Preview of Troupers' Iolanthe

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.

Miran Roberts as Phyllis and David Richy as Strephon in Troupers'  Iolanthe

Miran Roberts as Phyllis and David Richy as Strephon in Troupers' Iolanthe

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 GondoliersH.M.S. PinaforePatienceThe Pirates of PenzancePrincess 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.

OM: Dan?

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 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!


Troupers' Iolanthe reviewed

Troupers Light Opera Co. perform Iolanthe in Norwalk

Since 1946 the Troupers Light Opera Co. has presented the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan with elan to local audiences. Their ‘product’ is well known to the regular faithful; even I, a relative newcomer, have been a part of the audience since the early 1980s. The Troupers’ Iolanthe this season meets our expectations.

As fans discourse about the legendary D’Oyly Carte Opera Company (the original performing troupe for the Gilbert and Sullivan’s oeuvre), I’m sure the local elders know and speak of the various eras of the Troupers, whether framed by the tenures of directors, conductors, presidents, singing board members, venues, or so on and so forth. Since a very large percentage of the persons on stage in any given year are intelligent, successful professionals in something other than music, one wonders if there is talk about an era when, say, most of the soloists were lawyers or physicians?

The common denominator, of course, is their passion for performing light opera, most frequently those of Gilbert and Sullivan. The talent, time, and effort they put in to make it all happen season after season is laudable for sure.

This Iolanthe is the 8th time in the Troupers’ long run of seasons; it has not been performed since 2006, before that 1997. It has scenic demands (sets, lighting, and effects) that sorely stretch even a well healed company in a technologically accommodating venue. The music can be dark, the moments magical, but the stage of the Norwalk Concert Hall this year allowed neither. No surprise here that some of the depth of Iolanthe was missing.

Miran Roberts and David Richy in  Iolanthe

Miran Roberts and David Richy in Iolanthe

The strengths of this Iolanthe lie in the performances themselves. Miran Robarts, always vocally solid, is looser and much more feisty as Phyllis than the role of Mabel (in The Pirates of Penzance last season) allowed. Her hissy fit at the end of Act I was a real jolt, a rant voiced high, loudly and clearly. Vocally the role of Strephon suits David Richy better than Frederick (also in The Pirates of Penzance last season). He creates an interesting, borderline odd personality here: after all, he’s been raised by a mother who lives at the bottom of a stream. In our first encounter with him he’s talking to her in a handful of water. But his Strephon is sincere and he makes one feel as if the two, he and Phyllis, actually have feelings each other. Their reconciliation toward the end of Act II was quite touching.

Baritone Michael Costantino gets an A+ on all aspects of the Lord Chancellor. He is articulate, smart, and always in touch with his presentation. The guy never misses a beat. The Lord Chancellor, as staged here, is not so old and not so gray. He also now and then goes from manic to mellow, not to say bipolar, sometimes in the same number. Costantino is very physical: in the big finale of Act I he flings himself behind a rock bench (to swap out his Chancellor’s judicial curls for a white fright wig) and then proceeds to contort and twirl around as though under the Fairy Queen’s spell. His Nightmare Song was executed well and very entertaining.

Wendy Falconer as Iolanthe also struck a tender chord with her plea for young Strephon’s happiness. Linda Mekeel as the Fairy Queen is staged for laughs, particularly funny with her courting of Robert Scrofani’s steadfast Private Willis in Act II. Scrofani amused us with his accent and crumbling self-control in the face of her deft moves.

Kudos to Frank Sisson (Lord Mountararat) and John Matilaine (Lord Tolloller) for happily embodying the line they trade in Act II (“we were boys together”). At least I was…aware how many times they’ve appeared with the Company. They bring years of stage experience to Iolanthe and a great deal of fun.

Deborah Connelly, Maria Jacobi, and Tammy Strom in Iolanthe

Deborah Connelly, Maria Jacobi, and Tammy Strom in Iolanthe

The three solo Fairies (Deborah Connelly as Celia, Maria Jacobi as Leila, and Tammy Strom as Fleta) sounded youthful and remarkably clean; the Fairy Chorus sang well; the Lords were commendable.

Director Dan Montez favors a lot of stage business, which certainly shortstops any characters standing around or losing focus. Though some of the business is perhaps too repetitive (the hoops and the passing of crowns), other bits are more obviously symbolic: for instance, poor Phyllis is burdened one by one with the heavy robes of the Peers, thus weighing her down to a heap on the stage. The weight of these is nothing probably compared to the psychological crush of an actual relationship with one, but we sense she too is getting the point. Montez more often draws gold in his direction of the interactions of the characters.

Jun Nakabayashi conducts the Troupers’ Orchestra with a clear beat. The Overture, one special to Sullivan’s heart, was played adroitly. One suspects that the very lively acoustics of the Norwalk Concert Hall amplified some sections of the orchestra over others, thereby creating imbalances that are different depending on where one sits. Hearing the performance was not a problem certainly.

Iolanthe is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best. Don’t miss it. Its next season with Troupers is probably not real soon.

Troupers Light Opera Company will perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe at the Norwalk Concert Hall, 125 East Avenue in Norwalk, again on Saturday, April 18, 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 Adults are $30, Seniors $25 and Students $15.

On the page Gilbert and Sullivan, please find the preview piece for this Iolanthe; 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.

Enjoy. Support local living theater!


Brett Kroeger's recital reviewed

Brett Kroeger warms a December evening with songs from the Great War

Young soprano Brett Kroeger gave a stirring recital entitled Over There, Greatest Hits from the Great War, at the Greenwich Arts Council building on the evening of December 13. It was a totally pleasing and enlightening hour of song, insights, history and memories. Her marvelous accompanist was Christopher Denny.

Brett Kroeger sings songs from the Great War

Brett Kroeger sings songs from the Great War

Kroeger is familiar to local audiences, certainly to me most recently, through her performances with Troupers Light Opera Company. In her interview with OperaMetro in November (below on this page), she cited a certain fascination with the Great War era of popular music. Not surprising: Kroeger was conspicuously well suited for her part in the Troupers’ production of Victor Herbert’s The Red Mill in 2013. Most of the music this December evening lies easily within her vocal comfort zone.

The opportunity to create a recital structured around this era was perfect, 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. In her evening Over There, Kroeger and Denny arranged the songs according to broad chronological stages of the War, through the call to arms, the send-off, the seemingly endless suffering in the trenches, the worries of loved ones back home, and the return for better or worse. Kroeger met the demands of the different styles and moods of the songs, communicating directly with her audience through expressive voice and body language.

Though often the songs flowed seamlessly together, in between some, and at major junctures, Kroeger supplied us with the historical and social context, often reading quotes from letters, diaries, and other sources. The words of the songs thus became more closely tied with real human situations and emotions during wartime. Structurally her show was intelligent, informative, even more so when one checked out the program text after the fact, and as she read or recited, Denny played a soft backdrop which either introduced the next song or reminded one of the last. It was a very smart show, all said, and that they could do all of this without any hesitations or lapses bespeaks of real talents and a dedication to excellence.

But, of course, this was a vocal recital, not a history lecture. Kroeger’s singing, expression, and overall joie de vivre made for an entertaining and at times very touching experience. For me, in particular, it was her rendition of Silent Night mixed with Stille Nacht in German. This song highlighted an unusual event during the first Christmas of the War: a lone British soldier singing Silent Night in the trenches is echoed by Stille Nacht sung from the German trenches, then more join in, which leads to an impromptu cease fire, tacitly agreed and upheld by the soldiers themselves, not by dumbfounded officers on either side. Soldiers put down their weapons, crossed the barbed wire, embraced and shared rations, photos and stories, played music and cards. My great aunt, before she immigrated to the Catskills in New York, was in the German medical corps during that war. She used to play her 78 recording of Ernestine Schumann-Heink singing Stille Nacht; it remained for me a dear memory of her. The ‘heavenly peace’ didn’t last of course. The senseless slaughter continued for nearly four more years. A hardened woman, my great aunt never talked about the carnage she witnessed.

Kroeger also sang war songs from the Russians and French, all well-articulated, to illustrate that, below the ideological levels, wars deeply affect real people. The experiences are universal.

As if to underscore her status as a bona fide opera singer, not just a popular wartime chanteuse, Kroeger encored her recital with Chi il bel sogno di Doretta in Italian from Puccini’s La Rondine, an opera impacted by the hostilities. She managed the beautiful upper range of this aria with grace, which brought an adoring audience to their feet.

Brava! To quote the old search engines: “More like this.” Please.

May heavenly peace reign.


Brett Kroeger's Over There

OperaMetro had the privilege of speaking with local soprano Brett Kroeger, who will perform a solo concert of songs from the Great War era at the Greenwich Arts Council on December 13.

Regional audiences will remember her sparkling rendition of Gretchen in the Troupers Light Opera’s production of Victor Herbert’s The Red Mill in 2013. Quoth a review in The Stamford Advocate: “Of the several couples in the show, the Burgomaster’s pretty daughter Gretchen and the handsome young sea captain Davis fill the ‘romantic category.’ Soprano Brett Kroeger’s lovely voice shines in its upper range, especially in her musings on moonbeams from upper floor of the Red Mill.” Kroeger also sang Edith in the Troupers’ The Pirates of Penzance in 2014 and this November sang in the Troupers’ An Evening with Gilbert and Sullivan and Friends at the Pequot Library in Southport. Kroeger’s song that evening was “Vilja” from Lehár’s The Merry Widow. Listen to her sing “Vilja.”

Brett Kroeger to sing songs from the Great War

Brett Kroeger to sing songs from the Great War

Operametro caught up with Ms. Kroeger by telephone.

OM: You’re giving a solo recital of songs from the time period World War I. Why?

BK: It just sort of fell into place: my husband and I were driving, listening to the radio in June on what, we learned, was the day 100 years ago that Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, the event that set off the First World War. And we thought, you know, the songs of that era fit really well with my voice. It would make for an interesting concert. I mean I so much loved singing Victor Herbert’s music in The Red Mill (1906); it’s as if the role of Gretchen were written for me. I knew I was in familiar territory musically. Right up my alley, so to speak.

OM:  There are lots of songs from back then, I’m sure. How did you narrow down your selections?

BK: I researched music of the period. Since there was no commercial radio network at the time, a “best seller” was measured in terms of sheet music sales. There were records of course, those scratchy old 78s, but a piano was cheaper than a Victrola. Unlike today, folks more likely gathered around and sang together for an evening of entertainment.

From there, I chose songs that were the greatest hits, the chart toppers, or nearly so, of the war years, 1914 to 1918. I put them into categories: Sending the troops off, Keeping the home fires burning, Keeping the spirits up, and then Welcome home.

OM: Chronological, but also very different emotional experiences for all involved, troops and families alike.

BK: Exactly. Song writers of the era, even President Wilson, knew the power of music to support the war effort and boost the morale of the populace. I’m singing songs by George M. Cohan (“Over There”), Irving Berlin (“Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”), Jerome Kern (“Till the Clouds Roll By”), Gus Kahn (“Memories”), and several others. Some, like “Danny Boy,” were written much earlier, but became associated with the war because they hit a nerve.

OM: It probably made for a more emotional impact of these songs by singing them together or at least listening to them together. Not like listening to music all alone on your iPod.

BK: Certainly. Singing in a group or with a chorus can be a very moving, very uplifting experience, just like putting on a show. Often the troops sang together in shows put on away from the trenches. Did you know that Irving Berlin was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1917 to serve his country by writing songs?

OM: Did not. Interesting. But related to uplifting experiences: It’s conspicuous, both in The Red Mill and Pirates, how much fun you seem to have on stage.

BK: I have a lot of fun. I LOVE to sing! I’ve been singing since I can remember. I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan in fifth grade, I loved their music. I studied voice and performance both in college and in graduate school; I’m a student with Bill Schuman. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to sing for people. I enjoy every part of it: preparing the music, learning the part, rehearsing, dressing up, long as I’m singing I’m happy.

Unfortunately, these days there are not as many opportunities for a classically trained voice to get experience on stage. This is why organizations like Troupers Light Opera Company are so important for young artists. I’m a full lyric soprano whose dream is to do the big roles in big houses. I’ve sung some big roles in smaller houses with smaller companies: Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust and Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin being two of my absolute favorites.

But I feel the like, okay, today you have to get a little creative in programming, you have to create opportunities, hence my concert in December. For this I am quite excited. The songs and the experiences they are associated with are part of our collective American history. And I’m really blessed with a super accompanist in Christopher Denny. He is truly amazing, a consummate musician, and way way cooler than I am. I couldn’t ask for a better musical partner.

OM: See you in Greenwich on the 13th!

Concert Poster

Concert Poster

See Brett Kroeger and Christopher Denny

Dec. 13 Greenwich Arts Council 6:30pm in

a live concert performance of the songs of World War I. For more information, go to

OVER THERE: Greatest Hits of the Great War

Free Admission

TicketsOVER THERE: Greatest Hits of the Great War