Back in Alaska for Anchorage Opera's April 4-6 production of Johann Strauss Jr.'s operetta "Die Fledermaus" are two familiar names: conductor Kelly Kuo and director Bill Fabris. A third name, however, will be making her company debut -- Deborah Brevoort.
Brevoort is an award-winning playwright with an international reputation. She's also a former Alaskan who came to Juneau in 1978 and immersed herself in the politics of the state's capital city. Over the years, she was associated with a range of political characters, from the late Gov. Jay Hammond to former Sand Lake representative Bob Buch.
But it was theater that really got her pulse going.
"I loved the energy of theater a lot more than I thought I would," she said.
Brevoort became involved in Juneau's Perseverance Theatre, first as an actor, then as an author. In 1991, she left the state to study playwriting.
She attracted national attention with her books for two musicals, "Coyote Goes Fishing" (1998) with composer Scott Davenport Richards, and "King Island Christmas" (1999) with David Friedman, based on the book by Jean Rogers. Both won the Frederick Loewe Award in Musical Theatre.
Musical theater is what's brought her back to the state. She's rewritten "Die Fledermaus," or rather reworked the libretto -- Italian for "little book," referring to the text and stage directions of an opera.
"Die Fledermaus" ("The Bat") was originally set in Vienna circa 1874. Brevoort puts the action in Anchorage in 2014. Strauss's farce poked fun at Viennese society; Brevoort's rewrite, dubbed "The Polar Bat," does the same to Alaskan gentry, movers, shakers and wannabees.
The satire was the easy part, she said, citing her time in Juneau. "The plot is about people behaving badly, and I know where all the bodies are buried."
Play goes viral
It's as a playwright that Brevoort is probably bes known. Her 2001 play in the style of Noh theater, "Blue Moon Over Memphis" (characters include the ghost of Elvis Presley), was included in "Best American Short Plays."
She struck theatrical gold in 2003 with "The Women of Lockerbie," a tragedy based on the efforts of Scottish women to launder the clothes of people killed in the bombing of an airliner in 1988 and return the cleaned clothes to the victims' families. It won the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award and received a silver medal in the Onassis International Playwriting Competition.
It also won a wide audience around the world.
"It's gone viral," she said. "There've been like 350 productions now, everywhere from big theaters to migrant camps. It's been published in seven languages -- I think there's seven. I have to count them. And there's a beautiful new edition coming out in April. The theater gods have smiled on me. I have a house because of this play."
In a way, the somber "Women of Lockerbie" is also how she came to update the comedy of "Fledermaus." After writing the drama, with its echoes of classical Greek theater, she began to turn her attention to opera.
"I started opera training because I wanted to write the opera for this play," she said. "I've known for a long time that 'Women of Lockerbie' needs to live in opera."
She has since had several collaborations with opera composers. A one-act, "Embedded," written with composer Patrick Soluri, is being presented in Fargo, N.D., this weekend.
Find the right vowels
From the wordsmith's perspective, plays and opera occupy different ends of the theatrical spectrum.
"In a play, everything is conveyed via the words," she said. "Musicals are also word-driven, but you need to know when to step back and throw the ball to the composer. In operas, you need to be ready to take yourself out of the picture.
"With plays and musicals, the playwright is in the driver's seat. With opera, you're in the back seat."
But the demands on an opera librettist go beyond creating a plot and characters. The party providing the words must have an understanding of what sounds suit different registers of the human voice. "They have to understand the need for certain vowels," Kuo said.
Opera singers push the extremes of their voices, which are used more as instruments than for intoned speech. The most important moments often coincide with a long, well-prepared high note or florid passages. Music is what primarily drives the action.
"Turn off the lyrics in Verdi and you can still almost understand the story," said Kuo.
In a musical, on the other hand, in which songs fill out the action, it's more important for the words to be understood. The result, said Kuo, who has conducted Anchorage Opera's productions of "South Pacific" and "The Sound of Music," is that the range is lower, the singing more conversational.
There are various marketing and artistic conventions regarding whether something is considered a musical or an opera, but no clear line dividing them. Operettas, like "Die Fledermaus," sit on something of a cusp. The music requires well-trained voices, but -- as befits tunes from the pen of the man who wrote "The Blue Danube" waltz -- the tunes are pretty singable by the rest of us.
"It's what we all yearn for," said Kuo. "It's entertainment in the best possible sense of the word."
Rhymes with reason
This is not the first time that "Die Fledermaus" has been tweaked, he noted. English translations have been around for more than 100 years and several recent shows have taken liberties with the text to apply it to local, contemporary circumstances. "The fact that it can lend itself to all those possibilities shows its strength," Kuo said.
Brevoort reveled in the assignment of turning Imperial Vienna into a version of "The Whale Fat Follies" set to three-quarter time.
"I had the adaptation done in about five minutes," she said. "The scenes were easy, the music always told me what to do. The lyrics were trickier."
Among other considerations, Strauss's strong dance-step rhythms and the comic mood beg for rhymes. For Brevoort, it was a treasured opportunity.
"I love rhyme. I wrote a play with all the stage directions in rhyme. It drives the opera composers I work with crazy. But rhyme makes everything understandable. I was at home with Strauss."
The extent of Brevoort's Alaskanization remains a secret until opening night, April 4. But one expects that it's substantial. Director Fabris has worked with several different translations of "Die Fledermaus" over the years. "It's like a whole new story for me," he said. "The same music, but new lyrics and new characters."
"I think the original libretto is something of a mess," Brevoort said. "My goal was to add motivation and dramaturgical integrity."
The wheels are moving to realize her dream of "The Women of Lockerbie" as an opera, she said, but she said she couldn't reveal any details.
In the meantime, she's busy with something more pop-oriented, titled "Crossing Over," written with Stephanie Salzman. "It's an Amish hip-hop musical," she said.
"You're kidding," said Kuo.
"No. It's about this Amish girl with musical talent who gets involved with a hip-hop street preacher. I'm getting in touch with my inner gangsta."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM