was easy to work within that framework," adds Saugey. "When you know that Prince Orlofsky made his money doing high tech and that [the maid] Ida wants to be a big movie star ..."
"It's easier to pepper it with Austin-specific jokes about real estate or Lance Armstrong," says Wainwright-Branigan.
"A standard Esther's kind of treatment," Saugey notes. Indeed, it's the sort of material these three grew skilled at writing not only for the Follies' weekly shows at their home on East Sixth but for the specialty gigs that the Esther's gang developed into a lucrative sideline: private parties and corporate affairs where clients could get comedy material personally tailored to them. The West Lake Hills crowd, high tech companies, anything affiliated with the University of Texas – these have been the bread-and-butter (and just plain butt) of jokes for Esther's for years, as have local icons from Willie to Leslie, and Wainwright-Branigan, Saugey, and Rosanoff know precisely how to tease them for maximum comic effect. In some ways, The Bat is for them an extension of their Esther's work, a bigger, longer, and, dare we say, classier edition of the Follies.
That may be especially true in the masquerade ball hosted by Prince Orlofsky – here rechristened Jeff Kodosky, in a wink to the National Instruments co-founder and philanthropist (who happens to be an ALO patron, too). Instead of the generic masked partygoers of a traditional Fledermaus, The Bat will crowd the Dell Hall stage with characters tricked out as assorted Austin landmarks and local heroes. Susan Branch, the acclaimed costume designer (Jesucristo Superestrella, Present Laughter, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and Austin native, gives a shout-out to her hometown with extravagant outfits that turn people into walking versions of the Texas Capitol, the UT Tower (lighted orange, of course), the Mangia Pizza Godzilla, the Hyde Park Bar & Grill fork, a Spamarama Spam can, a Bee Caves Road flamingo, Peter Pan of Mini Golf fame, and a yellow rose (as opposed to The Yellow Rose), as well as Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lance Armstrong, and various Longhorns, hippies, and Roller Derby queens. The outfits are not that far removed from the madcap getups that have long been a staple of Follies routines, like the sight gag-heavy "Cry Me a River." In fact, quips Wainwright-Branigan: "It looks like Esther's with a budget. We have our own sort of ratty armadillo and our cardboard Capitol, and these are just these big, pristine versions." He pauses to consider the spectacular quality of Branch's costumes, then adds, "We have to make sure the third act is funny, because the second act is going to steal the show."
Ah yes, the second act. That party scene that's grown so hearty, it's eaten many a Fledermaus before the final act has a chance to take wing. In preparing for The Bat, the writers watched some videotaped versions of Die Fledermaus and saw a few in which the parade of cameos and dances dragged on and on and on for ages. Rosanoff claims to have seen one in which the company never even performed the third act because the second ran so long. While ALO is not dispensing with the "special guest" tradition of Fledermaus completely – in fact, it has lined up an appealing musical act for the ball in each of The Bat's four performances: Albert & Gage (Friday), Joe Ely (Sunday), the Quebe Sisters (Thursday), and Wammo (Saturday) – it is determined not to let the second-act tail wag the dog, er, bat. "That is the tradition of Fledermaus: It keeps getting added to and added to, and people forget to subtract, to take something out before they put something new in," observes Wainwright-Branigan. "We've definitely stripped it down. It's very economical. Not a word wasted."
Rod Caspers, who is charged with staging The Bat, agrees: "One of the things these folks did a great job of is, there's a minimum of stuff in here. The show is about this long and this fast, and it just keeps going."
The award-winning theatre director (Zilker Summer Musical productions of The Secret Garden and Big River, UT's recent production of Assassins) has never worked with the Follies before, but he can claim to have seen one of their first New Year's Eve shows in Esther's original space and has been a fan for 30 years. He praises his new collaborators' writing skills and flexibility. "These three have been great about rewriting, adapting, and redoing lyrics. At one point, [Susan Branch] said, 'We need to do something with the beginning,' and I said, 'Yeah, it's too heavy. These people always come in in these huge costumes.' She said, 'What if [Steiner] was playing golf?' Then I went, 'He could enter in a golf cart.' Shaun had to revamp some things to make that work, but being that flexible and adaptable really helped."
To which Saugey responds: "That's where being at Esther's was a training ground for this. 'We've got 10 minutes till showtime. We've got to change it.'"
Wainwright-Branigan nods. "You can't come in married to the thing you wrote last night."
"Something happens in the news Thursday, and you have to put it in the show that night," adds Rosanoff. "And it has to be short and sweet."
And part of the reason for keeping it short is not just to make the comedy punchier but to leave room for the person performing the bit to fill it out. It's not just the joke but the way someone tells it, not just the gag but the way the person sells it. That's a lesson learned very quickly at the Follies, which in 30-plus years has never lacked for the kind of gifted comedians who could milk guffaws from reading directory listings in the Yellow Pages. Once you know what a performer can do, you leave room for that. Although the team writing The Bat didn't have the luxury of knowing who would be performing their material like they did at the Follies, they felt the same principles should apply. "Up to now, it's been a very collaborative process, and there's no reason it shouldn't continue to be," says Wainwright-Branigan. "Our little skeleton is going to get fleshed out by what the performers bring to the table."
Not that the Three Fledermausketeers knew quite what to expect from their operatic collaborators. Neither they nor Caspers had any formal experience in the opera world prior to this project, and their preconceived notions were that the opera folk might be like, well, the kind of opera folk that Bugs and the Marxes spend their time taking down a peg: stodgy, snooty, uptight. Caspers, who did not take part in the casting, says he was assured that the performers would be game for this kind of nontraditional approach and unafraid of making some changes. And that's been just what he's found. They've jumped into the Esther's-like pool with both feet: speaking (and singing) with thick Texas twangs, running around in full farce mode, even suggesting new comic bits of their own. The director appreciates the risks they're taking – "It would be easier not to do the twang and just to stand and sing" – and just encourages them to play more.
Which they're doing, to the delight of the writers. "It's been a blast seeing them do it," says Rosanoff.
"And take to the comedy of it," says Saugey.
It's a marked contrast to the Marx Brothers' night at the opera. This time, the classical artists are as delighted to have the jokers in the opera house as the jokers are to be there. Says Suzanne Ramo, who plays Rosalinde, "It's the most fun I've ever had in a production."
The Bat runs Friday, May 30, 7:30pm; Sunday, June 1, 3pm; Thursday, June 5, 7:30pm; and Saturday, June 7, 7:30pm at Dell Hall in the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 472-5992 or visit www.austinlyricopera.org.