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Comedic Opera Guild takes on military satire with 'Gerolstein'

BY ERIKA JOST
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 27, 2011

With its production of “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” this weekend, the Comic Opera Guild is taking its name literally, with a story premise that seems ripped from the funny pages.

“The character Fritz is kind of like the Beetle Bailey of the group,” Tom Petiet said, referencing Mort Walker’s classic cartoon about a lovable military slacker. Petiet, a 1966 University graduate, is the managing director of the company and the director of “The Grand Duchess.” His wife, a 1968 graduate, serves as the stage director and choreographer.

“Fritz is very charming but not very interested in being (a) soldier,” Petiet concluded.

Jacques Offenbach’s comedic operetta “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” is a satirical commentary on the military. War is raging in the fictional duchy of Gerolstein, and no one seems to know why. The war is later revealed to be a whim of the demanding and flighty Grand Duchess, played by Barbara Scanlon, a veteran Broadway performer who has toured in shows including “Phantom of the Opera” and “Evita.”

While reviewing the troops, the duchess has another flight of fancy, developing a crush on the dashing young soldier Fritz and promoting him to general. In dealing with war, Fritz faces a Three Stooges-like trio of potential assassins trying to take his place and a duchess scorned upon her discovery of Fritz’s girlfriend. Ill-equipped to lead in battle, Fritz quickly gives up as general. In 20 years, no one will care, Fritz reasons, and everything will be as it was before.

“This kind of satire is very uncommon in musical comedy,” Petiet said. “Most musical comedies are romantic or situational comedies, and they don’t get into satirizing politicians or governments. This satire is against military officiousness, autocratic generals and politicians who make decisions that don’t make any sense.”

These are topics a modern audience can identify with. Though the plot was originally set in 1867, the Comic Opera Guild has updated the setting to World War I, a time period more familiar to a modern crowd.

This production features professional singers like Scanlon alongside students and local amateur performers.

“It’s exciting to get to work with people who have had careers in singing,” said School of Music, Theater & Dance junior Matthew Peckham, who plays the role of Prime Minister Dietz. Dietz is second in command in the Gerolstein government, and he spends a great deal of time appeasing the duchess.

The Comic Opera Guild began in 1973 as an offshoot of the University’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society, of which Peckham will be president next year. Where the University society concentrates on the comic works of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the Comic Opera Guild has a more expansive coverage of comic operas and operettas. The Guild has even made recordings of some lesser-known shows that have never previously been recorded. For instance, the Guild’s performance of “The Grand Duchess” features a new English translation.

“We’re calling it a Michigan premiere — if this show has been done here before, it was a long time ago,” Petiet said. “People think it’s dated and schmaltzy. It’s definitely not that — it’s great comedy.”