By Sigurd Neubauer
Since its founding in 1979 as a resident professional company of the College of Wooster, the Ohio Light Opera (OLO) has built an international reputation as purveyor of the acknowledged masterworks and neglected gems of the operetta and musical theater repertoire. Through more than 150 works—all fully staged and orchestrated—the company has championed the works of American composers (e.g., Victor Herbert, Cole Porter, George Gershwin), French (Jacques Offenbach, Charles Lecocq), and Viennese (Johann Strauss, Franz von Suppé, and Franz Lehár). It has chalked up almost 900 performances of Gilbert and Sullivan titles, and has staged more operettas (13) of Hungarian-born Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953) than any company worldwide—past or present.
This coming summer, OLO 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 Steven Daigle, OLO’s artistic director. Daigle is also a professor of opera at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.
The company, this summer, will be celebrating its 44th season, explains OLO Executive Director Laura McGraw Neill in a wide-ranging interview. “OLO was established in 1979 by James Stuart (1928-2005), who was also the founding artistic director, a professor of music at Kent State University, and a leading performer of, and authority on, the music of Gilbert and Sullivan.”
Lyricist William Schwenck Gilbert (1836 -1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) are best known for their comic operas, including The Yeomen of the Guard, The Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Pirates of Penzance.
“In the 1970s, Stuart brought the Kent State Light Opera Company to several venues in Northeast Ohio—including Cleveland and Wooster—where it performed short seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan for a few weeks every summer,” Neill adds. By 1979, with the Kent State company recently disbanded, the College of Wooster issued an invitation to Stuart to launch on campus a new G&S company—the Ohio Light Opera—which would perform in the Freedlander Theater.
Ever since, OLO continues to enjoy an artistic home at the College of Wooster, Neill explains, but quips: “If it hadn’t been for The College of Wooster being our arts partner, we would most likely not have survived. It has fully embraced our vision.”
The new company’s first production in that summer of 1979 was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, with a unit set and piano accompaniment. A few years later, in 1981, Stuart added a full orchestra and began to expand the repertoire of composers and productions. The first non-Gilbert and Sullivan production was Johann Strauss II’s (1825-1899) operetta, A Night in Venice.
In 1982, the company added The Student Prince by American operetta composer Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951). The show’s immense popularity has brought it back for six additional seasons, most recently in 2022. The 1983 season introduced French composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880, The Brigands) and the ever-popular Merry Widow of Hungarian/Viennese composer Franz Lehár (1870-1948).
“When Daigle became artistic director in 1999, following Stuart’s retirement the same year, the company further evolved by adding traditional mid-century American musicals to its repertoire. The first such title was Camelot, which we introduced in 2000,” Neill adds. The musical, which was composed by Frederick Loewe (1901-1988) in collaboration with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986), will once again be performed by OLO this coming summer.
“Although most operettas and musicals are upbeat and have light music, there are some exceptions. In 1990, we added Kurt Weill’s (1900-1950) Street Scene, which is a dark story in which a character is murdered on stage,” Neill recalls.
For the 2023 season, which runs from June 10 through July 30, OLO will engage an artistic staff of about 110, which includes full orchestra, singers, dancers, technicians, and administrative personnel. Auditions for vocalists were held this past October in New York City, Wooster, and Rochester, NY.
Neill, who has a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Masters in Scandinavian Studies, will be celebrating her 30th anniversary with the company this coming November.
When Steven Daigle became artistic director in 1999, the company added traditional mid-century American musicals to its repertoire
On what it takes to manage a successful operetta company at a time when the genre’s popularity largely belongs to the past, Neill emphasizes that OLO operates under an artistic and scheduling format different from that of other companies. “Our longevity and success are rooted in our commitment to present, in a rotating show format, a diverse repertoire, with productions that are artistically faithful to the original. We are able to adapt these shows—whether musicals or operettas—to current times and tastes without compromising this fidelity.”
Neill attributes this fidelity, the ever-increasing production values, and the repertoire expansion to OLO’s artistic director: “Steven Daigle is brilliant at what he does. He has built significantly on Stuart’s initial vision and thus enriched OLO’s legacy in preserving, promoting, and producing the very best of lyric theater. By providing this unique environment, people are coming from all over the world to attend our festival,” she adds.
The seven-week 2023 summer season will feature 50 performances of six shows—three musicals (Camelot, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and No, No, Nanette) and three operettas (H.M.S. Pinafore, Arizona Lady, and Orpheus in the Underworld). During the last three weeks of the festival, all six shows are up and running and patrons have the opportunity to see all productions in as little as a three-day span.
“The mood will be jovial. We will have a festival atmosphere and we’ll be here to celebrate operetta and musical theater in one place,” the executive director says.
OLO’s unique programming also serves as an opportunity for singers and dancers to broaden their experiences. “They get to do many shows in a short period of time. For some, this is the beginning of their careers, as we have seasoned professionals and students alike auditioning from across the country.”
The company receives support from the Ohio Arts Council, one of the foremost arts funding organizations in the country, as well as sustaining support from private foundations and donors.
“We budget based on a high percentage of ticket sales,” says Neill with a laugh. “It is risky but we have managed successfully to do it every year. Few organizations can rely on this formula. Given our donor base and strategic collaboration with the College of Wooster, this business model has worked so far.”
OLO’s passion in promoting the operettas of Emmerich Kálmán began when, in 1998, Stuart first met the composer’s daughter, Yvonne Kálmán. That connection sparked the company’s increased interest in the Hungarian composer, Daigle explains.
By the time Daigle arrived at the company in 1990 as a stage manager, OLO had already performed Kálmán’s Die Csárdásfürstin (The Gypsy Princess) and Gräfin Mariza (Countess Maritza). “Stuart became a major influence on me,” the artistic director explains. In 1993, Stuart offered Daigle the opportunity to direct a revival of The Gypsy Princess. “This is how I got hooked on Kálmán’s music,” he recalls and from there he “wanted to program as many of his operettas as possible.”
On why the Hungarian-Jewish composer’s operettas are so special, Daigle explains that “along with the beautiful and lush melodies, the sentimental storylines sprinkled with engaging humor, and magnificent dance music, there is a heart-gripping interplay between music and drama that is unlike that of any other operetta composer.”
He continues, “There is also a practical as well as an educational component to Kálmán’s operettas. As a current educator, and former performer, I find his music to be superb training material for voice students seeking a career on the lyric stage. His lead roles, often vocally challenging, require classical training, as well as proficiency in acting and dancing.”
“Many of our patrons paid their first visit to OLO because they were drawn to Kálmán,” Daigle explains. “If they also caught another show or two, they very likely became OLO fans. Others came primarily for musicals, but, if they also took in a Kálmán show, invariably got hooked and became fans of the composer. So it has worked out well for us.”
OLO has performed The Gypsy Princess and Countess Maritza numerous times over the decades. Four of Kálmán’s rarer works have been released by the company on DVD: A Soldier’s Promise, The Little King, The Little Dutch Girl, and The Duchess of Chicago.
“Because each Kálmán production was successful, we kept adding new titles, which is what leads us this coming summer to Arizona Lady. It has an American theme, which makes it appealing as well,” Daigle explains.
All images are credited to OLO.