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Danielle and Grant Knox (Photo: Matt Dilyard)
16 Aug 2007

Ohio Light Opera Festival

For twenty-eight years now the Ohio Light Opera Festival (OLO) has held forth in Wooster in the summertime, presenting no less than 99 different works (their big 100th comes next year), familiar and forgotten, by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Offenbach, Sigmund Romberg, Carl Zeller and Emmerich Kálmán — to refer only to the authors of the seven undertaken this year.

Ohio Light Opera Festival, Wooster, Ohio

Carl Zeller, Der Vogelhändler, August 3
Emmerich Kálmán, Die Herzogin von Chicago, August 4

Above: Danielle and Grant Knox (Photo: Matt Dilyard)


The audience is almost as ancient as the repertory, and as faithful as fairy tale royalty. (Matinees sell out; license plates document the region, from Georgia to Wisconsin.) The performers, however, are young and enthusiastic, and production values (aside from some desperate excuses for baroque court wigs) impressive. The old scores brim with melody and sentiment, are played by a full orchestra, and are all sung in English by a chorus that refuses to stand and deliver — they can all dance up a storm, and they do. Delectable waltzes, polkas, and czardas flood sultry Midwest evenings. It’s a wonderful cause and a wonderful occasion, and I wish I’d enjoyed the performances more than I did.

Operetta in its heyday was the less serious, more popular, highly localized form of musical play — and to this day translation is a problem. Offenbach has always had difficulties coming off outside France, Gilbert and Sullivan never appealed in France, and zarzuela is confined to Spanish-speaking lands. But when the United States was full of immigrants, there was a large audience for foreign product, which inspired local product. Broadway operetta came of age with the runaway success of Lehar’s Merry Widow in 1905; then an Irishman, Victor Herbert, and two transplanted Austrians, Romberg and Friml, covered the twenties, but local boys like Kern and Rodgers soon proved they could handle it.

Zeller’s biggest hit, Der Vogelhändler, opened in Vienna in 1891 and was playing New York — in English — before the year was out. Kálmán reigned with Lehar — and was every bit as good — in Vienna and Budapest from before World War I till World War II, but his shows were as likely to premiere in New York, London, or Zurich. (He died in 1953 in Paris, at work on his last, Arizona Lady — yes, they’ve staged it in Wooster.)

The reason pre-war operettas, with rare exceptions like Show Boat and G&S, no longer hold the stage here, aside from the unfashionable style of the music and the idiocy of most of the plots, is that singers no longer know how to sing them. Voices that should fill a room with an achingly romantic waltz sound shrill or shaky or simply unsensuous with microphones, while the voice with a mic sounds ridiculous singing over a full orchestra without one. Broadway singers depend on mics today to a disgraceful extent, even in the tiniest theaters — they are no longer trained to project, and they no longer try to. A recent evening of grand old American operetta standards performed by young Broadway performers at New York’s Town Hall (which the unamplified voice can easily fill) proved a disaster: squealing sopranos, dull baritones, lyrics inaudible or else blasting our ears when they did use mics. OLO performs in a 394-seat house, and a singer who can’t fill that size room should probably not be singing outside the shower. And yet, over and over again, the lyrics of the soloists could scarcely be heard — even in Row H center — and the big sensual voices for which this repertory was created were not on hand. Part of the problem may lie with an overly loud orchestra, but surely someone in the company can point this out to the conductors and take it down a few notches. Or was it that, like Broadway performers today, the singers were concentrating too hard on their dancing to bother putting a lyric across? Were they that embarrassed by the translations? Operetta translations are often grotesque … but I couldn’t hear enough to determine if that was true at either of the performances I attended.

Der Vogelhändler and Die Herzogin von Chicago appealed to me precisely because I’d never heard them before, and both scores had been warmly recommended over the years. Each boasts a wealth of melody that puts anything now on Broadway to shame, but that’s almost a given. Both have cardboard characters and ridiculous plots in which true love, frustrated, conquers in the end. In Der Vogeländler (The Bird-Seller, sometimes Englished as The Tyrolean), Suzanne Woods as the Princess-in-disguise got her voice and her points across, notably in the show’s hit tune, “If You Give Roses in Tyrol,” but winsome Karla Hughes and comic Sandra Ross vanished into the woodwork as soon as the band struck up. The sprightly duet of two corrupt professors was probably comic, but not a word reached the ears. Paul Hindemith (no, really, that’s his name) and Todd Strange made likeable comic villains, and the latter was occasionally loud enough — because he screamed. Peter Foltz made a capable title character, Zeller’s attempt to give Papageno more sentiment and some spine.

Emmerich Kálmán’s Die Herzogin von Chicago (The Duchess of Chicago) dates from 1928, when the youth of Budapest and Vienna were gaga for jazz — had any American shows reached Central Europe yet? The dance tunes certainly had. Nothing daunted, Kálmán cannily wrote a jazz operetta, inserting fox trots, Charlestons, saxophones and snippets of Rhapsody in Blue among the waltzes and sentimental serenades. The wisp of a plot concerns a bankrupt Balkan prince who falls for the spoiled daughter of an American millionaire. She won’t marry a man who won’t do the Charleston and he won’t marry a girl who won’t waltz — even if she has just purchased his decrepit family castle for six million smackers. True love naturally conquers, in a spirit of musical compromise.

The staging was, once again, enthusiastic to a degree, with full marks for dancing choristers and the orchestra pouring forth delicious tune upon tune. The Duchess, “Mary Lloyd,” was played by Danielle Knox, who looks like the millions she spends, acts and dances with flare, and has terrific legs, of which we saw a great deal — all requirements for a 1928 operetta diva. But when she sang, alas, not a word reached the ear. Her prince (and real-life husband — scuttlebutt has it they met while performing at the festival) was Grant Knox, whose voice is not beautiful but whose diction was the clearest all weekend. The rival princess was neither singer nor actress nor beauty, and smirking Jacob Allen, a tap dancing American entrusted with the comic duties, lacked the energy to carry the evening. The most expert and stylish performances — but alas no singing — came from Gary Moss, playing the caddish fathers of both lovers.

There’s such a treasure of music at OLO, and such a blessed enthusiasm for it, that one would like to have the company at one’s mercy, to test whether the orchestra really does need a more controlling hand than it gets from its conductors, or if the theater acoustics are defective, or if it’s the fault of the singers — many of whom have studied in opera programs and surely could project if they wanted to — that the experience was so unsuccessful. Regulars around me (though, when asked, they admitted they couldn’t get the words either) seemed very happy with what they were getting, but I doubt a theatrical experience of this order will appeal to youngsters introduced to the operetta repertory by such presentations. This is as sad a conclusion as one of Lehar’s pessimistic endings.

John Yohalem

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