The Vienna State Opera has offered an annual New Year's Eve production of Die Fledermaus since the early 1930s, both reflecting and reinforcing the work's status as the representation of all things Viennese. It is curious then, that the piece considered the epitome of Viennese operetta is not at all representative of contemporaneous works in the genre.
Vienna in the middle nineteenth century was one of the premier cities of Europe. The capital of a vast empire, it boasted a vibrant cultural life and had long been recognized as a major musical and theatrical center. The Austrian economy was strong, and Viennese bourgeoisie spent their evenings eating, drinking, and attending the theater. However, on May 9, 1873, the Austro-Hungarian Empire suffered a debilitating stock market crash. Fortunes disappeared overnight, and businesses of all kinds suffered, including theaters. The Viennese, temporarily at least, were condemned to an austere lifestyle. It was in this atmosphere that Strauss' Die Fledermaus took shape.
Die Fledermaus is based on a French vaudeville, Le Réveillon (1872), by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, itself based on Richard Benedix's Das Gefängnis of 1851. Karl Haffner created a German rendition of Le Réveillon and sold this to Maximillian Steiner, the director of the Theater an der Wien. Steiner gave Haffner's manuscript to Richard Genée, suggesting he develop from it a libretto. Strauss and Genée began working together, and on October 25, 1873, Strauss directed a benefit concert that included his csárdás für Gesang, with a text by Genée. The number was well received, and would become Rosalinde's csárdás in Act Two of Die Fledermaus. Spurred on by this success, Strauss reportedly completed the music for the rest of the operetta in 42 days. The premiere took place in the Theater an der Wien on April 5, 1874 (Easter Sunday).
Die Fledermaus departed in several ways from previous Viennese works. Conceived in three acts, Die Fledermaus requires only three stage settings, and it does not open with the customary large number for chorus. At the premiere, the characters sported contemporary public attire instead of lavish costumes, while the sets consisted of the simple interiors of people's homes and a barren jail. Furthermore, the story is set in the present and in Vienna.
While the current economic state of the empire was reflected in the production itself -- there were few scene changes and a minimal group of choral numbers -- the world as it "used to be" drives the story, with masked balls and freely flowing champagne. Any disappointment caused by the scaled-down production was outweighed for audiences by the chance to participate vicariously in the revelry acted out on stage. Certainly, the major element that made Die Fledermaus a resounding success was, and is, Strauss' music, which is more sophisticated than that of any operetta previously offered the Viennese.
Strauss' ability to characterize through music is at its finest in Die Fledermaus. In Act Two, Rosalinde poses as a Hungarian princess, and when asked to prove her origins, sings a Hungarian csárdás. Strauss evokes an aural image of Hungarian gypsies through the clarinet line that opens the number, the slow, rubato style of the first half, and pizzicato strings. Adele, also in Act Two, "confirms" her upper-class status with an exquisite song, during which she enumerates her fine physical qualities. Strauss produces unity through an ingenious use of melody. For instance, the melody sung by the chorus as the curtain rises on Orlofsky's party in Act Two appears earlier when Adele reads the letter inviting her to Orlofsky's party and moments later when Falke convinces Eisenstein to attend the same event.