Light Opera of Ohio, 2018 Season - New York City Article
Light Opera of Ohio, 2018 Season
The College of Wooster
329 East University Street
Through August 11
Operetta is generally thought of as a European art form, but by far the most ambitious festival of operetta occurs every summer in Wooster, Ohio, which is a long way from Old Vienna, 19th Century Paris - or even Penzance. For forty years now, the Ohio Light Opera has mounted an ambitious annual festival that includes roughly seven full-scale, fully-realized professional productions (of works that fall roughly under the umbrella of “operetta”), along with many operetta-related events. This isn’t just a season of shows and concerts, it’s a true festival in every sense.
We also tend to characterize operetta as a halfway step (a chromatic step, if you will) between European Grand Opera and American Musical Theater. Yet the overall purpose of the Ohio Light Opera is to show how contemporary and essential an art form operetta actually is - that it’s more than just the lightweight cousin of Opera or the prissy, overly-formal older sibling of Broadway. Operetta is not only the primary source for modern musical theater, but the great works of the form, such as Gilbert & Sullivan, Victor Herber, Sigmund Romberg, and Franz Lehar, are timeless, classic combinations of theater and music that can be enjoyed as much today as 100-150 years ago when they were new.
Originally founded by actor-singer-impresario James Stuart, the Company’s original mission statement was to perform Gilbert & Sullivan, from there they branched out to other operettas, both European and American, and more recently their purview has expanded to the point where it includes exceptional works of the American Musical Theater as well. All shows have professional casts, fully staged productions with profesional-level casts, sets, costumes, and choreography, and, most importantly, full-sized orchestral accompaniment.
For their fortieth season, their centerpiece Gilbert & Sullivan production is Iolanthe, an 1882 bauble about fairies and politicians that’s possibly even funnier and more whimsical than even most other G&S classics. There are two other works of European operetta: La Périchole (Jacques Offenbach, 1868) and Cloclo (Franz Lehar, 1924).
Next there are three musical comedies, from three different decades and Broadway giants: Fifty Million Frenchmen (Cole Porter, 1929), Babes In Arms ( Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, 1937), and The Pajama Game (Adler & Ross, 1954); the Porter show is a particular rarity: a hit from early in his storied career (which introduced, “You’ve Got That Thing,” “You Do Something to Me,” and “Find Me a Primitive Man”), this is the first time I’ve heard of it being presented with full orchestrations in 90 years.
Then there’s also Candide (1956), presented in time for the Leonard Bernstein centennial: this Broadway show draws on every available tradition, and parodies many of them along the way, from Grand opera to opera buffa to operetta to musical comedy.
The productions are only the beginning: for one week, the festival also presents an ambitious program of symposia, panel discussions, and other scholarly presentations (by such storied historians as the highly-accomplished Richard Norton), as many as four-day during the morning and afternoon (before the evening performances) - and there are also special concert presentations of even-rarer and more specialized vintage operetta material.
It’s hard to mistake that many of the most successful shows, even of the last 30 years, like Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Jekyll & Hyde, probably owe more to Victor Herbert than to Rodgers & Hammerstein. What the Ohio players show us, however, is how central the ideal of operetta is to the whole of Broadway; chances are you never noticed before that, for instance, Cole Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen includes certain choral comedy numbers (“Do You Want to See Paris?”) that come straight out of Gilbert & Sullivan. It’s worth the airfare to find out why so many theater lovers make an annual pilgrimage to experience the underappreciated genre that one would probably least expect to find in Central Ohio.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)