Two more different musical shows can hardly be imagined than Offenbach’s frothy “theater of the absurd” La Vie Parisienne, which was Thursday’s matinee at the Ohio Light Opera, before the evening disclosed a very rare production of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years, a grand old-fashioned show of the kind you hardly see now, with a bittersweet love story between a Viennese operetta composer and the love of his life, who through a misunderstanding marries someone else. The plot runs between 1911 and 1938 (the final scene takes place after the Nazi Anschluss of Austria). The shows are at opposite ends of the spectrum in the world of musical theater.
It is quite amazing to experience a single company of actor-singers (38, selected out of some 500 auditions), a single orchestra, and a single production company putting together a day of such variety—and even more so to realize that two other productions, of varying periods and styles, had been performed on the day before and two more would be performed on the day after. This fact certainly astonished all of the visitors from England, Germany, and Hungary who had taken part in the symposium but had never visited Wooster, Ohio, or perhaps even heard of it before this summer.
The morning sessions of the symposium were more specifically a kind of entertainment than on the other days. First Marjan Kiepura showed a number of extended clips from musical films featuring his parents—tenor Jan Kiepura and soprano Marta Eggert—with commentary by Marjan and his wife Jane Knox. There were examples of distinguished operatic singing in contexts designed to reach the general audience that could not be expected to afford visits to the Vienna State Opera (where a bust of Jan Kiepura commemorates his popularity and artistry). Some of these offered plots of offstage romance that also intertwined with opportunities for extended musical numbers. The singing was glorious—there is no question why they were so popular—and some of the comic acting in these German-language films was charming enough to make me want to see them complete.
The symposium portion of the day also included a popular favorite lecture by Michael Miller, who has assembled a collection of familiar operetta melodies (or in some cases, operatic tunes and themes from films), which he presents in comparison with older musical examples of noted similarity, and raising the question of whether it is plagiarism, coincidence, or something else. Though some of the examples are very surprising (a passage of Richard Rodgers’ “Do-Re-Mi” can be found, almost identically, in the overture to Tannhäuser), the spirit of the inquiry is light and amusing.
Before the afternoon show, Daniel Hirschel anticipated the Offenbach performance with a lecture about the cafés-concerts of Paris and their role in creating the style and approach that Offenbach developed, both in those one-act miniatures with a very small cast and his later full-length shows. After dinner, before the evening performance of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years, Rexton Bunnett, co-author of London Musical Shows on Record and chairman of the Bunnett-Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust, spoke about Ivor Novello and his most important musical show, which we were about to see.
Offenbach composed his most popular full-length operettas in the 1860s. La Vie Parisienne, produced in 1866, was his first operetta with a modern setting rather than parodying French culture through an overlay of classical legend. The libretto, by Henry Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, is all but plotless, though filled with crazy behavior on the part of almost everyone in the cast. It suggests that Paris is a city to which people throng from faraway places (in this case, Sweden and Brazil) to experience in full the pleasures of food and drink and, especially, amour. (The librettists who came up with this innocent jape were also responsible for Carmen , though they also happily wrote regularly for Offenbach.)
Offenbach originally wrote it in five acts, later shortening it to four, the version presented here in the translation of Richard Traubner. The designs (by Daniel Hobbs, sets, Stefanie Genda, costumes, and Daniel Huston, lighting) lent a luscious pastel feeling to the entire city, especially in distance views of the first and last acts. The costumes were appropriately of the 19th century, but often deliciously overwrought for comic effect.
Julie Wright Costa’s direction did not worry about the lack of much plot; she simply encouraged the cast to be madcap and inventive in rehearsal and took some of the best ideas to make the story—such as there is—lively and amusing. The mashup of so many different people in Act I sets the tone. Two Parisian men—Bobinet (baritone Kyle Yampiro) and Gardefeu (tenor Benjamin Krumreig) are waiting for the arrival on a train for Metélla, the most sought-after demi-mondaine in Paris (Gretchen Windt), whom both men have been pursuing. The other passengers include a Swedish baron (Ted Christopher), who is especially eager to investigate the fleshpots of Paris, and his wife (Meagan Sill), who seems open to a romantic adventure herself. A rich Brazilian (Clark Sturdevant) sings a lickety-split patter song that has always in my experience proved incomprehensible in either French or English, but it establishes him as an extremely rich playboy eager to spend all his money in Paris (and it is one of Offenbach’s best-known tunes).
Gardefeu offers his services as guide to the Swedish couple, even taking them to his home, which he declares is the Grand Hotel and installing them in separate bedrooms, in service of his hoped-for assignation with the Baroness. The Baron expects a table d’hote in this strange hotel, but more than that, he too is seeking an assignation with Metélla, who gives the Baron an ambiguous reply. Gardefeu persuades his servants and the shoemaker Frick (Spencer Reese) and the glovemaker with whom he is in love, Gabrielle (Tanya Roberts) to pretend to be hotel guests. Frick comes as an absurd major-domo in military uniform (his comic song of self-introduction allows him to strut grandly), while Gabrielle shows up in black as the widow of a general, whose demise she laments extravagantly.