by Paul E. Robinson

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What do Paris Hilton, Karl Rove, and Joe Ely have in common? Well, they were all mentioned in the new production of “The Bat” akaDie Fledermaus” presented at the Long Center recently by the Austin Lyric Opera. Joe Ely was not only mentioned; he actually appeared as a guest performer!

Yes indeed, this was a very new and unusual version of the familiar Johann Strauss operetta. This novel approach was the brainchild of ALO principal conductor Richard Buckley and he enlisted director Rod Caspers and Esther’s Follies writers Llova Rosanoff, Steve Saugey and Shaun Wainwright-Branigan to tailor the text to an Austin audience.

Instead of Vienna circa 1890, the setting for the show became Austin, Texas 2008, and the famous Act Two party scene was set in the Driskill Hotel no less.

The point of departure for this radical realization of “Die Fledermaus” was surely the recognition that while few operas have them, even fewer cities have bats, and only one city – with the motto “Keep Austin weird!” – actually celebrates them! Tourists come from far and wide to watch millions of the flying rodents swoosh out from under Austin’s Congress St. bridge at dusk. So putting these facts together, it must have made perfect sense for the Esther’s Follies writers to transform “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat) – into a show about Austin and its weirdness.

It wasn’t just the setting they changed. They completely rewrote the book and the lyrics. Against all odds – “Die Fledermaus” is a classic, after all – the result is a triumph and destined to become a classic in its own right, at least in Austin. The show is witty, irreverent and silly and just plain fun from beginning to end.

Alicia Berneche as Adela the maid just about stole the show; whoever plays this part usually does. I for one am very tired of Frosch the jailer’s drunk scene which opens Act Three. It usually goes on far too long and watching drunks make fools of themselves doesn’t seem to have the appeal it once did when William Powell was doing the word-slurring and pratfalls. Ev Lunning Jr. as Frosch had fresh material to work with and he made the most of it, especially the clever give and take with the offstage tenor voice of Tonio Di Paolo as Alfredo.

The party scene had imaginative costumes by Susan Branch, many of them Austin-related. Joseph Evans as Jefferson Kodosky made an ingratiating host of the party playing the real-life “host” of this production, local sponsor Jeff Kodosky. It is traditional at New Year’s Eve performances of “Die Fledermaus” in Vienna for special guests to appear at the party and they often perform. In the ALO performance I attended the tradition was honored with appearances by Shannon Sedwick dressed as Patsy Cline and pulling improbable stuff out of her dress, and local superstar Joe Ely singing sad songs to his own guitar accompaniment. Mr. Ely performed heroically after being repeatedly let down by a failing sound system that rendered his guitar virtually mute.

And what about Johann Strauss’ music? Conductor Richard Buckley not only has a sense of humor but high standards too. As far as I could tell there was not a note left out of the original operetta and every number was done with love and vivacity. His orchestra sounded great. We are still learning about the acoustics of the Long Center but from my seat in the center of the ground floor the winds and brass were sparkling, the basses and cellos rich and sonorous. Only the upper strings seemed to lack weight. It could be that there were too few of them. The voices carried easily over the orchestra.

The Austin Lyric Opera is not known for innovation, but give them full credit for going all the way with a fresh and daring idea. I expect their version of “The Bat” will become a repertoire staple in the Lone Star State.

Paul Robinson is the author ofHerbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar,” and “Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”