Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Music feature: New area operetta company revives 'Chocolate Soldier'

Lisa Allen MacMullen, Michael MacMullen
and Jacqueline Pimienta
in a scene from The Chocolate Soldier.
(Photo courtesy Palm Beach Light Opera Company)

By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH -- You could call Joseph Rubin the Michael Feinstein of operetta, and this week he will bring his passion for underappreciated music to area audiences.

Saturday and Sunday will mark the inaugural performances of Rubin’s Palm Beach Light Opera Company, which will present Oscar Straus' 1908 operetta The Chocolate Soldier in concert performances at the Kaplan Jewish Community Center in West Palm Beach.

It's a safe bet that this operetta, which enjoyed enormous popularity in the United States and Britain before it and other works of its ilk were pushed aside by musical comedy, isn't currently on the list of must-dos for area theatrical companies. But it's a charming, lovely piece, and Rubin thinks it and other operettas deserve a chance to be heard again.

"Operetta has a timeless appeal. It's not grounded in any one specific time period," Rubin said. "But it's romantic, and it takes you to another world. It's beautiful music that hasn't been heard for years and years."

Rubin is a real enthusiast for this music, and that's unusual in someone so young. Just 21, he founded another light opera company in his hometown of Canton, Ohio, while he was in his teens. A recent theater graduate of New York University, he’s planning to pursue an advanced degree in theater management.

In second grade, Rubin saw a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, and found it so compelling that he began to seek out other operettas. That led him to the music of writers such as Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert, and soon he found that he was researching a kind of music that had once been wildly popular but had been almost completely forgotten.

"The average person has no idea that this music exists," said Rubin, whose grandparents have been Palm Beach winter residents for 25 years. "If it's not continually performed, it's not going to survive. And it's an important part of American culture."

Rubin's Canton Comic Opera Company is devoted to the American operetta, but the local company is beginning with a Viennese work, and on March 13-15 it will present Sweethearts, a Herbert operetta from 1913. The Palm Beach Light Opera Company is an all-volunteer group, so dedication to the cause is important, and one of the 20 cast members said so far the music is making a strong impact.

"I was really impressed. It's on a par with the best of (Franz) Lehar," said Michael MacMullen, a veteran Palm Beach Community College instructor who is singing the lead role of Bumerli in The Chocolate Soldier. And it isn't just the music that's good, he said.

"The problem with operetta is usually that the scripts have dated badly ... but I was impressed by how well this script still works," said MacMullen, who has been at PBCC since 1994 and now chairs its music department.

Not only that, The Chocolate Soldier avoids other typical operetta pitfalls in which comedic and romantic roles tend to be completely separate motivationally and musically.

In a typical operetta, "the romantic leads get really great stuff to sing, but they don't get to act, and they don't get to be funny," MacMullen said. "In this, everyone gets good lines and good music and good comedy."

The Chocolate Soldier takes its story from George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, and concerns an 1885 war between the Serbians and Bulgarians. At the home of the wife and daughter of a Bulgarian colonel at the front, a Swiss mercenary named Bumerli stumbles in to the bedroom of the daughter, who is in love with an absent soldier named Alexius. Comedic and romantic complications ensue before all ends happily.

The operetta (called Der Tapfere Soldat in the original German) was an immediate hit, and a report in The New York Times from a correspondent in Vienna had high praise for the piece just after its November 1908 premiere.

"Straus's music is fully attuned to the always effective comic milieu of the Balkans," the anonymous correspondent wrote. "....As regards instrumentation, no operetta for years past has shown such originality and strength."

Straus (1870-1954), a native of Vienna, was a well-trained musician who studied with comp
oser Max Bruch, and was mentored by none other than Johannes Brahms and Johann Strauss II, who advised him to look for theater work. Straus (he dropped the second "S" of his name to avoid confusion with the Strauss family) composed numerous operettas as well as film scores, and spent the World War II years in France, New York and Hollywood before returning to Austria in 1948.

The operetta, which is being sung in English this weekend, was revived several times on Broadway, most recently in 1947. It also was adapted in 1941 for a movie starring Nelson Eddy and Rise Stevens. The most popular song from the score was, and remains, My Hero.

The performances this weekend will be semi-staged concert airings, so cast members will be singing from scores, accompanied by a 15-piece orchestra directed by Rubin, who is an organist and percussionist. Rubin said he hopes one day to offer full stagings of the operettas, but finding the right venue is difficult.

"We'll start a little smaller," he said. "We'll do two concert productions but we're going to hope to do fully staged productions ... (Concert performances) still bring the music the emphasis, which is the most important thing."

MacMullen said unearthing operetta is similar to the revival efforts being brought to older instrumental jazz and to obscure works from the operatic tradition. Each of these arts forms has a history that’s worth respecting.

“Hopefully, all those opera companies will do an operetta occasionally,” he said. “They should be conserving them. They’re of just as high a quality.”

The Chocolate Soldier will be presented at 8 pm Saturday and 2 pm Sunday at the Kaplan Jewish Community Center, 3151 N. Military Trail, West Palm Beach. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students. Call 582-0593 or visit

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