Singer Marie Claire Sullivan spent a year in Germany and speaks the language.
That would have come in handy for her lead role as Hanna in Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s production of “The Merry Widow” – if the Rockville-based organization is singing the beloved Franz Lehar operetta in the original German.
But the company is using an English adaptation, by Quade Winter.
This is something the director, Madeleine Smith, is “overjoyed” about, since she can collaborate, if needs be, with the still-living translator.
“Oftentimes a libretto tends to ring a little dusty,” she said.
Sullivan’s introduction to “The Merry Widow” came via the much-honored Broadway star Kelli O’Hara, who appeared recently in a Metropolitan Opera production. Sullivan, based in D.C., auditioned for both soprano roles in the operetta but was pleased to land that of Hanna.
Hanna is a newly-wealthy woman of the world who conquers glamorous old Paris and seeks to achieve the one thing that had eluded her – a commitment from Danilo, her playboy first love.
“I love the plot,” said Sullivan. “Everyone has a few issues of character, but Hanna is definitely the heroine. Everyone else is moderately smart, but Hanna is always right. That’s a fun place to be.”
Joseph Sorge, VLOC music director, recalled that “The Merry Widow” was the first show he oversaw with the company, as well as was the first fully-staged operetta he ever appeared in.
“Prior to that, I had been performing your standard Broadway repertoire – ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘West Side Story,’ ‘1776,’ ‘Company,’ etc., for over 25 years in local community theater groups,” Sorge said. “So ‘The Merry Widow’ retains a warm place in my heart.”
VLOC decided it was a good show, with its lush waltzes and ballads, to resurrect.
“Since I like to mix up our repertoire, and perform non-Gilbert and Sullivan shows at least once or twice a year, ‘The Merry Widow’ has been on my short list for a revival,” he said. “It seemed a good time to insert a well-known, crowd-pleasing operetta, to help stoke audience turnout.”
Madeleine Smith started performing at a Montessori School at age five and graduated recently from the University of the Arts. She made her directorial debut last year with VLOC’s production of Offenbach’s “La Perichole,” in addition to appearing in several company productions.
“Victorian Light Opera has been my artistic home for quite some time,” Smith said.
Her first connection with “The Merry Widow” was in 2004, as one of the Can-Can dancers.
What makes this operetta a little different, according to Smith, is that “there are tons of principal characters to juggle, and they each have a specific relationship to each other. A lot is going on before the curtain rises, so there’s a lot to orchestrate – to get their stories told.”
Most central is Danilo and Hanna’s relationship from years ago. “Clearly the emotions are still there, though they’re playing a cat-and-mouse game,” she added.
Because of its time and place – Paris in the late-19th century, “The Merry Widow” is dripping glamour, whether the action takes place in Maxim’s Restaurant or a ballroom. Within budgetary constraints, Smith has taken the “most-important set elements,” such as huge six-foot windows, a large staircase, and lit mirrors – just enough to “fill up the audience’s imagination.”
The greatest challenge for Sullivan is the dancing, including the famous waltz of the title.
“Every time I’m with Danilo we dance,” she said. “Relatively I’m not a good dancer, and we have to make it look effortless.”
“The Merry Widow” runs Feb. 23 to March 4. Victorian Lyric Opera Company is one of three resident companies at F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in the Rockville Civic Center Park, 603 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville. For tickets, call the box office, 240-314-8690. For more information, visit the company’s website at www.vloc.org.