Singing Librarian flashback: Die Fledermaus

I recently added a page to the blog on my on stage exploits, and thought I’d use occasional posts to peel back the curtains and give you a peek at backstage life as I’ve experienced it during some of these productions.   Sometimes the things the audience doesn’t see can be just as interesting as the things they do see.  So let’s begin…

Summer 2002.  The Gulbenkian Theatre.  Die Fledermaus, with a cast consisting of a mixture of professionals and local singers.  I won’t explain the plot, as it would take far too long to go into the multitudinous twists and turns, but it’s a silly tale of multiple mistaken identities, most of them deliberate.  We set it in the swinging sixties in New York City, which meant that the pivotal party had guests ranging from Andy Warhol to a guitar-toting hippie (me).  I present to you three scenes from the University of Kent Summer Opera production of Die Fledermaus.

Act One.  Theoretically, the chorus are not involved in the first act, which sets up the various romantic confusions and ends with most of the characters heading for a marvellous party.  However, the director chose to end the act by having the set part in the middle, revealing the party in full swing, suggested by a handful of chorus members dancing away on or in front of act two’s set, cunningly hidden behind the act one scenery.  Great, you’d think, almost an entire act to sit in the dressing room and chill out.  You’d think wrong.  The layout of the stage and the set meant that there was only one route into our waiting place behind the set, and this route took you through quite a large spot that was in the sight line of about a third of the auditorium.  Therefore, to avoid the audience being distracted by an incongruous group of oddballs creeping along the back of the stage, we had to be in position from the beginning of the act.  Worse than that, from the beginning of the overture.  No, sorry, I lie – we had to be in position from the moment that the audience were allowed into the auditorium, quite some time before the overture struck up.  Which was annoying, but not as annoying as it was for the chorus members who were involved in a dance during the overture – they were stuck ‘sleeping’ in full view of the audience, and one had to stand stock still, pretending to be a statue!

Anyway, there we were during the whole of the first act, stuck behind the set in darkness, unable to talk or do very much other than listen to what was going on a few metres from us.  Until, that is, myself and one of the others discovered an advantage to our particular pre-set position, atop a platform.  Just enough light leaked through above the main set to enable us to cast shadows on the back wall of the stage, completely unseen other than by ourselves, a couple of other bored chorus people and the wardrobe mistress, also stuck backstage during act one to help with a couple of quick changes.  What could we do but perform Die Fledermaus in shadow style with our hands?  By the time of the run, we were very familiar with the show, so our shadow ‘puppets’ were able to mime very convincingly, even dance to a certain extent.  It became an exercise in trying to make our shadow play as silly as possible without anyone laughing out loud.  One night we were so into it that we very nearly missed our cue to stand up and start dancing ready for the parting of the set.  Moral of the story – never leave your chorus unattended, as they will find something to do, regardless of the circumstances.

Act Two.  This was the big act for the chorus, as we were on stage throughout, singing or dancing or milling around in the background making party small talk.  This was all immense fun, as we were encouraged to make our small talk real (but very quiet), so we had our own little plotlines going on in the background, and the act always had a lively party atmosphere.  The dances were perfectly ludicrous, with sixties-style moves with wonderful names like ‘the bush’, ‘camel’, ‘ostrich’, ‘bear hunt’ and so on.  This was one of the rare shows where I had to cultivate facial hair, and I was sporting a lovely moustache and goatee beard.  I also had a long wig, and herein lay a problem, as the wig did not match the facial hair, which had to be adjusted to fit.  For some reason, which I still cannot fathom, this was accomplished with greasepaint.   Deeply, deeply unpleasant.  Greasepaint is hard enough to remove from the skin, let alone from hair.  The first thing I did after the last night party was to shave it all off, as the greasepaint slowly built up over the week and would clearly never wash out completely.  Yuck.

Anyway, on one of the nights, during a brief lull where I hung around at the back of the stage while everyone else danced (due to missing a rehearsal for my sister’s baptism), one of the other idle chorus members spun me around with my back to the audience and whispered ‘your beard’s running!’  And sure enough, it was.  The heat of the lights and the weather, combined with the dance-induced sweat, had caused the greasepaint to run down my face and neck, which must have looked absolutely disgusting.  Her costume included a handkerchief, which she whipped out and dabbed me with (it must have looked like I was crying and needed comfort or something) until the excess brown gunk had been removed.  Not an experience either of us wanted to repeat.  As I said above, yuck.  I have since discovered that eyebrow pencil is fine for colouring facial hair.

Act Three.  The final act, where all the disguises are penetrated and things somehow reach a happy (if rather bizarre) ending.  The chorus come on just in time for the big finale, and you may have guessed from my tale of act one that this wasn’t quite such a simple operation as it should have been.  And you’d be right!  Due to the sight lines issue, there was a minor complication…  Bear in mind that the chorus (somewhere between sixteen and twenty of us) were dressed in period-appropriate regalia.  Miniskirts for several of the girls, and tight trousers for many of the guys.  Imagine therefore, a string of people dressed like this, creeping along in the Stygian gloom of backstage and negotiating a truly fiendish obstacle course.  Once through the door, we had to clamber behind a giant painting of a champagne glass (part of the first act’s set) that was leaning against the wall.  This meant crouching down and doing an undignified shuffling manoeuvre.  In miniskirts this was potentially rather too revealing, and in tight trousers it was extremely painful, as crouching down is not an easy operation in such circumstances.  One through this part of the course, we had to clamber over a small wall (the tail end of another part of set).  It was only one or two feet high, but in the dark, in costume, in silence, this was still quite a feat.  We then had to hold ourselves steady between two other bits of set, pick up various champagne bottles and not move until our cue.  Oh, and I had to pick my guitar up in silence (thankfully we made sure I didn’t have to carry it behind the painting or over the wall).  All good fun, with many stifled curses and giggles, and we somehow pulled it off every night to come flooding onto the stage in a state of drunken euphoria.

So there you have it, the unseen world of Die Fledermaus, Summer 2002.  If you’d like to see more of these posts, please let me know and I’ll have a flashback to another production soon.

    • Claire
    • August 3rd, 2006

    Yuck to the greasepaint! I would have liked to see the shadow puppet Die Fledermaus, although it’s probably just as well I wasn’t there as I wouldn’t have been able to laugh quietly enough! Events described in Act Three sound nerve racking and painful – I’m quite impressed you all made it onto the stage without incident!

    Yes I think you should share more of your back-stage experiences…and I will try not to use quite so many exclamation marks next time!

  1. Gosh, it is too bad that the director never had to negotiate that obstacle course!

    I have always loved Die Fledermaus “and I. . .I know exactly what time it is” Somehow whenever we are having champagne for any reason the song “Champagne’s delicious bubbles” starts to flow right along with the wine.

    All my stories come from the orchestra pit, as I was a violinist and violist.

    Please keep regaling us, your stories are great and you tell them well.

  2. Deary me, and there was me thinking that Die Fledermaus was a dark Wagnerian tradgedy. Still, I’m sure the puppet show would have been equally entertaining.

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