“Princess Ida” — or “Castle Adamant,” as it is sometimes known — is not typical of the works created by Victorian-era theatrical collaborators W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The comic opera, which opened in 1884 at the Savoy Theatre in London, is distinguished by having a strong woman as its lead character.
Most of the women in the dramatist-composer duo’s other 13 operas have little substance. “Ida,” however, is based on an adaptation of the 1847 Alfred Lord Tennyson narrative poem, “The Princess,” which features powerful female characters.
Briefly, the plot revolves around Princess Ida, who renounces men and founds a college exclusively for women. Her husband, Prince Hilarion, and his friends sneak into the college disguised as women in order to repossess her.
What ensues has been widely regarded as a battle between the sexes. But Helen Aberger, director of the Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s June 7 to 16 production of “Princess Ida,” does not see the conflict that way. “My whole ethos of this (production) was not to pit men against women, which is how it is often played,” she said. “It is actually traditionalism versus the need – or want — to change.”
“I think we are seeing that in spades (in today’s world),” Aberger added. “People are so entrenched in their views, and they’re convinced of their opinions and have to convince others. It gives very little opportunity for equal ground or to listen, compromise or change your mind.”
Uncomfortable with Ida’s decision to yield to Hilarion after he defeats her brothers, Aberger altered the ending. Ida “should be the one to stop any fight before it happens,” the director maintained. “She is the one to take control and accept that she may actually love this man who, through the course of the show, she’s fallen in love with. She can choose to be with him instead of giving up and yielding to a battle that is fought for her.”
“We haven’t bastardized it or made it unrecognizable, but it is a change (intended) to make Ida a more powerful character, in charge of her own destiny and fate,” Aberger explained.
After seeing Ida go from promoting knowledge, the arts and female excellence into warrior mode after being crossed, Erica Ferguson (who shares the role with Elizabeth Thomas) took inspiration from “Game of Thrones” heroine Daenerys Targaryen and the Valkyries from Richard Wagner’s opera.
“(Ida) goes full warrior princess,” Ferguson said. “That is something that is so different from anything I’ve ever done, and I love it. …If people are coming to the show to see a traditional princess/prince-type story, that is just not what they are going to get. (The show) is much more energized and, I think, ahead of its time.”
Aberger observed that double casting – as both Princess Ida and Prince Hilarion are — can be a double-edged sword because the director must budget time appropriately. On the plus side, “having them both in the room and watching each other has made new moments and new ideas come out that I had not thought of or planned on. I love when actors suggest things.”
Ferguson appreciates the opportunity to see Thomas perform. “I literally get to watch her and imagine it as myself and see what she does with the role — how she moves and what this role looks like on stage. I think that helps me so much to know what I have to bring to the role.”
This is the first time in about a decade that VLOC has performed the three-act work. With a run time of about two hours plus an intermission, the show features Gilbert and Sullivan’s specialty of fast-paced, tongue-twisting, clever songs with a lot of rhyming words.
Aberger knew she wanted to direct this show while listening to its score. For the retired oboist, the score is the part of a show “that always grabs me,” she said. “There are some really funny and catchy tunes — real ear worms as well as some beautiful arias that Princess Ida gets to sing. …(The score is) very infectious.”
The Victorian Lyric Opera Company presents “Princess Ida” from June 7 to 16 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Shows start at 8 p.m. June 7, 8, 14 and 15 and at 2 p.m. June 9 and 16. Tickets are $28, $24 for seniors and $20 for students, half-price ($14) for June 7 opening show. Visit www.vloc.org or call 240-314-8690.