No works of the late Victorian age are remembered with more affection than those of Gilbert and Sullivan. Yet it’s not been easy to keep those masters of light opera on the professional stage. Since it closed in 1982, the D’Oyly Carte Company, the legendary troupe that staged Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy operas, was revived in 1988, and again in 2013—each time to limited success. Today, there is no Mikado, and certainly no Ruddigore, on or off Broadway, or playing in London’s West End. In addition to other challenges, the Victorian bards now face the perils of political correctness: Just a few weeks ago, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players canceled their planned production of The Mikado after accusations of racism.
Yet here in Wooster, Ohio, a small college town an hour south of Cleveland, the Ohio Light Opera (OLO) just completed its 37th summer season, offering not just Ruddigore, but The Yeomen of the Guard, as well as Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus and works by Cole Porter, Lerner and Loewe, George and Ira Gershwin, and Franz Lehár. The repertoire hints at its range and dedication to lyric theater in the English, Viennese, and American traditions.
Since 1979, the Ohio Light Opera has produced a remarkable 128 titles, 76 of them European operettas, many rarely if ever performed elsewhere. While reviving 31 titles since 1999 alone, it has continued to center its season on Gilbert and Sullivan, performing H.M.S. Pinafore 15 times, Iolanthe 8 times, and even the relatively obscure The Grand Duke 3 times. If operetta has a home these days, it is not in the cities and lands of its birth; it is on the edge of Amish country, in Freedlander Theatre at the College of Wooster, home of the Ohio Light Opera.
OLO succeeds because it takes light opera seriously. It’s had only two artistic directors: its founder, James “Doc” Stuart and, since 1999, Steven Daigle. Stuart, in his words, believed that “operetta requires no less a commitment to quality than does grand opera.” That means a full orchestra, professional performers who can sing, act, and move with equal grace, full period costumes, and an unwavering dedication to performing complete works in a style faithful to the original. It even means that the OLO asks its audience to rise before every performance of Gilbert and Sullivan (as the Savoy Theatre did) to sing “God Save the Queen.”
When I asked Daigle—who also serves as head of opera theatre at the Eastman School of Music—why OLO has prospered, he replied that it was fundamentally a “revolt against the Broadway movement,” which relies increasingly on jukebox musicals and on shows, like Aladdin, drawn from movies or other popular entertainment. That doesn’t make them inherently bad, but it does mean they are trying to repeat “the same sensory experience,” which ultimately devalues the theatrical experience by making it derivative.
If OLO exists, in part, to spotlight the unjustly forgotten, the problem faced by the more popular works, such as The Pirates of Penzance, is that they are too well-known. Any community group can do Pirates—and in doing it, they create expectations about the experience that make audiences unwilling to pay Broadway ticket prices to see it again. Worse still are productions that parody the original, which doesn’t work since Gilbert and Sullivan’s works are themselves parodies. This may be light opera, but that doesn’t mean it really doesn’t matter: Anything in life can be made unserious if you treat it unseriously. In an era when everything is in quotation marks, OLO offers the refreshing experience of not intending it ironically.
The Ohio Light Opera has its challenges. It sells 85 percent of its seats (totaling about 18,000 attendees for a season of 58 shows) and derives more than two-thirds of its income from tickets, an achievement that puts most theatrical companies to shame. The persistent concern—and there is no polite way to put this—is that its audience is very old. True, this concern has been around as long as the audience: When I ushered for OLO as a junior high school student in the early 1980s, the audience seemed as old as it is today. OLO has responded, partly, by following a de facto 60-year rule—i.e., it now performs works from the 1950s—and by trying to reach audiences outside its Midwestern base. But still, gray hairs and no hair predominate.