Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe in Norwalk.
The Troupers Light Opera Company has been performing the operas of Sir William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan in lower Fairfield County since the late 1940s, though recently the company has sallied into an occasional Viennese operetta (Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus) or a gem of Americana (Victor Herbert’s The Red Mill). This April Troupers presents Iolanthe, which, for many, is a very special opera, even lauded by some as the very high point indeed of Gilbert and Sullivan’s remarkable collaboration. In addition to the customary wit and topsy-turvy plot line, Gilbert gives us some genuinely three dimensional, emotionally complex characters: the fairy Iolanthe is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the happiness of her son Strephon; Phyllis’s love for him gets rattled by a misunderstanding at the end of Act I, but before that happens and after it’s resolved in Act II we feel that her passion is more sincere than that of many other lovers in the G & S canon. Though the Fairy Queen and her fairy troupe and the Lords of the House of Peers are closer to stock comic caricatures, the Lord Chancellor’s deeper humanity is unlocked in Act II by Iolanthe’s pleas.
OperaMetro chatted with the Troupers’ high command for this Iolanthe production: Jun Nakabayashi, Music Director, Dan Montez, Stage Director, and Wendy Falconer, President of Troupers. As customary here, the separate telephone/email interviews are conjoined as if we were all chatting together.
OperaMetro (OM): Tell me about your experience with Iolanthe specifically, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas in general. How does Iolanthe rank on your list of favorites?
Jun Nakabayashi (JN): This is my first Iolanthe, therefore it's hard for me to rank it. Once I start studying a piece, I really get into it and it becomes a favorite. I’ve felt the same way for each of the G &S operas. But compared to other six G & S operas I conducted since the 1990's (The Gondoliers, H.M.S. Pinafore, Patience, The Pirates of Penzance, Princess Ida, and The Yeomen of the Guard), I can say that Iolanthe is very different. Comparatively speaking, I feel that Sullivan tried to do something new. Even the very opening of the overture has a rather Verdi-like ‘mysterious’ line which gives the evening a different ambience right away. It also includes the use of duple rhythm against the 6/8 meter---he may have used it in other operas, but I think it really stands out here. I also don't recall any serious fugues in the other works like the ones that accompany the Lord Chancellor's entrances.
Dan Montez (DM): Iolanthe is new to me. I had seen or sung in most of the others… I made my Debut at Lincoln Center playing Nanki Poo in The Mikado.
OM: I remember we talked about that last year.
DM: Yes, we did. Before that I had already directed other G&S operas. I love them all very much. But for some reason Iolanthe escaped me, until, that is, the Troupers decided to perform it this season and called me in to direct. As I looked at the score for the first time, I thought, ‘How did I miss this?!’ I was blown away. The music is very exciting, the dialogue is quite crisp and cutting. I would have loved to been a fly on the wall when this was first presented to the public…it’s pretty shocking stuff.
JN: I recall reading that Iolanthe was composed for the Savoy Theater which, at that time, was newly equipped with state-of-the-art electric lighting effects. It must have been exciting.
DM: A total package. The story is stupendous. Nothing in the G & S canon smacks the English peer system as harshly in the face.
OM: Gilbert loved to take shots at the Establishment. The beauty of Gilbert’s tale here is that below the comic veneer runs the current of a larger conflict between the sources of laws of life, love and death. The Fairies have their laws, upheld by the Fairy Queen, Strephon claims to be guided by the laws of Nature, and the House of Peers, headed by the Lord Chancellor, follow the laws of Parliament. It’s one big tuggle, with the lovely Phyllis caught smack in the middle. When Strephon is accused of disobeying the Court, he replies that he knows no Court of Chancery. He goes by Nature’s Acts of Parliament. Oh really? Seeking evidence of Nature’s support, the Lord Chancellor observes that “a few words on oath from a heavy shower would meet with all the attention they deserve.”
DM: Exactly, and yet after such marvelous satire and comedy the story takes a turn in a way that is strikingly moving—not something you’d expect from the previous G & S operas.
OM: Wendy, you’ve performed in previous Iolanthe productions.
Wendy Falconer (WF): Well, yes, I actually sang in the Men’s Chorus as one of Lords in the House of Peers in our 2006 production. It was the last time we did it. But this season I’m singing the title role.
OM: Your impressions of Iolanthe?
WF: It’s a very lovely role. It lies perfectly in my mezzo range. As characters with the lower voices go in G & S, Iolanthe is actually a positive, loving, caring woman. A mother…I’m finally going to have a genuine tender moment.
OM: Yes Iolanthe's plea in Act II is remarkable for its 'soul.' One wonders if the passing of Sullivan's beloved mother during the composition of Iolanthe guided his music. She so very much loved him.
WF: It's certainly possible. It has Sullivan’s best orchestrations, it’s one of Gilbert’s best books, and it’s one of the favorites in Great Britain.
OM: What makes it one of Gilbert’s best books?
DM: The humor is quick-witted, alliterative, simultaneously satirically cutting, yet also sweet. The juggling act he pulls off is pretty amazing. The text is full of double-entendres. For instance, listen closely to the ‘almost dialogue’ between the two Peers (Lord Tolloller and Mountararat) who “were boys together” and who “love each other,” but who are ready to duel for Phyllis. There are endless dialogues insulting the intelligence of the House of Lords. It’s actually exceptionally current!
JN: As for the Peers, pay attention to the music for the extended finale of Act I—it is one toe-tapping triumph after another.
OM: Because Sullivan’s music is on the whole so delightful and listenable, we tend to overlook what an elegant craftsman he was. Though Sullivan thoroughly studied the scores of Mendelssohn, Donizetti, Bellini, Wagner and Verdi, his music is uniquely his own and one has to say it is exactly what he intended to compose.. But he couldn’t resist an allusion here or there: the airy fairy music in Iolanthe recreates the magic of Mendelssohn’s forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream. And Wagner’s Ring had just been premiered in London in May of 1882, Tristan und Isolde in June while Sullivan was composing his score. No way he wanted to compose music like Wagner. In fact his experience of the Ring in performance, recounted in his diary, gave him "the most splitting headache." But no surprise to find echoes of these in Iolanthe.
DM: Exactly. The music, and to this music, catch the way the text makes fun of the way the Lords, the law-makers, all English by birth, drop high sounding phrases in foreign languages to make others think they are more important and intelligent than they actually are. The first act finale makes good fun of this and also the way this lawyer-speak excites the female fairies.
But then, and this is one of the beauties of the show, when Iolanthe finally tells her husband who she really is. It goes from comic to wonderful and very moving.
JN: And yet, if some of this passes by too quickly, one can just go with the flow of it. There are so many riches here…Sit back and enjoy it.
OM: I’ve been following Troupers since the late 1970s and I’ve always felt that, by performing these classic comic operas, the Company is giving a gift to the community each year. Thank you, Troupers! But I’ve seen changes. From inside, how has the Company changed over the years?
WF: Troupers has gotten a little smaller. We’re always faced with some attrition due to age, changes in life situations. But those who are here year after year really dig their feet in and become the backbone of the Company. It’s their passion, performing is their passion. So regardless of the size, we’re a cohesive unit. We all get on exceedingly well. The members do everything; everyone’s willing to help in one way or another. And naturally friendships form: The Red Mill had one of the smallest casts we’ve had, but we were all best buddies by the end of the show. And when it’s over, we all look forward to the next season.
Most of our casts are regular Troupers, but there are always one, two or three new ones. Some come in with a G & S tradition: this year we added Paul Zola, a Stamford resident who’d performed in some of the operas years ago. Through Dan and Jun we’re adding more soloists with an opera background. They bring singing strength, but sometimes they need more work with the dialogue and stage movement. But then we sometimes have singers from more of a Broadway background who already have more of an idea of dialogue, but need more work in the patter songs. From either side, they dabble in G & S for a few years and then maybe move on to do something else.
OM: What are some of the challenges facing Troupers, Wendy?
WF: Our biggest challenge is always the venue. The Norwalk Concert Hall has excellent acoustics but it is large and has limitations in terms of lighting and backstage. We’d be hesitant to stage Ruddigore or The Sorcerer there: each needs darkness with the ghost scene or the conjuring scene. St. Lukes was an excellent venue. We’ll see. We keep looking forward.
OM: Thank you all for your thoughtful words and for your time. We look forward to the show.
Phyllis is sung by Miran Robarts, Strephon by David Richy, Iolanthe by Wendy Falconer, Fairy Queen by Linda Mekeel, Celia by Deb Connelly, Leila by Maria Jacobi, Fleta by Tammy Strom, the Lord Chancellor by Michael Cosantino, Lord Tolloller by John Matilaine, Lord Mountararat by Frank Sisson, and Private Willis by Bob Scrofani.
Troupers Light Opera Company will perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe at the Norwalk Concert Hall, 125 East Avenue in Norwalk, on two Saturdays, April 11 and 18. There are two performances each day, a matinee at 2:30 p.m. and an evening performance at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at 800-838 3006 or at www.TroupersLightOpera.org. Adults are $30, Seniors $25 and Students $15.
On the page Further Reading, please find a bibliography for Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as the link to an excellent purveyor of vintage books. Digging deeper is quite rewarding.
Gilbert and Sullivan make the world a happier place to live in. Enjoy!