Having lived and worked in Vienna for the past 15 years, she’s been cast in “a lot of really crazy productions” along with more conventional concert and recital bookings.
Some of that Viennese craziness is coming home to roost this week in St. Paul, where Wieben’s newly formed company Opera on the Lake is staging Johann Strauss’ classic operetta “Die Fledermaus” in an open-air setting at the Como Lakeside Pavilion.
Taking the long-haul flight from a comfortable career in Vienna to tough it out in the heat and humidity of midsummer Minnesota was not Wieben’s idea initially.
It came from a conversation three years ago in Minneapolis with a friend who had heard about the “wacky” swimming pool “Fledermaus” Wieben has done in Vienna, wearing a striped ballgown with an inner tube beneath it.
“She said, ‘I really love that — you should just do it right here on the lake.’ And my husband said, ‘Opera on the lake, that sounds fun.’ So that is how it happened.”
Wieben sang the role of Rosalinde in that production of Strauss’ frothy comedy, which revolves around mistaken identities at a New Year’s ball, and the amorous antics of Rosalinde’s rakish husband, Eisenstein.
She will sing the part again in Opera on the Lake’s staging — a production that also marks her debut as an opera director and impresario.
“I’m pretty much doing everything,” she said with a smile. “Directing, producing, raising money, selling tickets. Singing Rosalinde will be the easy bit.”
Locating the action of “Die Fledermaus” (“The Bat”) in and around the Como Pavilion gives Wieben options for staging that don’t exist in the conventional setting of a proscenium-arched opera house.
“There’ll be entrances from every possible spot around the stage area,” she said. “We’re going to have a central aisle down the middle, with people moving through the audience. And for the Act Two party there’ll be a lot of activity on the stage itself.”
Inevitably, there are disadvantages with staging opera al fresco. “Usually the space is smaller, and the acoustic is always an issue,” Wieben said.
But the payback can be substantial, and it makes the practical difficulties worth it.
“You surprise your audience, and you surprise yourself,” she said. “The spontaneity comes into play more. It’s more interactive than an opera house setting, and you feel that exchange very acutely.”
To illustrate the visceral immediacy of open-air opera, she recalled a performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in Vienna last summer.
“I was singing a very serious aria, and right at the front this guy shows up with his dog. He stopped, pulled out a beer and cracked it open. And he stayed to the end of the opera. It’s one of my favorite performing memories.”
Born in New Ulm, Wieben has leaned heavily on Minnesota-based singers and musicians in putting her team together.
“I studied at the University of Minnesota and knew a couple of people I could tap. I’m very confident in the cast I have — they are really good at running with the ideas I give them.”
And what of “Die Fledermaus” itself? Why did Wieben view it as particularly suitable for the debut of her upstart company?
“Because it’s fun, fun, fun,” she said with a laugh. “It has music that people recognize, even if they don’t know that they know it. But it’s not just catchy, there’s some really beautiful music in there, too.”
And the crazy, pumped-up story line, with its string of scarcely credible coincidences — does it not suggest that operetta is essentially a dumbed-down version of opera, with lashings of frivolity but precious little fiber?
Wieben dismissed the idea, and said “Fledermaus” is plenty capable of giving food for thought as well as being brilliantly entertaining.
“It has a lot to do with relationships, and finding the right balance between fun and commitment,” she said. “You can really dig into that.”
Doing the show in modern dress with dialogue sections in English, Wieben added, should further sharpen the operetta’s relevance.
But in the end it’s Strauss’ infectiously rhythmic, Champagne-sparkle music — he wasn’t called the “the waltz king of Vienna” for nothing — that Wieben said makes “Die Fledermaus” uniquely accessible, and a perfect choice for her homecoming production.
“I like to say opera is not for everybody, but it should be for anybody,” she said. “So I’m very curious to see what reception we get when the show really starts rolling.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.