Guild Stakes Future on The Grand Duchess

Against a backdrop of shrinking audiences and grant money for live theater, Ann Arbor’s Comic Opera Guild is mounting its biggest production in six years with Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. Whether the Guild will offer a full-scale production next season rests on this season’s attendance.

The Guild’s mission for 38 years has been the promotion of the comic opera and operetta form, combining, as it does, top vocalism, dance, spoken acting, orchestral accompaniment, and scenic design. Of course, this form of theater is the most expensive, requiring greater forces than a play. In order to keep ticket prices down, the Guild relies on considerable volunteerism to bring its shows to the boards.

The works of Offenbach have always been dear to the heart of Guild founder, Thomas Petiet. They combine challenging music with really funny plots in a way that few musicals do. In America, they have been hampered in the conversion to English. The Guild solved the problem by creating its own English versions that not only come closer to wit of the originals, but strive to make them even better and usually shorter. Many of the Guild’s versions have been performed by companies around the United States and as far away as Australia.

The subject of The Grand Duchess is timeless (the military and the need for war), and so the setting for the Guild’s production is the onset of World War 1, the war that introduced the technology to kill multitudes. While the subject is treated in a lighthearted way, the message is clear: war doesn’t solve anything. When a lovelorn monarch promotes a handsome but inept soldier to commander-in-chief, disastrous consequences would seem to be the result, but all ends happily (if not in victory).

The Guild has put a professional level cast and considerable time and money into the production, and sees it as a litmus test on whether shows of this scale can be supported by today’s audiences, distracted as they are by so many electronic entertainments. Live theater depends on the audience to exist, not only financially, but artistically. No two performances are exactly the same, and audience reaction has a lot to do with that. Performers draw their sustenance from the audience, and in turn make them a part of the performance.

Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein

Thurs.-Sat. Feb. 24-26, 8 p.m.: Mendelssohn Theater, Ann Arbor. Credit card orders: 734-763-8587, or at Michigan Union Ticket Office, Ann Arbor

Sat., April 2, 8 p.m. and Sun., April 3, 2 p.m.: Village Theater, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI 48187. Credit card orders: 734-394-5460; online: www.canton-mi.org/villagetheater or at Summit on the Park, 46000 Summit Pkwy, Canton

Adults: $20 Seniors: $17 Students: $15

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