Photos by Jay Raftery
This production was scheduled May 13-14, 2023.
So . . . OperaSLO performed a significant but certainly not somber service to the community on Mother’s Day weekend by presenting two impressive performances of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, an operetta that, with its glorious music and comedic revelry, is an excellent introduction to opera for those inclined to pre-judge it as boring or difficult for modern audiences to understand.
Thanks to OperaSLO’s insightful artistic director Brian Asher Alhadeff, the inventive stage direction of Zach Johnson (who hit it out of the park in directing his first opera), choreography reflective of the time and place by Andrew Silvaggio, and the fact that the production was presented in English, this zany plot of silly pranks, mistaken identities, and one rockin’ raucous New Year’s Eve party came to life on the stage of the San Luis Obispo Performing Arts Center.
Alhadeff, whose musical leadership never fails to deliver a fully-rounded experience for his performers and his audience, calls opera “the crossroads of every live performance genera.” Nothing could be truer, as the stage was filled during most of this three-hour production with six dancers, 10 lead performers, 30 members of the chorus, and the more than 50 accompanying musicians.
That’s right, OperaSLO’s Grant Orchestra (with Alhadeff conducting in appropriate if giggle-producing attire) took center stage—as well it should. It would be difficult to name another set of musicians who could match the passion and grand musicianship so continuously on display. The orchestra remained onstage throughout the production while the actors, singers, and dancers swirled around, in front, and above to pleasing effect. The set design by Johnson and Geoff Higgins, with well-choreographed changes in backdrops, design elements, and set pieces (accompanied by the orchestra, of course), made for seamless transitions from New York City apartment to the hottest disco club circa 1979 to an NYPD station house complete with jail cell.
About the decision to update the time period by a century, from the 1870s to the 1970s: if you’re going to choose a different era for the shenanigans of the original, the culture and attire (always giggle-producing) of the 1970s—at least in trendy New York City—is a pretty good choice. From platform shoes and white pantsuits—on the men, not so much the women—to one Andy Warhol-style wig, to dazzling disco balls high above the stage, the choice underscored the silliness of the proceedings and didn’t get in the way of the wonderful Strauss waltzes and songs.
Following the initial treat of the orchestra’s overture, each of the leads proved well up to the task of interpreting the melodious and memorable songs. Katelan Bowden as a luminous Adele and Jennifer Freye as a coy Alexandra both managed to charm the mischievous men in their lives: the ardent Alfred (Mitchell J. Hardy in full farce mode, enjoying his role way too much as a seducer in platform shoes) and the insincere Gabriel (John Viscardi, able to sing intense indignation as easily as flirtatious love lines).
Several musical moments should remain with audience members until they experience Die Fledermaus again:
- The articulate, disco-ready Michael Segura (as Falcon, the instigator of the whole entertaining plot) enticing Gabriel to “Come along to the ball”
- Viscardi, Freye, and Bowden collaborating on the snappy lyrics “Oh goodness me, what misery, oh goodness gracious me!”
- Hardy’s beautiful tenor voice (and hilarious moves) trying to seduce Alexandra with “Drink my darling, drink to me”
- Mandi Barrus (Prince Orlovsky) as the host of the party impeccably and imperiously proclaiming “Chacun à son gout” and leading the company in toasting delightful sparkling wine in “The Champagne Song”
- Bowden’s superb coloratura soprano phrasing in “Adele’s Laughing Song” during the height of the party
- Dancers Sofia Cooper, Mae Cubansk, Josie LaChapelle, Justin McMillan, Skyler Wemple, and Autumn Wozniak, led by the multi-talented Anna Dreslinski as Sally, livening up the party with graceful moves ending in a kickline under the disco ball and lights
Local singers/actors James Brescia, Jason Parkhill, and Tony Costa—playing key supporting roles—added welcome comic touches to each of their characters, reinforcing the reconciliation of the principals in the end and contributing to the final accounting of a delightful party—and a delightful production.
Such a lavish affair (and lavish it certainly was in its music and staging) deserved more than just two performances, and the positive word-of-mouth from those in attendance might well have carried the show into successful additional performances. Alas, it was never to be, as the scheduling of artists and venues can prove daunting.
It is remarkable, and gratifying, that San Luis Obispo audiences continue to support the quality of productions that OperaSLO presents, given the time, expense, and expertise required. That is true of many of our local performing arts organizations; this production of Die Fledermaus is just one of many great reminders that supporting local performances by local creative teams enhances our community and nurtures the creative spirits of our artists, particularly young performers who can work with and learn from the professionals in our midst.