Tenth season of Lyric Theater opens

For most St. Olaf students, fall break is an opportunity to sleep, shirk homework and put a semester’s worth of stress in the background for a well-deserved long weekend. Not so for the 37 singers and six members of the orchestra involved in this year’s fall opera, “Die Fledermaus” (German for “The Bat”). Since the opera was scheduled to run Oct. 19-22, they spent the break rehearsing all day and putting together the set and lighting to turn Urness Recital Hall into a 1920s party.

“Die Fledermaus” marked the first show in this year’s St. Olaf Lyric Theater season. Audience members can always expect quality from the Lyric Theater, but 2016-2017 also marks a special occasion, as it is the tenth anniversary of the St. Olaf Lyric Theater season.

The program has been an important source of high-quality opera and musical productions, opera creation residencies, world premieres and improvised opera. It has also served as a training ground for student singers, composers, conductors, directors, pianists, instrumentalists, choreographers, costumers and lighting designers. This production is the latest of nearly 30 put on by the Lyric Theater.

“Although we had been sporadically producing Lyric Theater productions before 2006, Janis Hardy [a former St. Olaf music professor] and I decided to create an entire Lyric Theater season that would cover all three semesters and elevate courses like Music 267 [Advanced Acting for the Lyric Stage] to full-blown productions,” music professor and director of the Lyric Theater season James McKeel said. “In ten years we went from a blip on the Lyric Theater scene to being one of the regional leaders in terms of lyric theater offerings for students.”

As for the operetta chosen to introduce the tenth season of Lyric Theater, “Die Fledermaus” was written in 1874 by Johann Strauss II (with libretto by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée) and debuted that year in Vienna. The show is a farcical comedy centered around a wealthy man with a short temper and love of pranks, Gabriel von Eisenstein, and his long-suffering wife Rosalinde.

In the opening act, Eisenstein prepares to go to jail for eight days after insulting a civil servant – but his good friend (and a frequent object of his pranks) Dr. Falke shows up and invites him to go to a party hosted by the Russian prince Orlofsky instead. Eisenstein is glad to sneak away. Little does he know, however, that Dr. Falke has a plan for revenge, inviting Rosalinde to the party dressed up as a Hungarian countess to observe her husband’s actions. Hilarity ensues, and the plot drags supporting characters from chambermaids to jailers into the joke. The operetta has been performed numerous times over the years and adapted into several silent films and television specials.

The strength of the St. Olaf music program made this production of “Die Fledermaus” something special. Because of the amount of talented people who auditioned back in the spring of 2016, the show was able to feature two alternating casts. One cast performed on Oct. 19 and 21 and the other performed on Oct. 20 and 22. When not singing a main role, cast members joined the already robust chorus. This resulted in great power during songs featuring the entire cast. Everyone was very well-cast and performed their parts well.

Another unique feature of the production (and a good move) was a change in setting. Rather than 19th century Europe, the characters relocated to 1920s New York City. The backdrop depicted a very opulent sitting room, which reinforced the setting, as did the detailed costumes – imagine flapper dresses and well-cut suits galore.

The only weaknesses in the show stemmed from the pacing of the plot. The third act was the strongest by far, full of comedic relief inherent in drunken after-party shenanigans and each character realizing something new. It features Rosalinde singing about scratching Eisenstein’s eyes out and divorcing him. What’s not to love? The first act was also a very good set-up, featuring several great solos for Adele the chambermaid. However, the second act definitely dragged a little and felt longer than it needed to be. It seemed that several songs could have been cut and the show would still be fine.

Yet there is no denying that “Die Fledermaus” provided a pleasant opportunity for audiences to experience the talent St. Olaf has to offer. From the skilled comedic acting all around, to the high notes cranked out by Rosalinde (Myrtle Lemon ’17/Samantha Noonan ’17) and Adele the chambermaid (Erica Hoops ’18), to the talent of the student orchestra and the effort put forth by all created a spectacle to remember.

The Lyric Theater will continue its tenth season with an opera-creation residency with Prairie Creek School during Interim and the world premiere of a student opera, “The End of Saro” by Jack Langdon ’17.