One year ago, my colleague Matt Boresi and I were leading 18 Carthage opera singers through a tragedy-drenched double bill combining Puccini’s Suor Angelica with an original work by Matt and I titled Black September. Both works had glimmers of joy and humor but both were tragedies at their core- and there was something emotionally wrenching (if also deeply satisfying) about traveling such a sorrowful gauntlet with our two casts, and seeing them deliver performances that generated more than a few tears among those in the audience.
Fast forward one year and one can hardly imagine a more drastic, dramatic change of pace. We are calling this year’s J-Term opera production An Hour of Offenbach, and it features five of Jacques Offenbach’s most entertaining arias plus a thoroughly delightful one-act comedy called Pomme d’Api. (“Pomme” is the French word for “apple.” The title refers to the nickname of the young woman Catherine who is at the heart of plot.) But the striking contrast is not just one of mood but also of size. 12 months ago, we had 11 young men and 7 young women in the opera – but this year, there was sort of “perfect storm” of circumstances that made this workshop much smaller. (The school’s Wind Orchestra toured Japan this J-Term, which pulled several singers away. Two other trips abroad- one to Hungary and the other to Germany- prevented still more of our “regulars” from singing. Finally, a couple of other singers simply opted out in order to focus on whatever academic course they needed to take.) All in all, we were left with only four women, plus a couple of others who were interested in being a small part of the proceedings but who could not be full-fledged cast members. What could we do with such modest forces at our disposal?
As it so happens, two of our singers – Allie Kurkjian and Angela Yu – months earlier had already shared with Matt and I their fervent hope that at some point we would undertake a one-act rarity by Offenbach that they had seen last summer while participating in an opera program in France. Pomme d’Api was a true rarity in two respects: a comedy almost 150 years old that was still funny, still fresh…. and a work that has seen very few performances in France and beyond. In fact, we can find no indication of the work having ever been performed here in America …. so it’s very possible that Carthage is offering up this work’s American premiere!
So what is the story behind this comic miniature with a cast of only three singers- and lasting only thirty minutes? Jacques Offenbach- a German-born composer whose entire career was centered in France- could not persuade the main opera company in Paris to present his works, and he was forced to lease spaces on his own. However, French opera was heavily regulated at the time, and Offenbach was only allowed to produce and present operas that featured casts of three singers or less; moreover, Offenbach’s operettas could only be performed in venues on the outskirts of Paris. It was a way to ensure that the young upstart composer would not be any significant threat to the city’s major opera house. Fortunately, Offenbach’s tremendous talent and imagination allowed him to flourish even within such narrow restrictions, and he managed to create dozens of miniature comedies like Pomme d’Api ….. works that are almost completely unknown outside of France but really worth knowing. (Offenbach was quite a quirky, fun-loving character, and I think that might be one reason why he was not fully appreciated during his lifetime – or since.*) We are just so fortunate that Allie and Angela encountered this particular rarity and championed it as passionately and persistently as they did.
The plot is fairly simple: An older man by the name of Rabastens has just fired yet another maid. The new maid he has hired, an attractive young woman named Catherine, is actually – unbeknownst to him – Pomme d’Api, the young woman that his nephew Gustave had been dating. (Rabastens had recently forced his nephew to break up with her, believing that two years was long enough for two people to date.) The question is whether or not Rabastens will manage to secure Catherine for himself or if Gustave will manage to win back her heart, which was badly stung by the breakup. Each of the three characters is richly drawn – and the comedic interplay between them is truly delicious. Moreover, the score is full of enchanting (and challenging) delights.
What is especially remarkable about this undertaking is that our cast all but insisted that we do the entire work in its original French. We were always going to have the singing be in French but both Matt and I imagined that the spoken dialogue would be done in English translation, both for the sake of our young singers as well as our audiences. But it seemed rather ludicrous for us to scale back our cast’s lofty ambitions; if they were willing to undertake the colossal challenge of learning this work in French, who were we to stand in their way? It has been quite a challenge, especially for two of our singers who have had very little first hand experience with French- but they have risen to the challenge in spectacular fashion. And thanks to projected supertitles, our audience will still be able to follow the story, including every joke, and fully enter into the spirit of the work.
Since this little one act is only thirty minutes long, we are opening the performance with five arias by Offenbach from some of his better known works …. including two from his one and only full-length opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. One of them is the aria “Elle a fui,” sung by a character named Antonia (in our case, MeriKatherine Bock) who loves to sing but is forbidden to do so because the strain of doing so might kill her. But she simply cannot resist the temptation.
Another aria is the famous Doll Song, in which a life-sized mechanical doll named Olympia chirps out a dazzling coloratura showpiece. It has been so much fun to see Matt work with Angela Yu on bringing this wonderful aria to life and coaching her to be a fully convincing doll.
There will also be an amusing aria from La Pericole in which the character singing it is so tipsy that she can scarcely stay on her feet; Offenbach’s music conveys this perfectly, and Matt has coached Mitchell Morales in how to perform it most convincingly. In another aria, sung by Sarah Thelen, we meet the title character of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, a haughty, wealthy young noblewoman who has a ‘thing’ for military men in uniform. Leading things off will be an incredibly demanding coloratura piece from another rarely encountered Offenbach miniature, Un Mari a la Porte, sung by Allie Kurkjian. Finishing out the medley will be one of Offenbach’s most famous and gorgeous pieces, the barcarolle “Belle Nuit, o nuit d’amour” – “Beautiful night, o night of love.”
I’ve mentioned the name of every singer except for one, and I have saved her for last on purpose. Our group includes one freshman, Keri Flett, who is actually at Carthage to study musical theater. Pomme d’Api is the first opera she has ever sung in – and it’s also the first time in her life that she has sung anything in French! What a way to ease someone into the challenges of opera! But Keri has done an absolutely remarkable job of shouldering this huge challenge and bringing her own charm and spirit to the role of Gustave, which we’ve double cast with Angela. I should also say that the other women in the cast have been terrifically supportive and welcoming to Keri, and that has made a huge difference – but in the end it is Keri who has put in the time and effort to master this score as well as she has, and I could not be prouder of her …. or of our whole cast.
I’m also very happy about the unexpected day late last year when Carthage’s new head of piano, Dr. Wael Farouk, showed up at my office door to ask if by chance we could use the help of one of his finest piano students, who needed to have an accompanying project during J-Term. In all honesty, I was a bit reluctant because I’m usually the one at the piano playing for our operas, and that is where I am most comfortable. But I knew that this particular pianist, Shiqi Xu (who is from China) was exceptionally fine, and it seemed foolish for me to turn down the chance to have her be part of our workshop. As it turns out, this little Offenbach work is actually quite difficult to play, and I have been perfectly happy to let her younger, faster fingers do the flying. But beyond just her dazzling technical ability, Shiqi has also been a passionate, enthusiastic collaborator – and has made an already fun project even more fun!
And of course, I would be very remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliant work of my colleague Matt Boresi. Matt certainly knows how to do tragedy (as he dramatically demonstrated with his sensitive direction of last year’s dark-hued double bill) but there’s no question that Matt is first and foremost a comic genius. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, but lots of hilarious people have the effect of making everyone around them seem dull – and feel dull – by comparison. But Matt is one of those exceedingly rare funny men who knows how to bring out the funny in others. And he has certainly managed to do that with Pomme d’Api.
So preparing An Hour of Offenbach has been a tremendous joy for Matt and me, but what will complete the joy for us is when we finally have an audience and the sound of their laughter filling the room.
Performances are this Friday night, February 3rd, at 7:30 …. and Sunday afternoon, February 5th, at 3:00 in Carthage’s Recital Hall. The public is welcome and admission is free.
*Quick story on how quirky Mr. Offenbach was. He made a successful tour of the United States in the 1870’s. By the luck of the draw, the concert he was to do in Philadelphia fell on a Sunday- and that city had strict regulations about how any public performances within the city limits on a Sunday had to be limited to sacred music. Not about to be dissuaded, Offenbach slyly changed every title on the program to religious-sounding names like “Hymne.” Unfortunately for the composer, the powers-that-be saw through his ruse and cancelled the concert. But I’m amused by Offenbach’s imaginative efforts to circumvent what he regarded as byzantine rules.