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Satirizing Victorian England – sometimes by placing the action elsewhere – siblings who have been exchanged, and class distinctions are among the common themes of Gilbert and Sullivan.
During their long partnership, playwright/humorist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan created 13 comic operettas – among them, “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado.”
Less known is “The Gondoliers,” or, “The King of Barataria,” one of their operettas set in another location – Venice. The young bride of the heir to the throne of fictional Barataria arrives to join her husband.
Only he cannot be identified since he was entrusted to the care of a drunken gondolier, who mixed up the prince with his own son.
To complicate matters, the King of Barataria had just been killed, and the two young gondoliers must jointly rule the kingdom until the nurse of the prince can determine which is the rightful king.
Moreover, the two gondoliers recently married local girls – but the young Queen is in love with someone else anyway.
“The Gondoliers” is the next offering of Victorian Light Opera Company (VLOC) – an appealing choice, according to the production’s stage director Catherine Huntress-Reeve, Assistant Director/choreographer Helen Aberger, and assistant music director Amy Broadbent.
“If you’re looking for an operetta that’s musically accessible and characters you like, it’s ‘The Gondoliers,’”said Huntress-Reeve. “It’s also quite funny.”
The operetta consists of “two shows in one,” with two separate stories linked by one character, she added. While sometimes Gilbert and Sullivan performers complain only a few characters have large roles, “The Gondoliers” features nine principals with roles of equal size.
Broadbent agreed that Gilbert and Sullivan offer humor with “an aim to entertain. But there’s much more beneath the surface – they’re trying to make a point about the historical context,” she said.
“The Gondoliers,” said Aberger, is one of the most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s least-known works. “It has only one plaintive song; the rest are upbeat, pithy and witty.”
Looking for yet another reason to attend any Victorian Light Opera Company performance?
“It’s one of the remaining community-based companies that still performs with an orchestra. That’s important for young singers trying to establish a career in opera,” said Huntress-Reeve.
Aside from love for Gilbert and Sullivan and other Victorian-era music, the three women are drawn to VLOC for another reason – the active participation of females in the company not only as singers but as members of its production teams.
“When I first joined VLOC in 2013 I had no idea that [lack of] female leadership was a nationwide issue,” Aberger said. “The company always has had a lot of female directors.”
In fact, two of its founders were women, she said.
Aberger credits VLOC artistic director Joseph Sorge – who is music-directing “The Gondoliers” – with bringing in and mentoring female assistants.
Broadbent seconded the thought – calling Sorge “very generous” to give her time to work on the podium with the orchestra.
“Often directing and conducting are very male-dominated,” she said. “I feel like a valued part of the production, leading orchestra rehearsals.”
It’s not just opera but theater that “tends to be guy-heavy,” said Huntress-Reeve. “But VLOC has been historically friendly to women. And this show, in particular, is woman-friendly.”
Does having a female director as opposed to a male one make a difference?
“We are all a product of our own experience,” Huntress-Reeve explained. “Men and women overlap, but what you inform your choices. I tend to look for relationships in a story.”
It’s another reason, she said, to favor “The Gondoliers,” which has “many relationships of different types.”
“The Gondoliers” has six performances, Feb. 22-March 3, at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, Rockville Civic Center, 630 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. www.vloc.org. Box office: 240-314-8690.