I did behind-the-scenes work: running a spotlight, assisting the stage manager, eventually even stage managing a show or two. (In all I worked for three opera companies: The Opera Factory under Blanche Lewis, Chicago Opera Theater under Alan Stone, and Lincoln Opera under Norma Williams—this last one time as a fill-in.)
Eventually I recognized that my muse wanted me to write comedies, and so—as I have posted elsewhere—I refused to accept a contract for Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, my first non-operatic show, and struck out on my own, down the long lonely path of non-musical script writing.
So it was a pleasant experience last night, to attend Light Opera Works' production of The Merry Widow. (Because it was New Year's Eve, just before 11pm or orchestral overtime pay, the cast, musicians and audience all joined together in a brief singalong of Auld Lang Syne, a holiday tradition with the company.) The operetta was not without its silliness—to me it almost defines the form—but the evening was pleasurable both for itself and because it took me back to my early theatric days in a wave of nostalgia.
At intermission I asked a woman who sat behind me if she heard the words, and she said "About 65%, but I got the gist of it." "Same for me, I answered." My percentage may have been a little higher—but what I did hear was impressive. I'm no authority on musical theater, but the lyrics had a crispness I associated in my mind with W.S. Gilbert's—only the music was not Sullivanesque. Possibly on one occasion I thought I heard an assonantal rhyme against "dreams" but otherwise they all seemed perfect—a rarity in songwriting—both erudite and witty (yet fitting the scene) all at once.
Other than that I know nothing about the English lyricist Opelka, but have found little bits and pieces scattered around the internet.
Scenic designer Adam Veness (who did a masterful job on the set for Lionel Bart's Oliver! a season or two back) provided a restrained and adequate set for the first two acts, with a striking tableau to round out the final scene at "Maxine's". (Ah, but this is not a review, and for a synopsis Wikipedia will do.)
Much as I have expressed delight in Jonathan Larson's Rent, his lyrics do not stand up to the test of Lionel Bart's in Oliver! Like many of my generation, I saw the Carol Reed film when it came out, and like many a lad wanted to be like the Artful Dodger portrayed by Jack Wild—who went on to have a bittersweet career. The soundtrack album remained my gold standard, but it was only in the stunning Light Opera Works production of two years ago that I realized, as with Rent, how superior the stage version was to film. (I have not seen enough to make a general rule about it: I have the sense that no staged production will stand up to the filmed Sound of Music, which has reached iconic status in America.)
Possibly Gregg Opelka's lyrics can meet up to the Lionel Bart challenge: but, judging over what I can gather about the work he has done, he has not had yet the show in which everything coalesces. With titles like The Beverly Hillbillies, the Musical to his credit, scepticism is called for. Composer/Lyricist is a tough profession: as with Jonathan Larson, one must be out there, taking work as it comes, and getting something up on the stage whichever way one can. A comic poet has the luxury of writing chamber pieces.
While I know nothing about Opelka, I will make a point to see his work if I catch something advertised. (Though, as much as I liked the nostalgia trip, I also realized I don't need to frequent too many operettas anymore. A function of age perhaps: I felt that also after the last (perfect) Christmas Oratorio by Bach, performed by Music of the Baroque.)