Words and Music

'Iolanthe is pulled together last minute," says J. Sherwood Montgomery, artistic director for Lyric Opera San Diego. "I had to find a stage set and a set of costumes and cast it, partially using people who had already been under contract to us for Fiddler on the Roof. " General director of Lyric Opera Leon Natker was poised to perform in Fiddler on the Roof as the beloved character Tevye. In December 2006 the rights to produce the show were withdrawn nationwide for the next two years. "One of the major producers, Music Theater International, planned a national tour," says Natker. "They have megabucks and can say, 'Hold all the rights, nobody else can do this.'"

The board for Lyric Opera voted in January to produce Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe instead. "There were about half a dozen people I had to call and say, 'Gee, we're not doing Fiddler, and Iolanthe isn't your type of show,'" says Natker. "Iolanthe is an operetta, and you need a wider vocal range and different style of performing."

Natker will be directing rather than performing in the show. "It's a very specialized style, doing Gilbert and Sullivan. You really have to develop the skill of being able to spit out words and sing at the same time -- it's enunciating and speaking really, really fast. Gilbert and Sullivan is sort of 19th-century rap."

"Priya Palekar, who is going to play the role of Phyllis in Iolanthe, was going to play Hodel in Fiddler," says Montgomery. "She's a soprano and was perfectly capable of doing it." Palekar was already under contract for Fiddler on the Roof, and when Montgomery told her she had the "vocal chops" to play Phyllis, she accepted the change without hesitation. In the operetta, Phyllis is the young woman with whom Strephon (half man, half fairy) falls in love. Strephon will be played by Christopher Johnstone. According to Montgomery, this "attractive young baritone" was "penciled in" to make his debut later in the season.

"We're planning five years in advance," stresses Montgomery. "In this particular case, there was no pure, unadulterated set for Iolanthe out there that we could rent whole, so I was forced to go to a series of rental houses to pull together a show." The Cleveland Opera recently hired Malabar, a theater costume company, to construct a "lavish set" of costumes for their production of Iolanthe. Lyric Opera is the second company to rent them. Total production cost for a Lyric Opera show is about $150,000.

To construct a set, Montgomery obtained pieces from rental companies across North America. "When you have to do it that fast, you're calling them as a favor." He called Grosh Scenic Rentals in Hollywood, a company that once employed Montgomery as a scenic artist. "They called me back and said, 'There's a drop we just found that has a House of Parliament on it.' Most people will think this was a set designed for Iolanthe. Who knows what these pieces were [originally] made for."

The artists have approximately six weeks to prepare for their performance. "[Usually] we get materials to [artists] as much as two years in advance, especially for operatic pieces," Montgomery explains. Johnstone learned in the first week of March that he'd be playing Strephon and is currently working to memorize his role. "The rest of the people probably had the scores the second week of January," he says.

Montgomery will be playing Lord Chancellor in the three-week-long production. "The character is the Gilbert and Sullivan comic character, the one who usually has a patter song, which is a song that has a lot of words in it." In Iolanthe that song is the "Nightmare Song," a solo aria of around 1000 words that must be articulated in three and a half minutes. "I try to breathe at the beginning, and then I don't think about it. It's like a roller coaster, just go and if anything happens, you're dead."

According to Montgomery, Gilbert referred to the memorization of this number as "a great party turn," and it was the only act Gilbert was known to perform himself. The first line is, "When you're lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is tabooed by anxiety, I conceive you may use any language you choose, to indulge in without impropriety." -- Barbarella

Lyric Opera San Diego presents Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe Opens Friday, March 23 7:30 p.m. The Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre 2891 University Avenue Cost: $30 to $50 Info: 619-231-5714 or www.lyricoperasandiego.org

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