Troupers Light Opera to perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer in Norwalk
It must be spring! The Troupers Light Opera present Gilbert & Sullivan’s infrequently performed gem The Sorcerer twice on each of two Saturdays this month: April 16 and April 23. ‘Infrequent’ is numerical, not a statement of quality.
OperaMetro has the privilege of interviewing three of the principals, each an accomplished vocal artist, each sharing a passion for the Gilbert & Sullivan canon, and each willing to share views on art, the roles, The Sorcerer, Troupers, and whatever else comes up.
They are Tanya C. Roberts, who sings Aline, Brett Kroeger, who sings Constance, and David Richy, who sings Alexis.
As in past OM interviews, participants responded to emailed questions, but the assembled presentation here is as if we were all chatting.
OM: Welcome and thank you for agreeing to participate in this virtual discussion about The Sorcerer! I’ll start by saying that all of the G & S operas are long standing favorites of mine, Mikado being the first I saw on stage, though I knew also Pinafore and Pirates early on through the D’Oyly Carte recordings on London LPs. Sorcerer came just a little later on LP, but only much later did I see it on stage, in fact with the Troupers. What is your relationship with G & S in general and The Sorcerer in specific, apart from the fact that you’re appearing in it less than two weeks from today?
Tanya Roberts (TR): McGill University had a G&S group, but unfortunately, as a voice major, my opera rehearsals always conflicted with their rehearsals. But I was certainly intrigued by the repertoire. I've always been drawn to a repertoire that sits at the cross-section of high and popular culture, and Sullivan's writing bridges high opera tradition and comic theatre so brilliantly. I’ve since performed in several of the more popular G & S operas, but I've seen The Sorcerer only once, performed by The Victoria Gilbert and Sullivan Society on Vancouver Island, a few years ago. That was a big part of what drew me to this production.
Brett Kroeger (BK): Sorcerer is a brand new experience for me: the only other G & S operas I have done are Pirates, Mikado, and Patience, but my first with the Troupers was Herbert’s The Red Mill.
OM: I remember it well. I first met you at a rehearsal.
BK: Yes we did!
David Richy (DR): Going into Troupers Light Opera’s production of The Sorcerer, I was only familiar with a couple of the songs. My involvement with Troupers and other organizations over the years has given me the opportunity to sing various selections from the G&S repertory. As a result, I have sung a song or two from every G&S operetta, but I have only performed in a few thus far: Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, Patience, and Trial by Jury.
OM: Gilbert gives us some wonderful characters, kooky or sentimental in their own way, but ‘dated’ by the constraints of the times in which they were created or by the societies in which the story is set. Tell me about the challenges facing a singer in 2016 to create a plausible character who’s been cut from an old mold.
DR: I’m singing the role of Alexis, an upper-class youth who has grand designs of a world where people can love one another regardless of age or class. He hires a sorcerer to concoct a love potion to affect the entire village.
OM: One doesn’t encounter sorcerers as frequently these days.
DR: Right! Well, Alexis is not a particularly likable character, though his views may seem well intended on the surface. At best, he’s dim-witted in his quest for true love; at worst, he is selfish in his motives. His selfishness really comes to the forefront when he disapproves of Aline (who is betrothed to Alexis and loves him very much) for refusing to drink the love potion despite his insistence and then denounces her because, having taken it, she falls in love with someone else! As far as developing a sense of the character, it’s good to have a basic understanding of what he is about, but the stage direction, our movements and our actions may dictate a different approach and interpretation to what may be traditionally expected of my character.
TR: When I first started learning G&S, my opera coaches would tell me that all of the G&S leading ladies are not very bright and therefore I should approach them stylistically like I would a female protagonist in an Oscar Wilde play. True, naiveté and honesty often weigh heavily in many of the principal female characters in G & S, but I think it is a misnomer to interpret this as a lack of intelligence. For me the joy of interpreting these characters is that they meet their assumed duties in a rather patriarchal context as wives and daughters and friends with a great inner strength that propels them to make their own choices through the show. It's about finding their inner feminist! This said, the relationship between Aline and Alexis poses unique challenges for an actor and director alike. Their relationship is very much a product of the time in which it was written, when hitting your wife was common, and it was a given that women were subservient to men. In Sorcerer there are even references to Alexis striking Aline and lines about the necessity of her obeying him. How you present that to a modern audience while maintaining the integrity of the piece (and also to keep your audience from hating your leading man) requires a great director. We're very fortunate to have Dan [Montez], who does an excellent job of navigate those perils.
OM: I’ve always felt that Aline is a strong and sincere character. This, to me, is particularly clear in both the D’Oyly Carte’s abridged Sorcerer from 1933 with Muriel Dickson. Just listen to her expressive interpretation (available on Naxos CDs) and then Nan Christie in the 1982 BBC/PBS Sorcerer (available on an Acorn Media DVD, one of the complete series). Interesting that both Dickson and Christie also essay the title role of Princess Ida, another strong woman.
But back to the point about presenting Alexis to a modern audience: I don’t know that Gilbert necessarily wants us to like Alexis, that, through the character, he’s expressing his own views about marital relationships any more than he condones marriage irrespective of rank and class. And to the general point: taken far enough, there is probably some segment of today’s diverse population in the US who’d have a problem with practically every character in Gilbert’s plots, not to mention Shakespeare’s, Boccaccio's, the Scriptures, Jane Austen’s novels, in fact, run with the thought, in every other novel, stage play, opera, operetta, Broadway show, sitcom, or film. What is a negative character stereotype for some might be, from a different perspective obviously, a positive characterization for others.
But I digress. Brett?
BK: Constance, my role, is an interesting one. She has a beautiful aria in the beginning of Act I, but then is basically forgotten until Act II, when, now that she has taken the love potion, she sings a very funny aria with the chorus. Through Dan’s direction she is basically a jealous unhappy teen, in contrast to the spritely, obliviously happy Aline.
OM: Apt description! Strong, sincerely sprite and oblivious.
BK: But you’ll admit it’s a little strange that Sullivan would give Constance such a gorgeous aria but then dispense with her story line until the end of the operetta when everyone gets back to their rightful pairs.
OM: Well it’s not as tidy as the later operas, for sure. But she ends up with Dr. Daly. All's well that ends well.
BK: Right, the one she’s pining for in the Act I aria. But in Act II, through the spell of the potion, he’s now matched with Aline and I, Constance, am matched with the ancient Notary, who’s dreadfully hard of hearing. But, not being a jealous, unhappy teen by nature, I have to figure out my own interpretations and then, depending also on what the director’s vision of the character is, I try to incorporate my own humor and build on that to find my own voice through the eyes of the director. I have been lucky that the two past directors I've worked with at Troupers (Dan and also Marian Shulman) have given me a good idea of what they want and let me explore that and build on it. I find that once given a personality to build on, it is easy to become that character throughout the rehearsal period.
TR: I too. When I'm preparing a G&S role, I always read through the entire score before I do anything else, to get an overview of the work. I do this with my G&S bible at my side, The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan by Ian Bradley.* Then I will watch a DVD or two of past productions, listen to recordings, and if I get very lucky, see the show live. I like to have a tool box of ideas that I can pull from, because when you begin rehearsals, even though you have the entire piece memorized, you need to be flexible about interpretation, based on what your director and your conductor want. You always want to show up for the gig with ideas and opinions of your own, but be flexible enough to change them on the fly.
DR: Same here: Obviously, watching or listening to a performance I’m about to work on gives me a general foundation I can build on. I sing opera & operetta regularly throughout the year, so from a vocal standpoint I don’t deviate much from my routine. As far as developing a sense of the character, it’s good to have a basic understanding of what your character is about, but the stage direction, our movements and our actions may dictate a different approach and interpretation to what may be traditionally expected of my character.
OM: You all have to know that I sit in awe of your artistry, your commitment to singing and to ‘opera’ at all levels and though not a musician or singer myself, I’ve experienced firsthand the coming together of a regional opera company (in Harford County, Maryland), from set construction through rehearsals to final performances. It really is joy to perform.
BK: Absolutely! For me, every opportunity to perform is a joy, especially with a group of talented performers. To be able to create a spectacle together as a company, even when mid-rehearsal you feel like you aren’t going to get it together, and then something magical happens…every time it seems. I find it especially delightful when something that seems to have lost its punch during the rehearsal period sends the audience into guffaws of laughter. I love getting to work with the orchestra and seeing smiles on the faces of the folks in the audience. It’s all very gratifying. Makes all the effort involved totally worth it.
DR: Agreed! I will always remember Pirates of Penzance with Troupers in 2014: It was my first experience singing a lead role in a G&S production (I was Frederic), and the cast and crew were so engaging and fun to work with. My ventures into musical theatre have been wonderfully fun as well, but, generally speaking, for me it’s the people I get to meet, the bonds we form and the effort that we all put in during rehearsals to make the show the best it can be are where I get the most enjoyment from.
TR: We thrive on it. This summer I'm returning to The Ohio Light Opera for my 3rd festival season. I ADORE working for that company too. The festival runs for 3 months every summer in Wooster, Ohio, and attracts theater lovers from all over the world. They specialize in operetta and classic musical theatre that is rarely performed elsewhere in the world.
OM: Yes, indeed: I used their recording of Red Mill to prep for the Troupers production.
TR: This summer I’m doing Lilli in Kiss Me, Kate and Gabrielle in La vie parisienne among others. The company basically stages each show in three days, has one day of tech rehearsals, one day of dress rehearsals, and then dovetails rehearsals with the subsequent show, until seven shows are running in repertory. It's the most exhausting but also the most artistically satisfying work I've ever done. Ultimately it's the people that make the experience so special, both the fellow cast mates, who truly give blood, sweat and tears for these shows, and the audience, who is supremely devout, sells out the theater year after year, and showers the company with love and appreciation. It's magic!
OM: I thank you all for your comments! I look forward to meeting you again at The Sorcerer!
The Troupers Light Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer is performed at the Norwalk Concert Hall, 125 East Avenue, Norwalk, CT, matinee/evening on April 16 and the same on April 23. Matinee time is 2:30 p.m.; evening is 7:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at the company’s website (www.trouperslightopera.org) or by calling 800-838-3006.
* Interested readers: please check out OperaMetro’s page Further Reading for a list of recommended sources about Gilbert, Sullivan, their operas, and their time, of which The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan by Ian Bradley should be very high on anyone’s list. For the record, Mr. Bradley tells me that he is preparing a revised edition of his magnum opus in celebration of its 20th anniversary. I’ll be curious to see if he adds the two new notes I sent him.
I did not mention, but certainly have not forgotten Brett Kroeger's delightful song revue Over There from December, 2014, but interested readers can read comments and an interview with her from back then below on the page Regional Fourteen Fifteen..
Also, I didn't have time to write a full discography for The Sorcerer, but, truth is, the two complete D'Oyly Carte recordings (available on CD, two older ones on a Naxos release and the stereo version on Decca) are all fine. I very much like the BBC made for TV production of The Sorcerer too. In spite of their flaws, the BBC series is better than my imagination.
Support the Troupers! Enjoy!