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The Prince of Alice Tully Hall

Either you adore “The World Is but a Broken Toy” from Act II of Princess Ida and have always wanted to hear it sung by voices of operatic quality… or you don’t… and you haven’t. You are immune, as so many are, to operetta, once serene occupant of the theatric perch latterly usurped by the likes of Les Miserables and Evita. Long ago—but operetta seems always to have evoked “long ago,” to have been an art of nostalgia. Long ago, in operetta’s heyday, singers didn’t use microphones and the tunes that showed their voices off were a whole lot better than the current Broadway crop.  

Style is key. High style. You can sing grand opera in a generic, international grand opera manner, and fudge the specifics with an endearingly foreign-sounding trill … or, at least, you could. Operetta is lighter than opera, without those great gooey passions; instead, there are skin-deep flirtations and lots more dance steps. The craze lingered, from waltz-time to the foxtrot to the tango to jazz.

Why is operetta’s sophisticated spirit now so elusive, so difficult to resuscitate? Is it merely the extinction of chic, of elegant euphemism in an age of single-entendres? Why is the good stuff no longer commercial? Lehar and Kalman made regular leaps to Broadway, joining Friml, Romberg, Victor Herbert, Noel Coward, Fritz Loewe, Bernstein, Sondheim—what are Kismet, Camelot, Candide, Little Night Music if not operettas? Oh, they send up operetta, but—who didn’t?

More to the point: Hardly anyone with commercial clout studies singing any more. They depend upon microphones and they ornament emotion by hacking and choking—just as artificial but far less pretty. You have to have operatic training (which all Broadway and Hollywood singers used to acquire) for the melodies of operetta to bloom. Sing it with half a voice and a mic, and the blooms droop and rot on the vine.

Students of operatic technique, whose voices may not be mature enough for full-scale operatic shout, may do justice to operetta. They will learn how to express character in a wink and a pout and a pointed syllable. They will practice their languages. They will not damage youthful vocal equipment. The ladies may have ankles worth noticing. The men may actually reach the high notes, as operetta tenors in Vienna and Budapest never do nowadays.

This (I’m guessing) was the thought Steven Blier, Kapellmeister of the New York Festival of Song, who teaches at the Juilliard School’s Marcus Institute for the Vocal Arts. On Wednesday at Tully Hall, he and co-pianist Michael Barrett played bits of nineteen shows, both well known and undeservedly obscure, for nine singers in the program. Jean Slater choreographed in jazzy fashion and Mary Birnbaum staged the soignée interactions.

They were all game, they could all sing, and in four languages. Traditions were upheld: Boys sang to (or about) girls, girls to (or about) boys. (This suggests one way the form could update itself.) One rather edgy number from Kalman’s Zigeunerprimas concerned a baritone (Davone Tines, a fine, dark sound) torn between yearning for a woman and the love of his violin, which he played between couplets.

Only one of the mezzos had to play a boy, Virginie Verrez, who possessed the most obviously operatic instrument but didn’t allow vocal glamour to obstruct her French accent in full-throated bits from Chabrier’s L’Etoile—or her sophisticated shrug in Moises Simons’ “C’est ça l’amour”). Three of the boys appeared in drag, sort of, in scenes from Gilbert & Sullivan’s lovely, neglected Princess Ida—Kyle Bielfield, Miles Mykkanen and Philip Stoddard, teasing the Ida of Raquel Gonzalez. Nathan Haller and Rachael Wilson made, for my money, the most romantic couple of the night in “April Snow” from Romberg’s Up In Central Park.

Simone Easthope not merely sang “The Amorous Goldfish” from Sidney Jones’s The Geisha, she credibly impersonated one—a goldfish, that is—a goldfish with a sizable operatic soprano. Ms. Easthope, a natural comedienne, has the dramatic range for operetta, becoming serious and intent for the passion of Caballero’s “Yo Quiero a un Hombre.” Mr. Bielfield sang Paris’s yodeling song from Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène with the proper sexy insouciance.

Mr. Mykkanen sang Kern’s “There Isn’t One Girl in the World” with a sigh in his liquid tenor. Ms. Wilson and Mr. Stoddard sang of Old Broadway auf Deutsch in a duet from Kalman’s Die Herzogin von Chicago. For those bored with love (at an operetta?), Mr. Bielfield and Mr. Tines came melodiously to threats if not blows in a macho duet from a Sorozabal zarzuela, and Mr. Tines led (or fled—both at once, evidently) a band of Peruvian guerillas in Sousa’s El Capitan. Mr. Stoddard played a rajah from Messager’s L’Amour masqué, but what rajah wears a mask in Paris unless love is on his mind? Ms. Wilson sounded far more passionate than dovelike in the “Cancion de Paloma” from El barberillo de Lavapies.

Everyone played “chorus” or amorous object or rejected suitor to everybody else’s turns in the sun. Everyone could twitch a rear end with panache. Warm feelings swept the house.

The diction from all hands was excellent except in the finale, Sondheim’s nearly inevitable “Weekend in the Country.” You had to know the words to understand them. True, we all do know them by now, but operatic voices have a real problem projecting Sondheim’s corkscrew rhymes.

Now let me tell you about my operetta, Die Markgräfin von Milvaukee (The Marquisa from Milwaukee). It’s terribly relevant, really. Mercedes, Princess of Lamsy-Divey, a tropical paradise somewhere in East Central Europe, is terribly depressed (financially) by the failure of the oat harvest and the euro crisis. Her tiny nation’s only hope is a local boy who has become a timber millionaire in Wisconsin…

28 comments

  • Buster says:

    The amorous goldfish sung by Sonja Schöner:

    Great review -- thanks! More operetta tonight, at the Dank Haus, by the way. After warming up with a little Mozart and Schubert, Wilma Lipp student Eva Lind will sing the following:

    F.Lehàr: Viljalied (from “The Merry Widow”)

    J.Strauß: Mein Herr Marquis (from “Die Fledermaus”)

    J.Strauß: Grüß dich Gott, du liebes Nesterl (from “Wiener Blut”)

    C.Zeller: Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol (from “Der Vogelhändler”)

    R.Stolz: Du sollst der Kaiser meiner Seele sein (from “Der Favorit”)

    R.Stolz: Im Prater blüh’n wieder die Bäume

    J.Strauß: Draußen in Sievering

    J.Strauß: Voices of Spring (Waltz)

    http://www.wellesparkbulldog.com/event/eva-lind

  • grimoaldo says:

    “Either you adore “The World Is but a Broken Toy” from Act II of Princess Ida and have always wanted to hear it sung by voices of operatic quality… or you don’t.”

    Oooh, what a great start to a delightful review!

    Adore!

    There was a production of Princess Ida at ENO with operatic voices in 1992 but unfortunately this was one of the historic operatic turkeys of all time with an atrocious production by Ken Russell, which set back the chances of the work receiving other major productions:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/why-bold-eno-caught-a-cold-as-once-highflying-english-national-opera-faces-a-financial-and-artistic-crisis-david-lister-examines-its-record-and-interviews-one-of-its-leading-sopranos-1456081.html

    “Ken Russell’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida was cheap and nasty. It was done as a satire on the problems of the Royal family (with the Japanese taking over Buckingham Palace and turning it into a theme park) but it was an idea that was already passe.”

    “Drag” trio from Ida- includes the words “timid am I as a startled hind”, anybody remember that quote from a thread here some while back?

    • perfidia says:

      Had the people who hired Russell never seen one of his movies? I adore him even at his worst (he always gives you something to look at), but I would never expect him to have the light touch operetta needs.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      God! I’d put that terrible show out of my mind. Peter Jones trying to push the G & S boundaries further towards extremes after the huge success of Miller’s Palm Court Mikado, but it turned out to be vulgar, laboured and hideously unfunny. The Martin Duncan Gondoliers wasn’t terrible, but ENO hasn’t had much luck in its attempt to produce another “banker” like the Miller Mikado. I know the “Good Doctor” isn’t much admired on this site, but his very revivable shows have kept ENO from going the way of NYCO -- so far anyway. News of their deficit is not v encouraging and it would be a real loss to London if they went under, because their repertoire and production styles offer a real alternative to Covent Garden.

  • MontyNostry says:

    It’s weird that (outside Austria and am-dram, at least), operetta seems to be a dying form, yet the (European, at least) crossover public devours Andre Rieu playing J Strauss, Calleja singing Mario Lanza and looks forward to Piotr Beczala singing Tauber hits. I would love to see more operetta -- at the very least it would be nice to see the works considered the cream of the genre, and staged in a way that suggests they are not preserved in sugar-frosted aspic. For instance, Fledermaus is a wholly cynical piece while Die lustige Witwe has a strong streak of cynicism running through it, even if there is some delicious schmaltz too.

    • oedipe says:

      Monty,

      Operetta is BIG in much of Eastern Europe (the former Austro-Hungarian Empire countries and beyond). And yes, it does fill a popular yearning for “crossover”. But in the English speaking countries this yearning has generally (with the exception of G&S) been satiated by Broadway-style musical theater, which is perceived as less “foreign”. Whereas opera audiences are relatively open to things perceived as “pas de chez nous”, the crossover audiences tend to be very parochial; so operetta doesn’t travel well.

      • m. croche says:

        Operetta is BIG in much of Eastern Europe (the former Austro-Hungarian Empire countries and beyond).

        Indeed.

        Dunayevsky:

        Shostakovich:

        Baku’s own Uzeir Hadjibeyov:

        And, I would argue, operetta has had an important and lasting influence on those forms of Chinese opera which tried to “modernize” themselves in the mid-20th century and beyond. As an example of this: a number from the Shaoxing/Yueju opera “The Desert Prince” (sung here, unusually, by an actual man -- Yueju heartthrob Zhao Zhigang)

      • Hans Lick says:

        Oedipe:

        Except that Broadway musical theater included LOTS of operetta throughout the twentieth century: Strauss, Straus, Lehar, Kalman, Friml, Romberg, Herbert were the biggest hits before the WW2 era, so in fact operetta traveled very well. And there have been plenty since then, all beloved in operetta theaters in other lands — I’m including L&L and R&H in the operetta group, along with Show Boat, Of Thee I Sing, Song of Norway, Most Happy Fella, Kismet, Candide and Little Night Music. So in fact, operetta was very big here until microphones and electric guitars drove it out (as they have in Europe, even Eastern Europe, as well). Various Fledermice and Widows and Gypsy Barons played Broadway into the 1950s as well. Someone was making money.

  • Hans Lick says:

    MontyNostry:

    There is in fact an operetta festival in the Midwest somewhere (yes, I remember the state; I am being discreet as a valet who has boffed the prince’s lover). They give seven or eight productions of timeless — okay, anything but timeless — classics, from Strauss and G&S to R&H. I attended it once to catch Die Vögelhändler and — wait for it! — Die Herzogin von Chicago. Awful.

    Everything is given in English, or anyway translators are credited, but not one of the cast was able to get the music or a word of it to my ears (I was in Row H, center), so I can’t swear to what or if they were singing. I can swear AT things. The performers were young and, evidently, had none of them ever sung in a space larger than a lunch bag. Some were pretty; some weren’t even that. They could all dance okay or, anyway, charleston. The orchestra played in tune, and wasn’t very large. A wasted weekend. The audience were so ancient and nostalgic and genial that, clearly, they assumed their inability to hear the singers was the fault of their declining ability to hear anything.

    But it was not. I can hear singers at the Met quite clearly in every seating area of the house. Maestro Blier’s singers at Tully the other night weren’t even working hard, yet they produced attractive sounds clear throughout the house. The Festival? No.

    But I disagree with you about Fledermaus and Witwe — I would pay top ticket prices to escape any re-encounter with either of them, at least Stateside where they are never done with style, high or perceptible. There’s a whole range of good operetta; why is it always the same two? C’est a barfir. Philadelphia staged Offenbach’s Grande Duchesse in a charming translation for a hilarious Stephanie Blythe. That would make a perfect Met New Year’s Eve treat. But we didn’t get it. They’re talking about a new Witwe. Why? I will join my regiment in Bukovina (or the Foreign Legion in Mali) sooner than attend.

    • oedipe says:

      In Bukovina you are likely to see very good operetta.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      Isn’t Santa Fe doing La Grande Duchesse for La Grande Graham this summer?

      • Donna Anna says:

        If Hans doesn’t want to reveal it, I will. Ohio Light Opera Company in scenic Wooster has a summer festival featuring operetta and musicals. This summer, they’re offering Gondoliers, Pinafore, King and I, Silk Stockings, Gypsy Baron, Lady, Be Good, and Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. Quite the year for the la duchesse.

        • DonCarloFanatic says:

          I went last summer. Saw Miss Springtime, The Chocolate Soldier, and A Connecticut Yankee. Some okay singing, some not very good, but all energetic and rather charming. Some of the casting was questionable, but they’re using whoever lives nearby and is willing to come to rehearsals. Remember when they used to this kind of theater summer stock?

          I’m not going this year because of schedule conflicts, but considering how few other opportunities there are to see these shows live, I would go again. Think of them as high school performances of Broadway shows, big on energy and low on talent, but still fun.

          I am taking in Santa Fe’s Grand Duchess, which I expect will have a much better level of singing.

      • louannd says:

        Yes. Villaume conducting with also the cherub of the year, Paul Appleby.

  • Clita del Toro says:

    OT: HELP I want to buy a ticket for the Rheingold at the Bastille on the 29th, but their seating chart does not indicate seat numbers. They had tickets in the 5th row, orchestra (a bit close) but the seat numbers were 6 and 8. I wonder if those are all the way on the side, in which case I wouldn’t want them. Close and on the side is not good. Anyone???

    • manou says:

      OK Clita -- these seem to be the only two tickets left in that category (hurry hurry…). If you put them in your shopping cart, you will see a thumbnail on the left that you can click on and it will show you what the view is from there. Yes, they are on the side (but not all the way to the side).

      Otherwise, have a look at the other categories left, but the Bastille is a barn of a place, and anything else might be even worse.

      • Baltsamic Vinaigrette says:

        Actually, the sight lines at the Bastille are one of its best features. Order with confidence, Clita.

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          The sight lines are pretty much the only good feature, as far as I could tell. Great opera company, but a pretty awful theatre.

      • Clita del Toro says:

        Thanks, Manou and BV.I bought the tickets for 29 Jan. I told them I’d pick them up at the guichet. I wonder if I can pick them up ahead of time. it should be fun even if they are not the greatest seats. Merci

    • kashania says:

      From my one experience at the Bastille, I was amazed at how removed the audience is from the stage. It’s the opposite of intimate. So, perhaps, the fifth row won’t feel as close as it would elsewhere.

    • oedipe says:

      Clita,

      I just saw your post. You did well, seats 6 and 8 are smack in the middle (the higher numbers are on the sides). Besides, row 5 is not very close to the stage. The Bastille pit and proscenium are huge, even the first row is pretty far from the stage. As for the sight lines, you can see well from everywhere, it’s the acoustics that are a problem. But the acoustics are much better in the 5th row than at the back of the orchestra.