There are princesses, and there are princesses.
The one who gives the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “Princess Ida,” its name is anything but a Disney princess of the Cinderella type.
She does not she want to marry the prince unless it is by choice and she wants to establish a university for women. Her feelings are traced back since being betrothed to Prince Hilarion (Billy Binion) at birth.
Hilarion, however, would like to marry Ida. He and two friends are willing to disguise themselves as women to enroll in the university.
If you have not heard of “Princess Ida,” it is not surprising, said Helen Aberger, who is directing a production at the Victorian Light Opera Company (VLOC) next month. “Princess Ida” was the work the famous composer and lyricist created before “The Mikado,” which “eclipsed what came before,” said Aberger.
“Princess Ida” is also different from other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; based on a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson, it’s written in verse.
Erica Ferguson, the soprano who is playing Ida, is making her debut with VLOC. She is currently studying classical voice at the Maryland Opera Studio in Baltimore but is excited about her first performance.
“I was only ever in the chorus of other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas — but not ‘Princess Ida,’” she said.
When she found out about auditions for the production, Ferguson thought the title role might suit her, calling as it did for a full lyric soprano.
“That’s different from most soprano roles in Gilbert and Sullivan, which call for very high notes and an ingenue manner,” Aberger said. “Princess Ida has a more operatic voice.”
Once at auditions, Erica said she started laughing at the idea of Ida swearing off men.
“Every woman has a bad experience with men,” Ferguson said. “My favorite lyric in the operetta is: ‘if we succeed, we’ll treat men better than they treated us.”
Still, Ferguson said she is grateful to Abeger for broadening her understanding of the role. Princess Ida’s perception of men is influenced by the men she grew up around, an argumentative father and with two older “brutish” brothers. However, her experiences prepared her for combat, as the operetta contains a fight scene.
“The irony is that the prince she’s supposed to marry is nothing like that,” said Ferguson. “He’s gentle.”
There are different versions as to who wins the combat, said Abeger. In her version, no one does, because Ida stops the fight. Towards the end, we learn that there is more than one interpretation of Ida’s university plan.
Some people say Gilbert and Sullivan are lampooning women’s suffragette and desire to be educated, but Aberger and Ferguson disagree.
“Gilbert and Sullivan are poking fun at everyone; no one is safe,” Ferguson said.
Aside from its plot and characters, there is much that appeals in “Princess Ida,” the director said. “There’s the music – with lots of upbeat numbers – and a few plaintive ones. It’s absolutely gorgeous.” Joseph Sorge is music director of VLOC.
Aberger also noted the “visual excitement” on stage: Ida falls into a pond, and a door will break down, among the examples. She has set “Princess Ida” in its time and place, with no updating. “It’s a medieval fairy tale,” Aberger said.
What “Princess Ida” is not, though it may sound like it, a battle of the sexes, Ferguson said.
“It’s more about new traditions vs. older ones,” Ferguson said. “Of the two kings – Ida and Hilarion’s fathers – saying this is the way things are done (arranged marriage) vs. the prince and princess who choose love over duty.”
“Princess Ida” will be performed June 9-16 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre at the Rockville Civic Center, where VLOC is a resident company. 603 Edmonston Road, Rockville. www.vloc.org.