Oak Park troupe updates operettas
Gerald Frantzen performs in "The Circus Princess" presented by Chicago Folks Operetta. | Michael Jarecki ~ for Sun-Times Media
Chicago Folks Operetta
‘The Circus Princess’ through July 1
‘The Cousin from Nowhere,’ June 15 to June 30
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago
For schedule and tickets, visit www.chicagofolksoperetta.org
Updated: June 12, 2012 5:40PM
Operetta or light opera is not exactly a lost art form, but it is not performed very often either. Forerunner of American musical theater, it is about 70 percent song and 30 percent spoken dialogue, according to Alison Kelly, who with her husband Gerald Frantzen, is founder of the Chicago Folks Operetta.
The Oak Park-based organization is presenting two operettas in repertory this month in the 130-seat Chopin Theatre in Chicago and Kelly believes audiences will be enthralled by what they see and hear.
“The Circus Princess” by Hungarian composer Emmerick Kalman, is already running, and features four clowns, six dancers, an aerialist, a 20-piece orchestra, and 21 singers. “It was first presented in 1926 in Vienna,” Kelly said, “and the last time it was performed in the United States was 80 years ago in New York. The composer’s daughter Yvonne is planning to come in for the opening.”
The circus-style spectacle is fun, but Kalman’s music is the real treasure. “It is lush, gorgeous,” she declared. “The audience will love it.”
The production takes place on the Chopin Theatre stage, which is about 20 feet wide and 16 feet deep. “There are only a few times when all the performers will be on stage at the same time,” said director Bill Walters, a trifle warily. He works with Lyric Opera of Chicago during the season and was stage manager for the Ravinia Festival’s production of “Gypsy” with Patti Lupone in 2005.
“After I heard Kallman’s operetta I thought it was astonishing,” he declared. “I wondered why I’d never heard this beautiful music before.”
“You won’t see any shows like these in the area,” affirmed Michael Miller, president of the Operetta Foundation, a private research institute in Los Angeles dedicated to the preservation of the operetta heritage. “Very few companies do these works anymore. It’s not for lack of audience interest. It’s mainly because of decisions made by directors of theaters and opera houses.”
According to Miller, performances of operettas in the U.S. took a nose dive around 1950. “It was after World War II and opera houses decided operettas were too low-brow for them and theaters were more interested in the new musicals that were being written,” he said.
“Eighty, 90, 100 years ago every city was doing operettas every night,” he added. “Now to see ‘The Circus Princess’ outside of Chicago you’ll have to go to Russia. It is actually being presented there this summer.”
A few operettas are perennial, of course, notably “Der Fledermaus” by Johann Strauss, Jr. and “The Merry Widow” by Franz Lehar, as well as do some works by Gilbert and Sullivan, which continue to be presented by musical theaters and opera houses, as well as by devoted amateur ensembles.
Both “The Circus Princess” and “The Cousin from Nowhere” have new English translations. “So we are giving the world premieres of our new translations,” Kelly said. “In fact this is our 10th completely new English translation.”
The translations were done by Frantzen and Chicago Folks Operetta dramaturge Hersh Glagov. “We started on these last October,” Frantzen said. “Literal translations don’t work because the syllables fall in the wrong spots in the music. So we have moved things around a bit, but we’ve kept all the feeling of the story.”
The comic operetta “The Cousin from Nowhere” premiered in Berlin in 1921 and includes a cast of nine singers and a 15-piece orchestra playing waltzes, foxtrots and even a tango.
“It’s the composer Eduard Kunneke’s most famous work,” said director Elizabeth Margolius. “This is a modern fairy tale and we are playing up the comedy, but there is subtle darkness to it also. It was written in Germany right after the First World War, so there are undercurrents of unrest.”
Margolius has received five Joseph Jefferson nominations for her work in Chicago theater. This is her first project with the Chicago Folks Operetta.
Now in its sixth season, the company’s productions have included “Mstislav the Modern,” “Springtime,” and “Cloclo” all by Franz Lehar. “‘Cloclo’ is about one the dancers at Maxim’s from ‘The Merry Widow,’” Kelly said. “And our children’s production ‘Peter and Paul in the Land of Nod,’ which we gave in December, was also by Lehar.”
Past productions included Kalmar’s “Arizona Lady” and “The Girl in the Train” by Austrian composer Leo Fall.
The company, which has a budget of about $75,000, receives grants from the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Pauls Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “What we are able to do with a dollar is amazing,” Kelly said. “But there’s nothing like us around here, so we know we are offering something very special.”