4 July 2017
Die Fledermaus: The Lovable Art of the Little White Lie
By Don Fineberg
Will you trust me on this? Opera is not all trauma and drama. There is comedic opera, injecting a fine measure of whimsy into our complex day-to-day lives. “Comedy works,” our Die Fledermaus director Ned Canty notes, “because it has a context.” It is neither so conventional as to be trite, nor so wacky as to be baffling. Real life can be complex, so sometimes, we need a chance to simply enjoy the moment. Die Fledermaus offers just such an opportunity: A complex, melodic confection that we enjoy, laugh at, and, yet holds up a mirror. It gives us a glimpse of a part of ourselves. The familiar and the personal echo in the little white lies that power the entire piece.
Amidst this operatic confection, we might still wonder how we find such fun in all of this lying and cheating. Indeed, we laugh at it. We are swept up in it. The opera succeeds in its ability to distract us from its childish, reprehensible behavior. How does the opera do it?
Enter the swirling waltzes of Johann Straus. Even during the opera’s overture, Strauss weaves together no less than five of the waltz tunes into the grand “Fledermaus Waltz.” A flight of fancy accompanies the uplift of the music. In the entirety of Die Fledermaus, from the moment Adele hears of the party in the opening scene to the final chorus’s movable feast in the jailhouse, the merriment continues non-stop. Strauss’s music powers this momentum. In addition, scene after scene, the zany dialogue sweeps you from one musical number to the next. We get swept up in one frantic night. We go from the Eisenstein’s apartment to the lavish party of Prince Orlofsky, to the climactic conclusion at the jailhouse. The frantic flow distracts us from all the lying and deceit.
From beginning to end, the opera is rife with falsehood. In the opera’s opening scene, Adele (the maid) decides to tell a white lie to Rosalinda (her employer) – She needs the night off to visit a sick aunt. We anticipate the start of the fun, and not a disruption in labor relations. Similarly, near the end of the opera, Alfred, the potential paramour, rationalizes with a bigger lie: He was dressed in Eisenstein’s clothing as a part of the practical joke, rather than as a part of his plan to seduce Rosalinda. Alfred tells Orlofsky:
It was not exactly so,
Why should we start confusion
And end his fond illusion?
Now complicit in the opera’s resolution, we endorse this white lie.
Similarly, we root for Adele, the maid, as she pretends to be an actress. Where does our support originate? When we were young toddlers, until the age of 3 or 4, we merged reality with our own feelings and fantasies. Fears and wishes may hold equal status in a young child’s mind with experience and truth. We attune our playful selves with the merger of fantasy and reality. Adele arrives at the party and pretends to be the famous actress “Olga.” Eisenstein recognizes her as his maid. With the help of the party guests, she persists in her ruse. Further, when Adele acknowledges her true identity at the jail in act III, it turns out that she actually has acting talent. Her fantasy life becomes her real life and her career is launched! We laugh and celebrate this moment in part because it harkens back to the “magic years” when wishes blend seamlessly with reality.
When we reach the age of five or so, we can understand the difference between truth and a lie, but measure that difference in literal terms. Five year olds will judge the lie “I saw a pink horse fly across the sky” as much worse than “I saw a scary dog in front of the house.” It’s confusing when the former makes mommy laugh and the latter sends her anxiously rushing out the front door. At the age of five, we still cannot see make believe from the point of view of the listener.
This is exactly what Alfred manages to do when he sizes up Rosalinda’s predicament when Frank the governor of the prison arrives to take her husband to jail. He agrees to pretend he is Eisenstein, pressing his advantage for a kiss, but nonetheless refusing to expose her. By way of contrast, when the Eisensteins attend the party as a Marquis and a Countess, it harkens back to the time of the silliness of the “bigger” lie, in the grandiosity of their presentations.
In Die Fledermaus, the white lies turn to a darker shade of gray with the practical joke at the opera’s heart. (After all, the bat is the title character!) Falke’s elaborate ploy puts Eisenstein’s marriage and his world as he knows it on the line. We are caught up in his difficulties. Eisenstein seems to get a lot more than his due. Why do we accept this narrative? After all, how mean-spirited was the “bat” prank that motivated the complex ruse of this revenge? Eisenstein merely left a friend to his own devices after a drunken costume party. The payback threatens Eisenstein’s lifestyle and his marriage. As Falke suggests to Rosalinda after hearing about the jail sentence, “With all my heart I congratulate you on getting rid of your tyrant for eight days.” Perhaps, the initial crime of assault and battery, his rudeness in court, his treatment of his lawyer, and his conspiring with Falke to spend his last night philandering instead of with his wife, all contribute to our subliminal nod of agreement: Eisenstein will be getting what he deserves.
But to be honest, most of us don’t think much about it as we experience the opera – a vicarious romp through the madcap. A vicarious experience is not unique to opera. Many cultures routinely give annual permission to disguise the “true self,” to hide behind masks, and lie about who you are. You act in an uncharacteristic, wild, frenzied and disinhibited way. The epoch of the opera embraces this idea. Ned Canty notes, setting the opera in the late 1800’s “fully embraces the carnival atmosphere of the last century.” Imagining that era, we consider puerile fantasies as possibilities, and “rule-breaking as somehow more acceptable.” Closer to home, New Orleans’s Mardi Gras and Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival typify the crazy quality that Prince Orlofsky’s party brings to town.
Die Fledermaus brings us along for the ride. Our experience of the opera offers us a cherished opportunity – a special time of release. Our vicarious wild ride culminates and resolves in a greater appreciation for the structure and security of daily life. By participating, we test the boundaries of civil behavior. We come away respecting the conventions of love and life because we tested their boundaries – at a safe distance – and we recognize that these rules or guidelines provide structure rather than stricture. We assert that our life’s commitments arise from choice and not convenience.
So, what parts of you do you show the world? What parts to you show generally, to your associates, friends, loved ones? What parts do you keep hidden, only for yourself, or that special someone? And, what unconscious part do you hide even from yourself? Surprising though it may be, the confectionery opera Die Fledermaus addresses these weighty questions. The light-hearted score and irreverent libretto mask a message about our public and private identities, just as the assumed identities at the party hide the deceptive intentions of each character.
Carl Jung calls the face we show to others “the Persona.” It is an archetype – a template for how we experience the world. We all have it. We all use it. Derived from the Latin word meaning mask (as in the masks worn in a Greek drama), the Persona is but one of many of these archetypes that help us to animate our human experience. The persona serves two main functions: it gives us a tool with which we can put our best foot forward (to put on “a good face”) in order to generate a desired impression upon others; and, it gives us a means to hide our inner sense of self, our “real” selves. This real self carries the baggage of our past, as well as our secret motives, aggressions, lusts and shames.
The characters of Die Fledermaus choose deceptive personas, giving them names and roles different from their ordinary lives. They disguise their lustful intentions and their spiteful practical jokes, from the boudoir to the ballroom to the jail. Unlike the real world, the opera makes overt the innermost thoughts feelings and motives of the characters in arias, duets and powerful choral pieces. For example, in Act III’s trio, Rosalinda’s fear of discovery, Alfred’s fear of confessing and Eisenstein’s fury all intermingle. We enjoy a clear view of the persona in action, the parts they choose to show and the parts they wish to hide.
The bottom line: we accept impish deceptions because it harkens back to our own childhoods. We learned the value of a white lie: to protect the feelings of someone. When we dislike the color of the sweater from Aunt Molly, we learn to appreciate the effort it took to find the gift and to remember our birthday. We see the disappointing gift from her point of view. We learn to tell a little white lie of “thank you” that hides our disappointment. The ability to tell a white lie is step towards growing up. And yes, an occasional overindulgence in playful deception, like a really rich chocolate desert, can be a part of the healthy diet of life.
As proof, there is none better than Die Fledermaus. In the bright light of morning, with the reality of deception, infidelity and jail time staring them in the face, the Eisensteins reaffirm their love, and a party atmosphere reemerges. Ned Canty calls it the “renewed appreciation for the life they had all along.” In the end, deceptions give way to a deeper and happier truth: We are all just human. Let’s accept and celebrate our foibles and fantasies as aspects of what it turns out to be our ordinary day-to-day selves.