Their names are synonymous with the new generation of Broadway talent: Danny Burstein, a four-time Tony nominee who deftly alternates between musical comedy and serious drama, and Betsy Wolfe, a fetching blonde beltress whose star is on the rise. Both are consistently working. 2013 saw Burstein in a string of plays including Golden Boy (which earned him his fourth nomination), Talley’s Folly, and The Snow Geese. While Wolfe, after leaving the role of the potentially murderous Rosa Bud in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, starred in the first off-Broadway revival of The Last Five Years, cut that show’s cast album, and even made a cameo in the forthcoming film adaptation. 2014 will see both return to Broadway, Burstein as the fruit seller Herr Shultz in Cabaret and Wolfe as Ellen in the musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s film Bullets Over Broadway.
You’d think they’d need time to sleep, right? Nah. Between gigs, Burstein and Wolfe are making their debuts at the Metropolitan Opera, in Jeremy Sams’ production of the Johann Strauss opera Die Fledermaus. Featuring a newly revised libretto by playwright Douglas Carter Beane (who recently held the same duties on the Broadway bow of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), Sams’ staging blends the old with the new and the world of opera with theater. Burstein and Wolfe, in the roles of the jailer Frosch and Ida, respectively, are joined by opera stars Susanna Phillips and Christopher Maltman, along with Burstein’s Tony-winning South Pacific comrade, Paulo Szot.
“Never,” says Burstein when asked if he ever imagined he’d appear in a production at the Met, in a role that, in the past has been played by the likes of Zero Mostel, Sid Caesar, and Jack Gilford. “Never. Never. Ever. I never even would have dreamt that I should even audition,” he continues, almost shocked at his good fortune. “For some crazy reason, they asked me [to play the role] and I was flattered beyond anything. I jumped at the chance.” Wolfe, on the other hand, auditioned. “As I learned later, someone had seen me do Drood, and they wanted some crossover artists for the acting roles,” she says. “I remember laughing when I got the call [to audition]. They said, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to sing. Then, the call back came and there I was, singing at the Met for forty people, which was incredibly intimidating.” Similarly, she never imagined she’d be playing that space. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be singing a solo live at the Met. It never even crossed my mind, the possibility.”
The rehearsal process for operas has provided a unique challenge for this pair of theater folk. “You start five weeks before your first preview in theater, and here you have about a month [before you open],” Burstein notes. “I rehearse for a day and then I don’t rehearse for two days. One of the things I find really crazy is that we finish rehearsals on the 27th, which is the final dress, and then we don’t do anything until the first performance, which is New Year’s Eve. It is the strangest thing, not to build up to your opening night.”
For Wolfe, there’s some difficulty in forming a rapport with her family of 19 primary cast members and a large chorus that extends well beyond the standard Broadway size. “There’s not really time” to get to know people, she points out. “Some people, I don’t even know their names and I’m on stage with them and that seems very foreign.” However, the fact that this is a brand-new production means that the time spent together in the rehearsal room has been more than afforded to most operas in the standard repertory. “I’ve been lucky to come in and help create this show,” she says. “I’ve seen that the people who’ve come from the opera world liked [that] as well. They feel like a part of the process.”
As theater actors, both Burstein and Wolfe note how lucky they are to have been invited into this process and to have the opportunity to work with the stunningly talented singers Phillips and Maltman and Szot. “These people are super humans. You’re just hanging out with them, and then you get on stage, and they start into an aria,” Burstein says, clearly blown away. “I remember walking into one of the first rehearsals,” Wolfe shares, “where Adele [Jane Archibald] was singing her laughing song and tears were streaming down my face. She just had an angelic voice. I couldn’t believe this was going to be my job for the next two months.”
Time to rest? Who needs it? “We’ll close Die Fledermaus and I’ll be in tech for Bullets," Wolfe notes of the new Woody Allen musical, which begins previews at the St. James Theatre on March 11, three weeks after she closes at the Met on February 22. Three is the magic number for Burstein, too. The opera began rehearsals three weeks into his run in the now-shuttered Snow Geese, and Cabaret starts rehearsals February 4, three weeks before the end of his run at the Met. “I’m not getting much sleep,” Burstein says with a laugh, “So I’m pretty tired. But it’s been totally worth it.”