Historical Performances: “Die Fledermaus” with Mary Costa, Richard Lewis, Reri Grist – San Francisco Opera, September 18, 1965

Note from William: This post continues my series of observances of historic performances that I attended at San Francisco Opera during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler. This is the third of sixteen such observances of performances from the company’s 1965 Fall season.

The second offering of San Francisco Opera’s 1965 Saturday subscription series was my first performance ever of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” in a new production designed by Broadway designer Oliver Smith and staged by Paul Hager.

Although I attended the second “Fledermaus” of the season, it was only the third “Fledermaus” performed by the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial Opera House (one performance in 1942) and, even counting the annual Los Angeles tours (which ended after this season), it was only the fourth performance of the work in San Francisco Opera History.

[Below: Mary Costa as Rosalinda; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Mary Costa’s Rosalinda and Reri Grist’s Adele 

The two female lead roles in the opera, Rosalinda von Eisenstein and her maid, Adele, were sung by artists, Mary Costa and Reri Grist, whose vocal performance careers were established in fields other than opera before San Francisco Opera’s General Director Kurt Herbert Adler invited them to sing in San Francisco.

Costa is likely more famous even today for having been Walt Disney’s choice to sing the role Aurora in his film Sleeping Beauty. Her operatic career at the San Francisco Opera flourished between 1959 and 1970, when she was cast in such important lead soprano roles as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”, Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust”.

Except for her presence in the tiny role of the Guardian of Temple Gates in 1960’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, previously I had only seen as the Burgundian Lady in Orff’s “Carmina Burana” [50 Year Anniversaries: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s “Carmina Burana” Revived at San Francisco Opera – October 10, 1964.] I was only to see her in one more performance, as Zerlina in Auber’s “Fra Diavolo” at the San Francisco Opera in 1968.

How Broadway star Reri Grist (from the original cast of Bernstein’s “West Side Story” moved from a musical theater to an operatic career is outlined in my recently posted conversation with her [see A Star Among Legends: An Interview with Coloratura Soprano Reri Grist].

Although I have since seen such spectacular coloratura sopranos as Beverly Sills and Laura Claycomb as Adele, for me no one has ever outshone Grist’s Adele for the spirited, insubordinate charm she showed in this Paul Hager-Oliver Smith production.

Richard Lewis’ Gabriel von Eisenstein

Of the Eisenstein couple, it was husband, sung by Richard Lewis, OBE, that most impressed me that evening.

[Below: Gabriel von Eisenstein (Richard Lewis, right) confers with his wife Rosalinda (Mary Costa, left) about his prison sentence that is to begin that evening; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


As I have reported before, Lewis, who excelled in both lyric and spinto tenor roles, was my first Ferrando [Cosi Fan Tutte – October 25, 1956]my first Bacchus [Young Rysanek Promotes Strauss at L. A.’s Shrine – “Ariadne auf Naxos” – San Francisco Opera, November 1, 1957].

[Below: Richard Lewis, OBE; resized image, based on a photograph from richardlewis-tenor.co.uk.]


At the War Memorial Lewis was my first Don Ottavio [50 Year Anniversaries: “Don Giovanni” with Tozzi, De Los Angeles, Schwarzkopf, Evans and Lewis in Zeffirelli’s Production – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 1962] and my first Captain [50 Year Anniversaries: Geraint Evans, Marilyn Horne, Richard Lewis in “Wozzeck” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 1962]. There would be other “firsts” for me in  other operas in 1965 and later seasons.

I shared with Adler his enthusiasm for the lyric beauty of Lewis’ voice.  Unlike his performances in German and Italian I had seen him perform in the past, “Fledermaus”, like San Francisco’s production of “Wozzeck”, provided Lewis an opportunity to sing in English (in the Martins translation of “Fledermaus”) and to exhibit his comic abilities.

Thomas Stewart’s Falke and Raymond Wolansky’s Frank

Two other San Francisco Opera favorites, Scottish baritone Thomas Stewart and American baritone Raymond Wolansky were sang with distinction and acted hilariously respectively as Doctor Falke, the perpetrator on the hoax on Eisenstein and the police official Frank.

[Below: Baritone Raymond Wolansky was Frank; resized image of an historic photograph.]


Sona Cervena’s Prince Orlofsky

The Czech mezzo-soprano Sona Cervena, who spent nearly decades in comic and dramatic character roles at the San Francisco Opera. Of the many roles that I saw Cervena perform, it was her Orlofsky that was most memorable.

Always the perfect role for an over-the-top performer (I’ve seen both males and females cast in the part) her studied Czech accent provided an authentically Middle European grounding to Orlofsky as master of party-time ceremonies!

[Below: Mezzo-soprano Sona Cervena as Prince Orlofsky; edited image, based on a Dennis Galloway photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Paul Hager’s direction and Oliver Smith’s sets

The production was shockingly lavish, not for me, who had no preconceived ideas of what “Fledermaus” should look like.

Oliver Smith, one of the reigning talents on Broadway (who also created the sets for the season’s new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” that I will report on later) decided to make a “big production” of the operetta, unnerving the San Francisco Examiner critic Arthur Bloomfield (who later became a friend and a contributer to the operawarhorses.com website) who called it “blatantly a contradiction of the San Francisco Opera style – a style in which lightness and buoyancy of scenic design are the rule”.

Bloomfield exclaimed that “designer Oliver Smith, used to providing visual distractions for tiresome Broadway musicals, joined Hager is a massive choking of humanity. . .  Exotic couches, with paintings attached to them like huge windshields for horseless carriages, kept moving itchily back and forth. Pieces of scenery flew up and down . . . Tiers of boxes on each side of the stage turned this way and that. And the lights went up and down as if there were trouble at the nearest . . . substation. . . Very likely the production would not have gone so awry if Adler hadn’t been convinced that Fledermaus in the opera house had to be BIG.”

In fact, the production, with Smith’s sets, returned in 1973 as the vehicle for Dame Joan Sutherland’s role debut as Rosalinda (directed by Lotfi Mansouri, who Bloomfield credited with “correcting the excesses” in the 1965 “near-fiasco”) and again in 1984 for Dame Josephine Barstow’s Rosalinda.

My own memories of the production and revivals were that the original defects perceived by Arthur Bloomfield were far less in evidence that Bloomfield suggested. Therefore, whatever remedial corrections Bloomfield observed were of less importance to the San Francisco audience than to him.

[Below: Ann Roth’s costume designs for Rosalinda’s gown to be worn by Mary Costa; edited image, based on drawings, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Leopold Ludwig was the conductor, Zachary Zolov the choreographer. Andrew Foldi sang the role of the attorney, Dr Blind. Local radio and theater personality Scott Beach acted the comic role of the Jailer.

Alfred was sung by 48-year old heldentenor Brian Sullivan, whom I had seen as the Drum Major in Berg’s “Wozzeck”. I was to see him once more in the other Berg’s “Lulu”, the following Saturday night.