Maria Briggs, Fresno State’s newest opera professor, is a transplant from Australia who was born in Russia, so she knows how to adapt. Consider her setting for the new fully staged Fresno State Opera Theatre production of “Die Fledermaus.” Briggs didn’t have the staff to build her own costumes, and with only a tiny stage with which to work, the voluminous dresses of a traditional late 19th century time period for the famous comic operetta by Strauss would be unwieldy.
So, with thanks to the Fresno State theater department’s costume shop, she opted for a Roaring Twenties setting. (The department is staging “Heathers the Musical,” set in the late 1980s, so there was no conflict there.)
The result is a frothy “Fledermaus” that Briggs describes as “The Great Gatsby” meets “High Society.”
We caught up with Briggs in phone and email interviews to learn more about her and the show.
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Q: “Die Fledermaus” has one of those elaborate comic plots that only really makes sense when you see it unfold on stage. What do you need to know as a viewer going in?
A: The main thing to remember is that this is a very lighthearted, frivolous piece. So come prepared to laugh out loud and to enjoy the beautiful music. We take you to the high society of 1920s. All the characters here are somewhat unhappy with their present situation: a rich couple bored with each other, a tenor without an audience, a Russian prince so wealthy that his biggest worry is to throw a party that rivals his previous one, a maid who dreams of being an actress, a prison director who wants to be a talent manager and a notary who plays a big practical joke on all of them.
After a series of blunders and misadventures love and Champagne triumph, leaving us with Strauss’ exhilarating “Champagne Chorus.” You must also prepare yourself to walk out humming the tunes as it is the happiest and most contagious musical score that may haunt you for weeks to come!
Q: What can you tell us about your Eisenstein and Rosalinde? As stage director, how are you trying to shape your singers’ performances in these roles?
A: They are the main romantic relationship in the show. We meet them at a point where they’ve been married to each other for a little while. They have it all: money, connections, privilege, but lack of passion and excitement draws them apart. I tell my Rosalinde (Ashley Trembley) that her character is scared to death of becoming another boring, rich housewife, she searches for an adventure and finds it in her ex-lover – Alfred. However, her next biggest fear is causing a scandal and not keeping up with the desired appearances.
Her husband, Gabriel Eisenstein (Lim Forgey), on the other hand, loves causing a scandal. At the outset of the opera he is caught dueling and is sentenced to a prison term of five days. At the bottom of it they are both very selfish, superficial people who get taught a lesson and by the end of the opera learn to value each other. As a director I try to help these two principals to take this journey of growth and show how their characters stumble and develop along the way, with many jokes and gags thrown in of course!
Q: You were 14 when you moved from Russia to Australia. Is Russian your first language? What are your memories of living in the Soviet Union?
A: Yes, Russian is my first language. I think like any immigrant I have conflicting memories. Nobody likes leaving their country if they can help it. On the one hand I’ve received great academic and musical training. As a Moscovite and a frequent traveler to St. Petersburg I was able to attend some of the best concerts, plays, operas and exhibitions in the world. I was also raised an Orthodox Christian and had a chance visit some of the holiest, beautiful churches and monasteries.
Unfortunately, none of that was quite enough to persuade my parents to stick around in Moscow in the early ’90s with five children. I also remember complete lack of stability, empty shelves in the shops, long queues and perpetual, dismal rudeness that killed one’s dignity. A gray blanket of pessimism was in the air and being incurable optimists my parents didn’t fit in. In 1993 my family immigrated to our new home: Sydney, Australia. I realize that Russia is a very hot topic right now, but I am happy to say that at least for people I know, life there has improved a lot since then. You certainly won’t find the empty shop shelves anymore.
Q: Give us three words to describe yourself.
A: Mum, wife, musician. The first two are extremely important to me, they also inspire me to succeed in the third. I am a very lucky mum of a little boy turning 2 later this month and a lucky wife of a beautiful, supportive husband who quit his job and left Australia to let me follow my dreams. Now here in Fresno I use music to teach and collaborate with talented students and colleagues. I also have more opportunity to spend quality time with my boys.
Q: What was the biggest/strangest/weirdest transition you had to make when you moved to the U.S.?
A: To be honest it’s not too different from Australia, particularly California. Climate and lifestyle are quite similar here. Also my husband and I like to research and plan everything ahead, so I would say “surprises” were minimal. There are little things like occasional words my students don’t understand or pronounce very differently; filing separate state and federal taxes; witnessing the real American Halloween and taking our child to “Pumpkin King” – not something we have in Australia, getting our mail delivered on a Saturday and being able to deposit checks with a smartphone… We often discuss it and agree that overall, for us the changes are very positive.
The weirdest thing I can think of is being able to buy alcohol at a pharmacy … I guess if you ever overdo it you are in the right place to get help!
Q: You’ve been at Fresno State since last July. How are you and your colleague Anthony Radford dividing up the duties on “Die Fledermaus”?
A: Dr. Radford and I have been working extremely well together. We largely share similar views on performance and education, we’ve also been pretty good at dividing the duties to suit each other’s strengths and interests. When it came to planning the production we’ve made the decision to have one person directing and one person producing: this made it clearer for the students and ourselves.
Q: Talk about what it’s like to have a full orchestra for your production.
A: This production is a collaboration with Fresno State Symphony Orchestra, with Dr. Thomas Loewenheim conducting. There is nothing like hearing the force of a full symphony orchestra: the vibrancy, colours and emotional scope are truly thrilling. Over the years Dr. Loewenheim has worked tirelessly to build what we have today – a beautiful orchestra of over 60 players that successfully tackles very challenging repertoire. Last fall I had the privilege of performing with them “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss. Anyone who knows this work can appreciate what orchestral mastery is required to pull that off!
On a practical side, it also gives a rare opportunity for our student singers to be able to sing with full orchestra: learn to follow the conductor and learn how the orchestra works and supports their voices. The student orchestral players on the other hand get to experience playing in an opera and accompanying the action on the stage.
Q: Fresno recently suffered the loss of its professional opera company. How do you think Fresno State’s opera program can help fill the void?
A: This is truly unfortunate and a great loss to our students as well. Many of them sang in the Grand Opera chorus, receiving their first glimpse of a professional company environment. I think the best we can do is produce as good a show as we can for the local audiences. However, our foremost goal is providing training for the students, which differs from goals of a professional opera company.
We are not Fresno Grand, nor do we try to be. We address the “void” in our own, unique way. Dr. Radford has been very active in commissioning new works and engaging local audiences. With his most recent project – a children’s opera titled “Lucinda” – he took it to schools around the county, reaching thousands of children and their parents. We are hoping to keep producing large-scale operas, but also develop more outreach projects like “Lucinda” where opera visits your local library or school.
Q: Anything to add?
A: I would add that people don’t realise how rare it is for an undergraduate program to be able to offer a full scale opera production to their voice students. Only two of our cast are graduate students – the rest are young undergraduates. If they attended any other program in the country they would be lucky to get into the chorus. But here at Fresno, they can all audition for a principal role, and this show has 11 principal characters – so that’s a lot of performance opportunities these kids wouldn’t get anywhere else.
Another thing is I am very excited that we’ve managed to secure two beautiful guest ballroom dancers that are a part of this production. I don’t want to give too much away, but there will be a rather spectacular dance scene in Act Two!
- 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday
- Fresno State Concert Hall
- Presented in English with supertitles
- $18, $12 seniors, $8 students