In this, their 72nd season of performing (mostly) Gilbert and Sullivan’s delightful masterpieces in local venues in Fairfield County, the Troupers Light Opera offers the famous pair’s H.M.S. Pinafore, preceded by Victor Herbert’s one act spoof of Wagner’s Lohengrin entitled The Magic Knight, this being completely new to the company’s repertory. New too is the stage: Troupers will perform in the recently refurbished Wall Street Theater @ 71 Wall Street, Norwalk. Days are in the first two weekends in April; see below for details.
OperaMetro (OM) chatted with four of the Troupers via email or telephone, it being too windy for smoke signals. As customary on these pages, their responses are arranged as a conversation, as if we were sharing observations during a rehearsal break, as we used to do, remember? back in the old cold winter days. Hey wait! Who's the guy with the clipboard?
Jim Cooper (JC) is the more or less the patriarch of the company, filling various roles both onstage and off, however this is said with no slight intended for the several other seasoned veterans of TLO still faithfully and actively involved. Returning Miran Robarts (MR) sings Elsa in Magic Knight; also returning Brett Kroeger (BK) sings Josephine, eligible daughter of Captain Corcoran of the H.M.S. Pinafore; a newcomer, making his Company debut and all that, Alan Briones (AB) sings Lohengrin, the Swan Knight in the first, and Ralph Rackstraw, the smartest lad in all the fleet, in the second. The following is more or less what we said.
OM: Last season, Jim, Troupers performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer. Next in line in the glorious canon is H.M.S. Pinafore. Conscious decision? So next season Pirates? Or is it only a coincidence we’re getting Pinafore this year?
JC: We on the board just decided it was time for Pinafore, so no, the sequence in the G & S canon was not a guiding factor in our choice. And most probably not Pirates next season, as we’ve recently done that one.
OM: But as long as they’re set back-to-back, season after season, a comparison of Pinafore to the earlier Sorcerer is instructive, si?
JC: Pinafore was their first full length really satiric operetta. It makes fun of rank, class, the Royal Navy. The real life model for Sir Joseph Porter K.C.B, commander of the Royal Navy, was a bookstore magnate W.H. Smith who’d never been to sea. Audiences back then knew the reference certainly.
OM: Sort of like today appointing someone who has no real experience in the position’s purview to a Cabinet post.
OM: Gilbert would have pounced on that like a cat on a mouse.
JC: Plus, the tunes in Pinafore are uniformly energetic. Josephine's arias are really top notch, not just parodies. And Dick Deadeye commenting on social equality as the "common man" (Gilbert in disguise of course) was a really creative touch. The dialog is tighter and more pointed. Trial by Jury was their first successful piece, a lot of fun packed into 30 minutes, but the satire is more diffuse and the music, while very pleasant, is easily topped by Pinafore. And I feel that The Sorcerer was more of a sing-spiel style with, yes, the true-love-clashing-with-rank plot, but it’s sort of muddied by parallel plot with J.W. Wells, the Sorcerer of the title.
OM: For The Sorcerer I think the musical theater community, Richard D’Oyly Carte among them, charged the pair (and others) to establish a national opera tradition in England, home grown compositions to stand up to the imports, specifically Offenbach’s operettas. And Sullivan, at the time England’s most promising young composer, probably took the charge more seriously.
JC: Sorcerer was relatively successful and Sullivan’s music is most respectable, but it never hit that funny bone in audiences like Pinafore did. Gilbert’s satire is far more pointed in Pinafore, and his dialog is spot on, crisp, taut. And, as I said, Sullivan’s music is far more alive. Everything about Pinafore is more entertaining and funny.
OM: The characters have a different pulse too.
JC: Right. Pinafore requires the ingénue soprano, Josephine, for whom Sullivan has written two excellent, lovely arias, arias which are both real showpieces as well as send-ups of operatic tradition. Then there’s a comic contralto Little Buttercup, who ties the plot together, a comic baritone role Sir Joseph Porter, the lyric tenor Ralph Rackstraw, the romantic hero, an upstanding baritone Captain Corcoran, and the bass, the curmudgeon Dick Deadeye.
OM: It’s a beast of a name, Dick Deadeye.
JC: Aye. Some of the role-types were developed from Sorcerer, elaborated in Pinafore and Pirates, then the later plots, throughout the canon, were cobbled to suit the singers. Gilbert and Sullivan were, after all, writing for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, an established troupe of singers who performed specifically these operas. Pinafore is where Gilbert and Sullivan first really come together.
OM: You’re not doing Trial by Jury as the curtain raiser.
JC: We first decided that we’d done Trial by Jury, the usual curtain raiser for Pinfore, too many times. We wanted something else. Cox and Box has three male roles, no females, and while Sullivan’s early one act trifle The Zoo is pleasant enough, it didn't provide a real solo opportunity for a leading soprano like The Magic Knight does. This way, we get Miran Robarts' ridiculously charming take on Elsa and then Brett Kroeger's marvellous Jospehine.
OM: I know you’re a real fan of Victor Herbert, Jim.
JC: Yes. We did The Red Mill, as you know.
OM: You’re responsible for the musical coordination and Marian Shulman is doing the stage direction for The Magic Knight, as you two were for Thespis this November past; Eric Kramer conducts and Emily Trudeau directs H.M.S. Pinafore. New to the Troupers?
OM: Okay, Miran, your turn. Tell me about Herbert’s Elsa von Brabant.
MR: Ah, Elsa! Well for sure she’s not as dreary as Wagner’s Elsa. You could plop her in the middle of any plot and the only thing she’d care about is singing pretty cadenzas. Anything that prevents her from doing so is but a distracting annoyance for her!
OM: I think our readers will be relieved to know it’s not Wagner, wonderful as the real Lohengrin is in its own fach. How do the text and vocal writing in G & S differ from text of The Magic Knight and Herbert’s music, since you've done the former, now doing the latter?
MR: Hmmmm… that’s a tougher question to answer. I would say that with G & S there is always a witty socio-political undercurrent to the text, which gives it an extra zing. This is not necessarily the case with Victor Herbert. However both Sullivan and Herbert write music that is just glorious and, especially for a soprano, a real joy to sing.
OM: Herbert opened the doors to several other great American composers. Any others you particularly like to sing?
MR: I would say that Lerner and Loewe’s works dovetail nicely with Herbert’s style... Camelot comes to mind!
OM: Okay, more knights.
MR: I’ve also enjoyed singing the Sabre Song from Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song.
OM: I look forward to The Magic Knight, Miran. Best wishes.
MR: Thank you.
OM: Brett Kroeger, you’re up. Tell me about Josephine.
BK: Sure! For starters, it’s set higher vocally than Constance’s range.
OM: From The Sorcerer.
BK: Right, but it fits my voice really well. I’m having no trouble with the vocal line, no strain. Sullivan writes so well for the voice: they are real ‘arias’ in the operatic sense. Fun to sing, too. I had worked on them prior to the Troupers’ decision to do Pinafore.
OM: What’s Josephine like as a person?
BK: She’s a late teen type of romantic. I feel that she’s known no other kind of life apart from having a Captain as a father, with all of its wealth and expectations. But her feelings for Ralph are new, unsettling, even wonderful were it not for her father’s plans to marry her to Sir Joseph.
OM: But once she accepts Ralph’s affections and intentions, she gets crafty.
BK: A little. She seems still to some degree focused on what she’ll lose by going with her heart over her reason. Our Director Emily Trudeau has some fresh ideas. We’re still working out the details.
OM: Thank you, Brett!
BK: Thank you, always a pleasure!
OM: Alan Briones, welcome!
AB: Thank you!
OM: Actually your debut performance with Troupers will be in The Magic Knight! Lohengrin, no less. Not many lyric tenors can say they're making a company debut as Lohengrin. I must say I’m intrigued. But let’s talk about Ralph Rackstraw, a much bigger and I suspect more elegant part. Tell me about yourself.
AB: It’s my first G & S show and I’m very excited to be exploring this repertory at last. I started singing in the children’s chorus at Taconic Opera at about nine years old. Got the opera bug, studied the tenor repertory. In many ways the transition from opera to G & S is not so difficult, meaning it doesn’t feel far from what I’m performing on either side of it this season. I’m singing Nemorino with the Hudson Opera after this: he and Ralph are close cousins musically, maybe Ralph is not exactly from the tradition of an Italian bel canto opera buffa like L’Elisir d’Amore, but overall the singing technique is not greatly different.
OM: Well, Sullivan was steeped in those scores and Gilbert knew the style certainly. L’Elisir ‘s Dr. Dulcamara is even parodied, patter song words and musical style, in The Sorcerer. But Ralph is not Nemorino.
AB: No. He could be played as sort of a stock lover character, but I find him more complex the more I speak his lines and listen to the music Sullivan gives him. There is some interesting stuff here. For instance, I feel he’s somehow, somewhere aware that he is of a class different from the rest, even different from Sir Joseph. Our director Emily Trudeau and I are exploring this. Listen to what he has to say: it seems out of place, elevated, more purposeful, all very intelligently put together.
OM: Gilbert intentionally makes Ralph’s language, especially in his declaration of love to Josephine, far more ‘cultured’ and ‘elevated,’ certainly more than his messmates, but also more than the Captain. Absurd and funny that one as ‘lowly’ as Ralph would speak that way, given his nurture and regardless of his nature.
AB: It’s over the top, of course, but I’m wondering if the words are actually sort of natural, natural in a way that is mysterious even to him. I’ll bet he sometimes has to watch what he says.
OM: He sort of does watch it: after all that long run of over-the-top dialogue is with Josephine, not with the other sailors. Do you think she brings it out of him?
AB: Maybe. He can’t marry the woman he wants, the woman he can relate to, but it feels right to want this relationship, not wrong as he would have been taught as a common lowling. I’ll bet he knows he is better. After all, he can see incompetence all around him. He’s certainly not fooled by Sir Joseph.
OM: So the changing of rank at Buttercup’s last minute revelation confirms what Ralph has been feeling all along.
AB: Something like that.
OM: I’ll be curious to see if this take is evident in the staging. Best wishes to you!
AB: Thank you.
Other seasoned Troupers, some in photos above, some not include Rob Strom, David Schancupp, a returning Trouper from a few seasons past, Frank Sisson, Wendy Falconer, Suzanne Rossini, Bob Scrofani, Nicole McQuade, Rob Strom, Erik Contzius, John Hoover, Bill Abbott, John Matilaine, Guy Stretton, Rosa Parrotta, Jennifer Wallace, and Melissa Anderson.
Troupers Light Opera presents The Magic Knight and H.M.S. Pinafore on Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 on the weekends of April 1, 2 and 8, 9. The new venue is the Wall Street Theater at 71 Wall Street in Norwalk, CT. Productions are performed with period costumes and full orchestra.
For tickets, please go to their website: www.trouperslightopera.org
Couldn't say about parking for the Wall Street Theater, as I usually do...find it when I get there, I guess. (I sound like Dorothy...and no, we're not in Kansas.)
Afterthoughts: Here’s the deal, Sparkie: Broadway’s great comedy team Joe Weber and Lou Fields established the Weber and Fields’ Music Hall, mostly for low-brow fare, vaudeville, burlesques, and so on. Herbert was on a roll with The Red Mill; he and Weber had become friends and decided to collaborate on a new show to be mounted in the Music Hall on Christmas, 1906. It was Dream City, listed as a “dramatic pipe with two puffs,” the plot of which involves one Wilhelm Dinglebender, a farmer out in the sticks of Long Island, who is hoodwinked by the fast talking J. Billington Holmes to be a part of a scheme to build a new town, complete with an opera house. Dinglebender (played by Weber speaking in an outrageous Dutch accent) has a dream in which he’s trapped at a performance of an opera in the new house. He’s so completely disillusioned by the performance that he refuses to sign on the dotted line. The second act is The Magic Knight, the short opera of the dream, Herbert’s spoof of Wagner’s Lohengrin.
But figuring that even back then the rest of the everyday world had not seen Lohengrin at the Met or anywhere else on the planet, Weber wanted the opera to be a detached act, probably so as not to distract attention from or interrupt his comic routines. Reviews hailed The Magic Knight as “high art” and “a triumph of musical fooling.” To quote instead of paraphrasing Gerald Bordman: “…the Lohengrin burlesque, in capable hands, could be hilarious. Lohengrin (a “professional rescuer of distressed maidens”) arrives in a cab drawn by a swan. To the hero’s Mein lieber Schwan Frederick (Ortrud’s hen-pecked uncle) can only respond ‘Quack, quack.’ [later, same page] “Time and again Herbert took Wagnerian airs and subtly twisted them into hints of popular tunes.” Quotes are from Gerald Bordman’s American Musical Theatre (Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 224).
Best advice for preparation for The Magic Knight: search the Internet for a synopsis of Wagner’s opera to catch at least some of the jokes in the text. For instance, referring to the cab drawn by a swan (above), in the opera, Lohengrin disembarks on the river bank from a barque drawn by a great swan, and, polite fellow that he is, says ‘thanks’ to ‘my beloved Swan,’ these words being in fact his first utterance. Swans first, and he is, after all, the Swan Knight. The famous Wedding March, frequently heard at the bride’s entrance in weddings of yesteryear, is straight from Act III of Lohengrin. (Bets are solid this tune is quoted somewhere in the Herbert score!)
Certainly listening to the whole opera Lohengrin is an option, but, unless you're the compulsively erudite type, I think it's better to sit back and enjoy Herbert’s music rather than spend hours upon hours trying to get yourself primed to play ‘name that tune’ through a trifle lasting only about 30 minutes plus. 'Subtly twisted airs,' remember? Time is short; Lohengrin is long. And not particularly funny either.
Enjoy Troupers! Support local opera.