Thespis resurrected by the Troupers Light Opera
The Troupers dig very deeply into their artistic well to give loyal followers a once in a lifetime experience: a resurrection of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis. It’s to be a fully staged and costumed performance with reduced sets, meaning not all of Mount Olympus, I guess, at the All Saints Catholic School in Norwalk, CT, on Saturday, November 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, the 6th at 2:30 p.m.
The happy and loyal fan family of Gilbert and Sullivan may have heard tell of ‘the lost opera,’ a mystery piece lurking back before G and S were an item, before, that is, Richard D’Oyly Carte got a hold of ‘em. After all, most couples have a past not so well known to their beloved others. Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, billed as “an entirely Original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts,” premiered as a holiday extravaganza on Boxing Day, December 26, 1871, at the Gaiety Theatre, London, four years before the pair collaborated again with Trial by Jury. It had an overture, 15 or so numbers, and a ballet.
Thespis tells the tale of a group of actors, who happen to be picnicking on the flanks of Mount Olympus. They’re asked by the tired, grumpy old gods to take over for them, give ‘em a break, an idea which, from the get-go, is very silly.
Why did Thespis disappear? It didn’t really flop, as the myth tells it. Rather it ran until February. In fact, at 64 performances, Thespis outlasted a number of other successful shows at the time. But the premiere got off to a rough start due to insufficient rehearsal time/space to give serious notes, and so, untrimmed and inefficient, it ran too long, past the time of the carriages gathering outside the Gaiety to take folks home in the December cold. It probably didn’t help matters that Thespis was actually the second main feature of the evening, the first being a play at 7:00 p.m.
It wasn’t a fault of inexperience on the part of its creators, nor first date jitters: though not as well seasoned as they would soon become, neither Gilbert nor Sullivan were new to this sort of thing. Gilbert had written already Ages Ago with composer Frederick Clay, a friend of Sullivan, the one who first introduced him to Gilbert. Gilbert the grandiose then wrote large scale mockery of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, entitled Robert the Devil, or The Nun, the Dun and the Son of a Gun; Sullivan, in addition to his serious music, composed the little farce Cox and Box, or The Long Lost Brothers (1867) and a more substantial, but less successful The Contrabandista, or The Law of the Ladrones (also 1867).
Thespis has been buried for one very important reason: Sullivan’s score is lost! He apparently shipped it off to someone, probably a friend and it was never returned…still (potentially) out there under someone’s bed or in the basement, in other words. D’Oyly Carte thought about reviving it in 1875 after the success of Trial by Jury, but Gilbert was less than pleased with the financial backing and subsequently laid the matter to rest. Though intending to clean it for posterity, he had not addressed the libretto again by the time of his death in 1911. Turns out even the text needed work for any revival.
But then too the style of humor in Thespis is at odds with the signature characteristics of Gilbert’s later efforts. At 70, Gilbert, looking back at their spectacular run with the Savoy operas, recalled that “Sullivan and I…resolved that our plots, however ridiculous, should be coherent, that our dialogue should be void of offence; that, on artistic principles, no man should play a woman’s part and no woman a man’s. Finally, we agreed that no lady of the company should be required to wear a dress that she could not wear with absolute propriety at a private fancy-dress ball.”
Ah, the tricks one’s memory can play! Thespis is loosely structured burlesque, loaded with shapely females in tights playing young men, a sketchy plot, bad jokes and puns, why, even many of the names are silly: Sillimon, see? Timidon, Preposteros, Stupidas, Sparkeion, Nicemis, and Pretteia, for a few. Tipscion (Tipsy One), of course, is the actor who substitutes for Bacchus. In fact, a few of these are they what sing the chorus “Climbing over rocky mountain,” familiar to G & S fans as the happy entrance of Major General Stanley’s bouncing bevy of beautiful daughters in Act I of The Pirates of Penzance. Though Sullivan’s score for Thespis was lost, his memory for it worked well, and, if you remember the story, Gilbert and he came to New York with full intention to complete Pirates for the US premiere, for copyright protection, but Sullivan forgot to bring his drafts of the score. In a pinch, he had to reconstruct everything. Not surprising Thespis came to mind at times. Another ballad from Thespis, Sparkeion’s Little Maid from Arcadee from Act II, was published separately.
Troupers’ Jim Cooper and Marian Shulman are musical and stage directors; the accomplished Dorothy Kolinsky is the accompanist. Time for a chat.
OperaMetro (OM) asked Jim Cooper (JC) about the revival of Thespis.
OM: Your turn, Jim
JC: While current writings suggest 20, maybe more versions of Thespis in existence, we looked only at the four of these we could obtain in hard copy form. And of these, only the Arthur Baker and Timothy Henty version used mostly Sullivan's music: the scholarship of Tillett and Spencer seem to indicate that a large amount of Thespis can be found in The Pirates of Penzance. The Baker/Henty version also taps Offenbach: We know that the Gaiety Theater had recently done Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, and given that Gilbert and Sullivan had but a few weeks to fulfill their commission, they adopted some Offenbach to their needs. Baker and Henty did too, to very felicitous effect.
OM: Thespis is even more ridiculous than Gilbert’s later Savoy efforts, yes?
JC: There are a huge number of characters in Thespis because Gilbert was obliged to include all of the members of the Gaiety Theater comedy troupe, some of whom were flat out comedians, not singers. So we, of course, do not know exactly what was actually performed, as this company did a lot of ad-libbing, which Gilbert would later forbid, and while you can see the genesis of several G&S shows in the libretto of Thespis, it was written hastily for a company with quite limited singing talent. So yes, it is broader, looser, and much sillier than Gilbert's later works. Just check the cast list!
As to the singing, OperaMetro chatted with soprano Brett Kroeger (BK), who takes on the trouser part of Mercury.
OM: In the original, Mercury, as in Offenbach’s Mercure in Orphée aux Enfers, was played by a young woman, specifically, for Thespis, by a Miss Nelly Farren, cute, ‘cheeky,’ extraverted, a comedienne who had pretty legs and who sang (quoted from a contemporary review of her performances) “with no more voice than a cat when you squeeze her tail” but who contrived “by artful singing to put more expression into the music than could be imagined by less clever persons,” the reviewer concluding “All who would know how to sing without a voice should give heed…” So far, how are you finding the vocal writing? Does it give you a chance to have a lot of fun, in addition to sing?
BK: Mercury is a patter-song role which is obviously very different from my usual full lyric singing. I am still working on making sure the diction is intelligible as the words really are very funny. In fact, all the Mercury songs are taken from men’s roles in other operettas, so none of them is really written for a woman’s range except, of course, Mercury's third song, which is the duet with Buttercup. So yes, this has been a good challenge for me as I have to focus on character and diction over emphasizing a beautiful vocal line.
OM: Mercury is characterized by a lot of energy and wit in Thespis.
BK: True, Mercury is not a grown old god! Perhaps it is because he is the god of speed and speed connotes youth and action, compared to his counterparts who have grown lazy.
OM: In your study of the lines so far, in context of the other gods, do you find the part witty?
BK: Witty? Well, he is definitely sarcastic! I’ve been directed to play him like a disgruntled teenager, which has been fun.
OM: Troupers, all of you, are making company history with this Thespis. Congratulations!
BK: It’s exciting to be putting on a Northeastern premiere of this version, especially with this wonderful group, newcomers, seasoned vets! Hopefully it will bring a good audience! This is going to be a fun show.
Troupers Light Opera will present the Northeastern premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis on Saturday, November 5th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, the 6th at 2:30 p.m. in Norwalk, CT at All Saints Catholic School at 139 West Rocks Road.
The cast includes Brett Kroeger as Mercury, Greg Suss as Thespis, Anne Collin as Nicemis, David Richy as Sparkeion, Bob Scrofani as Jupiter, Wendy Falconer as Diana, John Matilaine as Apollo and Rob Strom plays Mars.
Among the mortals, Deborah Connelly plays the flirt Daphne, Jennifer Wallace plays Pretteia, Ty Goff is a Sillimon, John Hoover is Timidon, Guy Stretton is Tipseion, Tammy Strom is Cymon, with a chorus of men and women.
Tickets are available on Troupers’ website, www.trouperslightopera.org.
Gilbert’s quote from Arthur Sullivan by Arthur Jacobs, p. 69, Oxford University Press, paper edition, 1986.
Contemporary review quote about the clever and cat-like Ms. Farren from Thespis, A Gilbert & Sullivan Enigma, by Terence Rees, p. 13, Dillon’s University Bookshop, 1964. In this, Terence Rees published his reconstruction the libretto to Thespis, which was subsequently used in performances to a reconstructed score by conductor/composer Eugene Minor, who recommended that I consult the Rees book. Thank you Gene! I also enjoyed the video of your Thespis!
You never know when Thespis will be done again locally. Seize the day! JRS