'Ida,' Ho!

Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Princess Ida' makes her Austin debut

Who rules the school?: Michelle Haché's Princess Ida
Who rules the school?: Michelle Haché's Princess Ida (Courtesy of Brenda Ladd)

Princess Ida. Not a title that's in heavy rotation on the Gilbert & Sullivan Hit Parade. Indeed, this eighth collaboration by the musical team has never been produced by the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin in its 37 years of mounting their comic operas. Even Artistic Director Ralph MacPhail Jr. hadn't staged the work.

But he's rectifying that this month. He's made Princess Ida the company's annual summer production this year, and it opens tonight at the Brentwood Christian School for a two-week run. MacPhail spent a few minutes with the Chronicle explaining why it took so long to get Ida to Austin and what Austin can expect from this neglected comic opera.

Austin Chronicle: So you are dipping your toe into new waters this year.

Ralph MacPhail: Yeah. This is the only one of the common 11 Gilbert & Sullivan operas that we've not done a fully staged production of. There are a number of reasons for that – it's in three acts; the scenic demands are strong; there are multiple chorus costumes that are required – but we've been doing really well selling these shows that are not as well known as Pirates, Pinafore, and Mikado, so we're in a good place to do it, and I pushed for it, Jeffrey [Jones-Ragona, the Society's longtime music director,] got on board with me, and the board backed us. We're delighted with the way things are going and the fact that they took a chance on Princess Ida.

AC: I would assume that you've seen productions of the show before.

RM: Maybe two or three through the years. The most memorable one was the actual D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. I was sitting on the second row of the orchestra at the Kennedy Center. This was 25 or 30 years ago now. But what's interesting is that you can know a work through recordings and the libretto for decades, but [it isn't] until you actually begin to stage it that you find out where all the diamonds are buried. It's common knowledge that it's one of Sullivan's most luscious scores, written when he really had a hankering to write grand opera, and the finale to Act II is about the most operatic of all of the Gilbert & Sullivan finales. Also, we found it's a lot more amusing than when you just read the bare-bones libretto or listen to the music. There's plenty of Gilbert & Sullivan patter and the topsy-turvy humor that we've come to enjoy in the more popular works.

AC: And men in drag.

RM: Well, sort of. [The male characters] end up at Castle Adamant, this college that Princess Ida has established from which all men are barred – in fact, there's a death penalty for any man that comes within its walls. So the men find these academic robes and put them on, but they're not very convincing [women]. The amazing thing is that Princess Ida, this intellectual girl, is completely buffaloed by these "females" that keep bowing instead of curtseying and have voices that – well, as Lady Blanche describes to her sister Melissa, "They're such marvelous young ladies. Two are tenors and one's a baritone."

We're blessed with an absolutely wonderful cast. Michelle Haché – you know her from our earlier shows. She was our Elsie Maynard three years ago [in Yeoman of the Guard] and was a B. Iden Payne Award winner. Patricia Combs plays Lady Blanche, with her wonderful mezzo voice. Russell Gregory is one of the doltish sons of King Gama. And Arthur Bianca has started to make these patter baritone roles his own, and he's doing a wonderful job with what I call the most misanthropic of all misanthropes, King Gama, who is a very disagreeable man. What I'm trying to say is that one of the things that really excites me is that the Society has been able to cast a company that will do this challenging work justice, I believe. I'm giddy with excitement about it, but then hope springs eternal. [laughs]

AC: But it also speaks to your longevity with the company and the richness that comes from working with the same artists again and again. You develop your connection with them, which makes it easier to develop their connection with the material. That speaks well to where the company is today.

RM: I think so, too. I never have to explain it. This is not Godspell. This is a style that is different even from most Gilbert & Sullivan that you see presented today, because I like to do it the way Gilbert staged them. And I don't have to explain this to folks because usually they get the word. My understanding is, and I say this very modestly, during music rehearsals, [the stalwarts tell the newcomers:] "When Rafe comes down, just listen to him and try to do what he wants. He knows what he's doing, and it's all going to be okay." I caught wind of that a couple of years ago, and I found that very flattering – and very daunting at the same time. But it means I don't have to train a company from scratch in a very particular style, which is what enchanted me when I first saw the D'Oyly Carte back in 1966. I saw three of their shows in one week, and my life hasn't been the same since. I was just captivated. But our company does do a very nice job, and there's that continuity which spreads then to newcomers. And the fact is that we've been doing well financially with the lesser-known works, so our audience seems to be taking a chance on us. They've found out that they can come to something that they've never heard of before and still find it very amusing, lovely, worth their time and money.

AC: So are these veteran performers eager to jump into material that they've never had a chance to play with before?

RM: I think so. I know that we're facing another HMS Pinafore next year, and this will be my third one down here, and I love it dearly, but sometimes familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least sort of "Oh, here we go again," you know? But the fact is, when you always have this material to share with newcomers as well as the old-timers, it's a very interesting mix.

AC: You mentioned discoveries as you've begun to work on the show instead of just studying it. What are some of the diamonds you've uncovered in the process?

RM: What this really is is testimony to the fact that the written word is one thing, and the interpretive artist gets hold of it and really brings it to life and you suddenly discover more things. One example of that here is Lady Blanche. You know, the contralto roles are sometimes called the "old lady" roles or the "battle-axe" roles, yet most of them have a softer side, sometimes a poignant, even very moving side. Katisha is certainly a harridan in The Mikado, but she has two arias that just rip your heart out because they suggest that she'd rather be dead than lose her love, you know, it's very serious stuff. It rounds the character out. Well, the one in Princess Ida is Lady Blanche, and she is a battle-axe from first to last. She's ambitious, she wants to take over the university from Princess Ida, and she regards it as the inevitable "shall" – she speaks in verb tenses in a very amusing way throughout the opera. But at the end, not to give you too much of a spoiler alert, she accomplishes her goal because Princess Ida discovers that without men, there's no way to provide for posterity. This brilliant girl had evidently never zeroed in on basic biology to realize that if you separate the genders, there's no way that the human race can continue. So she capitulates at the end, and there's Lady Blanche on the side holding Princess Ida's scepter in triumph. The inevitable "shall" has indeed arrived.

Another example for me is the three doltish sons of Gama. They say, "We are warriors three,/Sons of Gama Rex./ Like most sons are we,/ Masculine in sex." – which is a brilliant observation, I think you'll agree. They're not the sharpest knives in the drawer, though they have the largest swords on stage, and they just stand there. One of the things that I've been trying to do after my study of photographs and D'Oyly Carte lore and manuscript prompt books and things like that is to realize that they just don't do a lot. They sort of anchor the set for a while whenever they appear onstage. They stand together and say a lot of "Yes, yes, yes"ses and "No, no, no"s, and trying to get them to shake and nod their heads is irresistibly funny. They're like stage scenery that just respond to these stimuli.

AC: Is there anything else you think an audience coming to this work for the first time should expect?

RM: Well, I don't want to scare people away, but Princess Ida has two arias that are of operatic quality. But, you know, even though the musical standard might be a little higher and it's three acts, it's about the same length as an average Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Somebody said to me, "So you're doing Princess Ida?" I said, "Yeah, do you think we'll have trouble with it – I mean, women's education, making fun of that?" He said, "It's just good old Gilbert & Sullivan fun." So it's just good old Gilbert & Sullivan fun.

Princess Ida runs June 13-23, Thursday-Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2pm; with an additional matinee Saturday, June 22, 2pm, in the Worley Barton Theater at Brentwood Christian School, 11908 N. Lamar. For more information, call 512/474-5664 or visit www.gilbertsullivan.org.

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Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin, Ralph MacPahil Jr., Princess Ida, Michelle Haché, Russell Gregory, Patricia Combs, Arthur Bianca

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