It’s a bit of an understatement to say that operetta is a “niche” genre. Waning in the early 1900s with the advent of Broadway’s golden age, operetta has since been marginalized as a cheap, pop-oriented ripoff of opera (but with even more problematic cultural stereotypes!). Much of this criticism is valid; yet there is still a soft spot for operetta’s catchy tunes and melodramatic musical stylings amongst aficionados and newcomers alike. As I learned at the Catholic University of America’s production of Orlofsky’s Gala, operetta has strong roots in the DC Metro area—John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert, composers of many successful operettas, once called the Nation’s Capital home. This revue of operetta classics, directed by Dr. James Hampton, gives CUA students ample opportunity to display their considerable vocal talents and provides an opportunity to learn more about the history of the genre.
The cavernous Heritage Hall is a grand setting, lending itself to the first half of the program featuring a lecture from former opera singer David Richie. Richie is an alumnus of the music program at CUA. His wealth of knowledge about operetta is shared with the audience, allowing everyone to gain a better appreciation of the work. Richie also sets the scene for the duration of the program: a gala thrown by the mad Russian prince (or princess, on the night I saw this production)—the titular Orlofsky.
The program primarily features music from Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. The first real musical “high note” of the evening comes in the form of the finale of Act I ,”Trinke, Liebchen, trinke schnell,” performed in English by Alfred (Ethan Nott) and Rosalinda (Suhyun Kim). Suhyun Kim, a third-year doctoral candidate in Vocal Performance, is a soprano whose vocals can only be described as crisp and soaring. It’s very rare that someone’s first note gives me goosebumps; I foresee a bright future in music performance for Kim.
During Act II, Orlofsky (Sophia Pelekasis) emerges in a resplendent pink gown. Adele (Natalie Barsoum), a lowly servant, has taken one of her lady’s dresses and has come—in disguise—to Orlofsky’s party. Barsoum’s performance of the aria “Mein herr marquis” (colloquially known as “Adele’s Laughing Song”) provides a bright pop of humor, in addition to her bouncy melody. Throughout the show, the students prove their acting talent when in the spotlight. While Die Fledermaus lacks some of the over-the-top sentimentality of its contemporaries, it can still fall flat when performed by singers who don’t buy into the premise.
Pelekasis gets a chance to shine during popular aria “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß.” The students then come forward to share their solos with Princess Orlofsky. These songs include a selection of work from across the genre. A particular highlight was the French-language soprano aria “Perichole’s Tipsy Song” from the popular Jacques Offenbach opéra bouffe, La Perichole, sung by Isabella Mullaney. I was surprised to learn that this was Mullaney’s debut performance. She is a stellar performer.
Vincent Fung, as Doctor Falke, stood out with his confident baritone during his leadin to the English adaptation of “Brüderlein, Brüderlein und Schwesterlein.” This song is, typically, the denouement of Act II. It was very effective in this production in showcasing the potential of CUA’s rising singers. Samuel Thompson is, likewise, charming as Eisenstein. The ensemble, which (in the Thursday and Saturday performances) includes Katherine Blobner, Keegan Brush, Nico Davis, Joseph Chee, Qiaomu Fan, Isabella Mullaney, Neely Shah, Tae Cha, Isabel O’Hagen, Jiayong Mei, John Holman and Sophia Spencer, is an absolute powerhouse. During the Friday and Sunday performances, the leads are swapped for new cast members. The strength of the ensemble provides assurance that both casts are equally talented and worthwhile to see.
Orlofsky’s Gala is a sophisticated and enjoyable entrée into the operetta genre. The Catholic University of America is well-known for attracting top-tier vocal talent; the student performers in this production are no exception. I would recommend Orlofsky’s Gala for those curious about operetta, as well as longtime fans.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Orlofsky’s Gala runs through November 21, 2021, and is performed at Heritage Hall at the Catholic University of America—620 Michigan Avenue NW in Washington, DC. The November 19 and 20 performances are sold out. Tickets for November 21 ($10–$50) can be purchased online.