Berkeley Opera’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’ Is a Transcendent Production

By JANOS GEREBEN Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 20, 2004

Of the many things you can do with (and to) opera, there is “updating,” spoofing, and producing a work really well. Then, there is David Scott Marley.  

His 1996 adaptation of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, now revived at Berkeley Opera in a sparkling production, transcends a single approach. Bat Out of Hell switches the action from 19th century Paris to dot-com-era Berkeley. Marley souses the work in comedy, irony, satire, and good-natured humor; and—most importantly—he makes almost all of it work as a whole. 

A fine cast, Jonathan Khuner’s firm and effective musical direction (with an A-list orchestra in the minuscule pit), Ann Woodhead’s smooth stage direction, and Kate Boyd’s simple sets (window frames and curtains do it all) combine to make Bat Out of Hell a big bang for your musical-theater buck on either side of the Bay. 

Marley’s take on Fledermaus story—the original itself developed by many, from Benedix to Meilhac and Halévy, to Richard Genée—is rich in ideas, consistent in execution.  

Here, Eisenstein (Martin Lewis) is heading to jail because of a $700 parking ticket (“$700? Incredible!” “Yes, I never heard of one that small either”). He and wife Rosalinda (Jillian Khuner, in one of the evening’s finest vocal performances) are also hiding a secret from one another: both were activists in the halcyon days of the People’s Republic of Berzerkley, but are now caught up in marketing and such. As the story unfolds, Marley is actually enriching the original, not just replacing letters with e-mail. 

The best, the most hilarious of Marley’s adaptation is making Prince Orlofsky into a juvenile version of Bill Gates, an awkward, maladjusted 16-year-old genius, a mercurial multi-billionaire CEO. His aria becomes “Follow your bliss,” with the passage: “Just because I wrote some code / And made a lucky strike / Each man I meet becomes my toad / And I do what I like.” 

Sung superbly by Sonia Gariaeff, “Bill Orlovsky” becomes the focal point of not only Act 2, but of the whole evening. As she slouches about with a baseball cap turned around, electronic equipment dangling from her belt, Gariaeff evokes both constant smiles and many loud guffaws, keeps the character entertaining and “meaningful” within the context of the piece.  

Another star turn belongs to Shawnette Sulker (possibly California’s only opera singer born in Guyana), whose over-the-top Hispanic maid in search of a film career (or a computer mega-billionaire, whichever first) is hilarious, her stage presence enhanced by a bright, appealing vocal performance.  

Stephen Rumph is the amorous tenor Freddy (nee Alfred), Martin Lewis is Gabriel (Falke), Berkeley Opera founder Richard Goodman is Frank. 

There is only one thing wrong with the production: The treatment of Act 3 is a serious miscalculation. Yes, there is a traditional comedy bit for the jailer Frosch, but in Berkeley, the 12-step meeting led by “Ms.” Frosch stretches out the act, extending the evening to three hours. Fé Bongolan’s Frosch is funny enough, but this is overkill, something in stark contrast with the rest of the production, where all is well... before it ends well. 


Warning: Bat Out of Hell runs in the Julia Morgan Theater only through one more weekend. www.berkeleyopera.org. For the original Fledermaus libretto in German and English: http://tinyurl.com/5rc2z.