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Starring in an operetta

By Sigurd Neubauer


Have you ever fancied meeting either Sylva Varescu in The Gypsy Princess (Die Csárdásfürstin) or Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe)?

Or even better, perhaps you’d like to marry Frau Glawari in service of the fatherland. You’ll become an instant millionaire too. 

If you’re of the more exotic persuasion, Varescu – or any of the Mädis vom Chantant – eagerly await you. 

A safer option, especially if your mother objects, is to marry a young lady such as the lovely Countess Stasi von Planitz, who is a suitable match for your aristocratic ancestry. Together, you can sing along to “Machen wir’s den Schwalben nach and make it your own medley. 

What makes the world of operetta so magical is that it takes place in the land of make-believe, where the music is always delightful, and the women are beautiful. The hero is at times brave, but the anti-hero is always comical, especially Njegus in The Merry Widow

The Ohio Light Opera has built an international reputation as purveyor of the acknowledged masterworks and neglected gems of the operetta and musical theater repertoire

Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow represents the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Photo credit: Matt Dilyard, 2011

But whereas the art form doesn’t enjoy the immense popularity it did a century ago, three of the greatest operetta composers of all time – Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), Franz Lehár (1870-1948), and Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953) – continue to have their works performed by major opera companies around the world.

If you haven’t been introduced yet to this wonderful world, Man & Culture (M&C) will bring you up-to-speed, as our commitment is dedicated to covering this most beautiful art form. 

If you have been introduced to it and wonder what it takes to star in an operetta, or rather what it takes to pursue a career in it, Steven Daigle, the artistic director of the Ohio Light Opera (OLO), recommends that young singers immerse themselves in historical recordings, and take classes in dance and acting as their voice matures. Provided, of course, that one is also a classically trained singer.

As an educator at a leading music conservatory, Daigle believes that operetta is a perfect repertoire for the classically trained singer who is preparing for the present-day demands of opera.  Daigle indicates, “Traditional operetta, at its best, demands that trained singers have outstanding voices, be dynamic actors and dancers, and can command the stage.” 

With Daigle at the helm, OLO has built an international reputation as purveyor of the acknowledged masterworks and neglected gems of the operetta and musical theater repertoire. He’s also a professor of opera at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. 

The one and only: Sylva Varescu from Emmerich Kálmán's Gipsy Princess. Photo credit: OLO, 2014

“Finding identity, originality, and being a unique performer with a dynamic voice,” he emphasizes and points to one of the most popular operas – La Bohème – to make his point. 

“Do we attend a live performance of La Bohème or listen to full recordings repeatedly only because it’s a good story with music by a creative composer?  No … we repeat the experience to hear and see different and unique performers inhabit, and bring a new interpretation to the characters,” the professor advises.

To drive home his point, Daigle says: “I am all for studying the great singers of the past, but eventually, the developing singer needs to find his or her own unique voice.”


Responding to OLO’s guiding principle when it comes to staging productions within the genres of operetta, early American musical theater, and mid-century Broadway musicals, Daigle points to the influence  James Stuart (1928-2005) had on him.

Stuart (1928-2005), who established OLO in 1979, was a leading performer of, and authority on, the music of Gilbert and Sullivan. He was also a professor of music at Kent State University.

“The music that we perform, and our faithfulness to it, is our ‘secret sauce,’” Daigle explains, while contrasting OLO to several unnamed European companies that produce operettas but interpolate melodies from other shows or composers.

“On Broadway, for instance, certain new productions of classic American musicals have added contemporary rhythms, including rap. We don’t do that.”

The professor does, nonetheless, qualify his remarks by emphasizing that “sometimes we have to do rewrite some text and lyrics – to conform to modern tastes and sensibilities.”

What this means in practice, Daigle explains, is that OLO’s “mission is to maintain the full integrity of the music as the composer intended it. But sometimes, we view a production through a contemporary lens. But this never comes at the expense of the music.” 

Toward serving the music, OLO employs a full orchestra but has at times in the past used a smaller one for various productions, he adds. 

Kálmán's The Gipsy Princess is known for its aristocratic grace, warmth, and humor. Photo credit: OLO, 2014

2023 season

Commenting on the upcoming 2023 season, which runs from June 10 through July 30, Daigle explains that OLO has a repertoire “formula” tied to its mission to preserve, promote, and produce the best of lyric theater.  

“We started out [in 1979] as a Gilbert and Sullivan company but have steadily augmented the offerings to encompass a wide variety of composers and styles within the traditional operetta and musical theater canons. With a few exceptions over the years, we typically don’t perform shows that were written after 1970.” 

The 2023 season begins with the ever-popular Camelot, which the company introduced in 2000 and which was revived in 2011. The musical was composed by Frederick Loewe (1901-1988) in collaboration with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986). It was the first true musical that OLO ever produced. 

Next to arrive on stage will be How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The music and lyrics are by Frank Loesser (1910-1969). “As with all our operettas and musicals, we turn back to the original creations and avoid the updates, ‘enhancements,’ and re-orchestrations that have characterized Broadway revivals in recent decades.  This is, to a large extent, a dance show, with staging requirements – specifically sets and costumes – somewhat less elaborate than those of many of the musicals of the period.”

Then there’s No, No, Nanette, for many the quintessential 1920s musical. The lyrics are by Irving Caesar (1895-1996) and Otto Harbach (1873-1963), but the composer is Vincent Youmans (1898-1946).

True to its origins as a Gilbert and Sullivan company, OLO will perform H.M.S. Pinafore.

Over the decades, OLO has also developed a passion for Kálmán’s music. This summer it will stage its 14th Kálmán work, Arizona Lady, the composer’s last operetta, which premiered in 1954, a few months after his death. The original German libretto is by Alfred Grünwald (1884-1951) and Gustav Beer (1888-1983); the translation into English for the upcoming production is by Daigle.

Arizona Lady “falls under the category of an unknown show,” the artistic director says, but emphasizes that “our patrons expect, along with the familiar fare every season, something out of the ordinary – and this certainly qualifies.”

Finally, OLO will produce Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).  The original French libretto is by Hector Crémieux (1823-1898) and Ludovic Halévy (1834-1908, with English translation by operetta historian Richard Traubner. OLO has not performed this title since 2001. 

The 2023 season defines OLO’s formula, Daigle says, explaining that it combines traditional European operetta – this year represented by Arizona Lady, Orpheus in the Underworld, and H.M.S. Pinafore – with American early-to-mid-century musicals: Camelot, How to Succeed, and No, No Nanette.

On how the company’s guiding principle has brought it success, Daigle says: “We have cultivated a patron base and produced a repertoire that is unique in the U.S. We’re surviving off doing operetta and early musicals.”

On what’s next for Daigle, who is about to retire from his academic position at the Eastman School of Music, he plans to continue his OLO engagement but wants to balance it with family life. He is also planning to do some writing and to continue – after 25 years of opera staging at Eastman – to pursue opera-directing opportunities.

From its premier in 1905, Lehár's The Merry Widow has captured the public imagination. Photo credit: Matt Dilyard, 2011
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