The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Guest music director Grant Harville talks about the Madison Savoyards productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Princess Ida.” The show opens this Friday night and runs for six more performances through Aug. 3. | July 24, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

To loyal and even devout fans, they are known simply as “G&S.”

And since 1963, a devoted group of Madison singers, musicians and stage crafters have produced the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

This summer’s production is “Princess Ida,” one of the later G&S shows by the dynamic duo of satirists who were so entertainingly portrayed in the 1999 film “Topsy-Turvy.” “Princess Ida” opens this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall. (It was previously performed by the Savoyards in 1967, 1980 and 1999.)

Savoyards Ida poster

The seven performances, including two SUNDAY (not Saturday, as erroneously first stated) matinees at 3 p.m., take place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. The hall is located on the UW-Madison campus at the foot of Bascom Hill.

MusicHall2

Here is a link to the home web page of The Madison Savoyards. You can find more information including: directions and connections to purchase tickets; the dates and times of performances; background about the Savoyards and about Gilbert and Sullivan; reviews of past productions; videos and recordings; pre-performance dinners; information about how to support and participate in the group; and even a newsletter.

http://www.madisonsavoyards.org

Tickets for “Princess Ida” can be purchased at the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office, by phone at (608) 265-ARTS, or online at www.uniontheater.wisc.edu

The story, adapted from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem, “The Princess,” is set in Medieval Europe. Princess Ida, betrothed in infancy to Prince Hilarion, has forsworn men and is now head of a women’s school that teaches philosophy, science and the fickleness of men. Intent on winning her heart, Hilarion and his friends set out on a quest that involves sneaking into Ida’s school disguised as women, and culminates in an epic sword-wielding battle.

“It’s just good old Gilbert and Sullivan fun,” says stage director Audrey Lauren Wax (below), who works with StageQ in Madison. “Who doesn’t love the fact that there are three siblings who look nothing alike and the only real connection they have is that it takes three of them to equal one full brain!”

Audrey Lauren Wax

Music director Grant Harville assures audiences that “fans of Sullivan’s contributions to these collaborations will hear exactly the sorts of features that attract them to these works.” Musical numbers run the gamut, from silly patter songs including, “Whene’er I Spoke” and “If You Give Me Your Attention,” to more poignant, lyrical numbers such as, “I Built Upon a Rock.”

Action, plot twists and the generous doses of humor sprinkled throughout Princess Ida will certainly keep audience members on their toes.

The cast includes some veterans of the stage, with Milwaukee native Naiza Delica (below left in a photo by Jane Wegenke) as Princess Ida, Donald Dexter (middle) as King Gama and UW-Madison senior William Ottow (below right) as her romantic counterpart, Prince Hilarion.

Ida preview 2

William Rosholt and Donald Dexter appear as the dueling kings Hildebrand and Gama, and Patrick Chounet and Steven Groth play Hilarion’s two loyal friends, Cyril and Florian.

Gama’s three sons are played by Jim Chiolino, Alec Moeser and Matt White, and Rachel Bishop, Ann Baltes and Tiffany Orr appear as Lady Blanche, Lady Psyche and Melissa.

The cast includes over 30 members from the Madison area, including four families.

Music director Grant Harville (below) agreed to a Q&A with The Ear:

Grant Harville conducting 2

Can you briefly introduce yourself to readers?

I received my doctorate at the UW-Madison School of Music. This is my fourth Madison Savoyards production, and my fifth Gilbert and Sullivan show overall. I’m currently the Music Director and conductor for the Idaho State-Civic Symphony, and I teach at Idaho State University. But my ties to Madison go back a good 20 years now, and The Savoyards have been a rewarding way to stay active during the summer.

How does “Princess Ida” fit into the overall work of Gilbert and Sullivan, especially compared to such famous works as “The Pirates of Penzance,” “The Mikado” and “HMS Pinafore”? What does it share with the others and what separates it from them?

It’s a testament to the astonishing success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaboration that “Ida” was considered a failure, running for a “mere” 246 performances.

A lot of the characteristics found in their other projects are present here: punny, silly, clever, occasionally slapstick humor; ridiculous, buffoonish characters; and a lifetime’s worth of good tunes. Some of my favorites from “Ida” are “Gently, Gently,” “I Am a Maiden” and “The World Is But a Broken Toy.” (You can hear the opening of “Princess Ida” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Sullivan is — and was in his own day — criticized for writing music that was “beneath him,” but I’ve never found that criticism fair. The melodies are perfectly constructed and brilliantly apt text settings; and there are plenty of traps for the company that underestimates the complexities of these scores.

G&S had a formula, to be sure, but there’s enough generic music out there for us to recognize that this is better than that.  There’s a reason the duo has found a permanent place in the repertory while countless other works have gone by the wayside.

What do you find so appealing about the stream of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (below)? Do you find any relevance in “Princess Ida” to society and politics today? Can you elaborate?

I think what keeps bringing me back as a music director is how much I fall in love with the music each summer.  No matter how good the drama is, or how funny the dialogue is, it’s the music that attracts me.

Because of its parody of feminism, “Ida” is perhaps more controversial than others of the operas. The parody that today’s audiences will recognize most readily is probably Lady Blanche, a university professor whose thinking has become so abstract that it no longer makes any sense.

Gilbert and Sullivan

What would you like the public to know about this particular production -– the cast, the musicians, the sets and costumes, whatever?

The Madison Savoyards expects, though certainly doesn’t require, a very high level of familiarity from some of its audience — to the degree that if a few words are transposed in the dialogue, there are people who will notice.  (Not that such familiarity is required; G&S is extremely accessible.)

Because the company is dedicated to this repertoire, they devote all their resources to making the productions as polished as possible. That means beautiful sets and costumes, full orchestra accompaniment, outstanding staff support.

I’m proud of our cast and crew; they make a remarkable commitment to be in the show, and I think audiences will see it manifested on stage.

 

 

 

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1 Comment »

  1. A slight correction – The 3:00 pm shows are Sunday matinees, while the Saturday shows take place at 7:30 pm.

    Comment by Sarah M. — July 25, 2014 @ 10:48 am


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