Concert Operetta Theater moved into new artistic territory with its November production of two unfamiliar operettas. Daniel Pantano’s Philadelphia company teamed up with a European organization led by Dario Salvi devoted to the preservation of neglected music. Their similar interests came together with a double bill of operettas not heard in America in a century.
Founded in 2001, Concert Operetta Theater is dedicated to preserving and educating audiences with professional performances of this form of sentimental, romantic opera. Most of the time this means old favorites composed by Johann Strauss, Franz Lehar, Emmerich Kálmán, Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg. Occasionally the company has dipped into less-familiar works in similar style.
This month, these partners chose two pieces which were popular in the 1870s and 1880s but never considered to be masterpieces. Each of these European comic operas were presented in Philadelphia, but then lapsed into obscurity. They are The Sea Cadet (Der Seekadett) composed by Richard Genée in 1876, last heard in Philadelphia at the Walnut Street Theater in 1879; and A Trip to Africa (Die Afrikareise), composed by Franz von Suppé in 1883, last heard in Philadelphia at Haverly’s Theater in 1884.
(Haverly’s was also known as the Broad Street Theatre and was on the east side of Broad, just south of Locust, across from the Academy of Music. It was demolished in 1937.)
The revival of these two pieces reminds us of the everyday popular culture of our great-grandparents. A Trip to Africa also recalls how racism was a pervasive part of American life around the time of the USA’s centennial. We all know that blackface minstrel shows were considered to be funny entertainment among the lower classes, and A Trip to Africa shows that even the upper-crust patrons of sophisticated musicals accepted these stereotypes.
This parody of African civilization informs us, too, that racism was prevalent in Europe as well as America. In 1870 only 10 percent of Africa was under European control, and by 1914 it had increased to almost 90 percent. Germany, Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Italy, France and Spain ruled almost all of the continent until after World War I, and the native people served them.
The story of this slapstick extravaganza is set in Cairo and involves Europeans who get into cultural conflict with blacks and Asians. “Superior” white Europeans treat the locals like idiots. Almost all the dialogue is cut, as is a great deal of the music in order to present the highlights from two operettas within two-and-a-quarter hours.
The Sea Cadet (Der Seekadett) also is a comedy about culture clash. It’s a Viennese operetta centering on an actress who visits Lisbon to look for her missing lover who, it turns out, has married the Queen of Portugal. To avoid discovery, she masquerades as a sea cadet, and soap-opera complications ensue. The operetta also was produced in its day in an English-language adaptation called The Royal Middy.
Talented performances here are by sopranos Alexis Aimé and Christina Chenes, mezzo Meghan McGinty, tenors Corey Bonar and Colin Doyle, and baritones Aaron Jacob Keeney and Andrew Shaw. The minimalist production is concert style, with some stage business but without the costumes and settings that ornamented the original productions. Salvi conducted both operettas. He and his wife Hannah worked extensively on long-lost original materials to prepare the performances. English is used because that’s now standard for musicals around the world.
With grants from cultural foundations, COT was able to employ pianist Gabriel Rebolla plus the Symphony in C String Quintet (members from the New Jersey-based Symphony in C), allowing audiences to hear the orchestral fabric that’s an essential part of operetta. Five musicians were in the pit in 2014 for Victor Herbert’s Cyrano de Bergerac, but most COT productions have only one or two pianos accompanying the singers. Another joint production is planned for next year — a Yiddish musical comedy, The Broken Violin by Joseph Rumshinsky and Boris Thomashefsky, once a staple on New York’s Lower East Side.
Pantano and Salvi have restored all of The Broken Violin’s music, but even the Library of Congress does not have a full text. The two men are therefore asking for help from the worldwide music and theater communities to help locate a copy of the original script.
Concert Operetta Theater tries to educate the public by disseminating its productions on video, in addition to its live performances. DVDs are available on the website.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
A Trip to Africa and The Royal Middy, or The Sea Cadet played on November 18 & 19, 2017 and were presented by Concert Operetta Theater in the Helen Corning Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts – 1920 Spruce Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets to upcoming productions, call the box office at (215) 389-0648.