Tom Strini

Kirke Mechem gives The Skylight a new comic opera

By - Sep 15th, 2011 10:39 am

The Skylight Opera Theatre has a way of making comic opera funny. Not merely LOL funny, but ROFLMAO funny. Not every opera company can manage that.


Kirke Mechem

Composer-librettist Kirke Mechem thinks that’s the way comic operas ought to roll, and that’s how Mechem’s Tartuffe did roll at the Skylight in 2007. Friday, the Skylight will premiere Mechem’s The Rivals.

The opera is based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan‘s famous 1775 comedy, which has aged well.

Exhibit A in the case for Sheridan’s continuing relevance: The hilarious American Players Theatre staging of Sheridan’s The Critic this summer. As it happens, APT figured directly in Mechem’s The Rivals. He actually wrote the piece between 1998 and 2002. Before he started the project, in the summer of 1997, he went to Spring Green to see The Rivals at APT. He decided that the show operatic potential, but needed tweaking.

Sheridan set his original Rivals in Bath, a fashionable spa town in England. The plot centers on Lydia Languish, a wealthy young woman who pines for a life of Romantic poverty; she would marry a poor common soldier for love rather than marry Jack Absolute, a high-born officer with great things ahead of him. Jack impersonates a poor soldier to win her affections from two other suitors; hi-jinks ensue. Lydia’s legal guardian is one of the most famous characters in all of theater: Mrs. Malaprop, a woman with a very special gift for gab.

Mechem has moved the action to fashionable Newport, R.I., in 1900. Lydia has become Lydia Larkspur, less of a sighing dreamer and more of a rebellious Modern American Girl.

“Writing your own libretto is a big advantage,” Mechem said, in a phone interview.

The rich and dashing Jack Absolute becomes a British naval officer. Mechem’s Lydia pines not for a poor sailor, but for a struggling composer, so Absolute must pretend to be one. That’s a cute inside joke, and it offers opportunity to bring more music into the mix.

Because Mechem (b. 8/16/1925) Americanized the story and pushed it ahead 125 years, he could refer to American vernacular styles that are dear to him.

“There’s a whole ragtime number in it,” he said. “I grew up playing pop music by ear on the piano. I wrote musical comedies before I’d ever seen a harmony book. I wrote a lot of wretched songs.”

One song not among the wretched made its way into this show: The tune is a love song he wrote for a college girlfriend. He sang some of it through the phone; lovely.

Mechem said that he gives each character in The Rivals a signature tune, an American-style tune, that’s easy to remember. The difference between an opera and musical comedy is that those tunes do not merely recur, but evolve as the opera goes on and the characters learn their lessons.

“That helps the audience a lot,” Mechem said. “You don’t want everything in the opera to be brand new. You want to give them a chance to get to know the tune and the person. If the tune is recognizable right away, it’s fun for people to hear how it changes.”

Will we exit the theater whistling Kirke Mechem tunes?

“Yes! Absolutely,” he said.

Mechem’s last opera was John Brown, a serious piece about a serious subject. But having seen and heard his work and talking with him a couple of times, I’d say his natural inclination is toward comedy.

He told me this joke:

“Two brother, ages maybe 11 and 9, decide one day that they’re old enough to cuss. They agree that the older one will say ‘hell’ and the younger one will say ‘damn.’ So they go down to breakfast, and mother asks what the want. The older one says, ‘Ah hell, I’ll have some Cheerios.’ Mother’s shocked and the kid gets in all kinds of trouble. Finally she settles down and turns to the younger brother: ‘And what do you want for breakfast?’

‘Well, you can bet your ass it won’t be Cheerios!’

“Humor is a big part of my life. My brothers and I joked around a lot, and I was always kind of a ham. I acted in and wrote skits and plays. I just have sort of a sixth sense about humor, but it defies analysis. I once had to give a lecture about humor in music. It was the sorriest lecture you ever heard. Music can give you a feeling about it; you know it when you hear it.”

Mechem knew it when he heard saw it at the Skylight in 2007. Director Dorothy Danner and music director Richard Carsey are back from that production, along with Alicia Berneche (Lydia) and mezzo Diane Lane (Mrs. Malaprop), two very funny ladies.


L-R: Zach Borichevsky with Katherine Pracht; Diane Lane; Christopher Burchett and Alicia Berneche. Mark Frohna photo for the Skylight, shot at the Pfister Hotel.

Mechem can’t wait to see them in the first fully professional staging of The Rivals.

“The Skylight,” Mechem said, “is the absolute best place for this to happen.”

Cast and Credits

Stage Director, Dorothy Danner; Assistant Stage Director, Bill Theisen; Music Director, Richard Carsey; Associate Music Director, Jamie Johns; Set Design, Lisa Schlenker; Costume Design, Brian Hemesath; Lighting Design, Kurt Schnabel; Lydia Larkspur, Alicia Berneche; Mrs. Malaprop, Diane Lane; Jack Absolute, Christopher Burchett; Nicholas Astor, Zach Borichevsky; Julia, Katherine M. Pracht; Sir Anthony Absolute, Robert Orth; Lucy, Christine Robertson; Jasper Vanderbilt, Matthew DiBattista; Baron von Hackenbock, Andrew Wilkowske; Chorus, Susan E. Wiedmeyer, Jill Anna Ponasi, Nathan Wesselowski, David Flores.

Schedule and Tickets: The Rivals runs Sept. 16 to Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets start at $22.50 for weekdays and $25.50 for weekends; for more detailed pricing or to purchase call (414) 291-7800 or visit the Skylight’s website.







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