Lost Music Is Back! And So Is Live Theatre! Talking To An Influential Fairy

Casey Keeler as the Fairy Queen in "Iolanthe"
Casey Keeler as the Fairy Queen in “Iolanthe”

I’m thrilled to announce that “Lost Music: Exploring Literary Opera” is back! Season 4 of this podcast kicks off with an interview with singer and actress Casey Keeler, who played the Fairy Queen in a concert production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” with the Village Light Opera Group in February of this year.

“Iolanthe” is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most sublime masterpieces, a biting satire of Victorian culture featuring a roving gang of empowered fairies who haunt the forests and frog ponds outside London and occasionally crash into visiting Lords, Dukes and Peers. These privileged toxic males see themselves as England’s ruling class, but they are helpless in the ethereal realms ruled over by the Fairy Queen, who has her own stern but absurdist agenda in this fantastical world.

Love stories and personal transformations abound in this extensive two-act opera, as antique hierarchical distinctions ebb and eventually a single magic spell performs a collective cure on all the males. W. S. Gilbert’s crazy satirical plot rides forward with Sullivan’s blithe, witty melodies and crescendos, when he was at the latter-day vanguard of the propulsive comic opera genre that dominated Europe and the western world through the entire 19th century (though comic opera as a format for new work has lost it’s way since then).

Iolanthe D'Oyly Carte poster with Fairy Queen and guard Private Willis in front of Parliament
Iolanthe D’Oyly Carte poster with Fairy Queen and guard Private Willis in front of Parliament

Why do we still perform comic operas that were all the rage during the Victorian era … in New York City today? That’s one of the questions I wanted to ask Casey Keeler, a brilliantly sensitive and dynamic performer who I had the honor of appearing onstage with as a member of the Peers ensemble when Village Light Opera put on this show earlier this year. She was one of several talented stars, and I was there to learn and soak in (and gain material for my podcast!). It was a beautiful show, and a joyful experience for me to be part of it.

Iolanthe poster: Symphony Space New York City VLOG February 2023

Casey is a master musician and a knowledgeable member of many Gilbert and Sullivan companies in New York City, including Utopia Opera, which put on a rambunctiously fresh production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s late work “Utopia, Limited” this year. Casey appeared as Lady Sophy, and in this interview we also talk about her approach to this role, and about the various character archetypes that abound in comic opera.

Utopia Opera's "Utopia, Limited" New York City 2023
Utopia Opera’s “Utopia, Limited” New York City 2023

Casey also talks about her own approach to her roles, and about the way she interacts with other members of her troupes. As a newbie in this world, I think I have a lot to learn from the way she shows up to every production she’s in. Check out Casey Keeler’s website to keep up with her latest appearances!

“Iolanthe” might be my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan show. There’s a wonderful sense of pointlessness about it, as when the fairies flit busily about the stage, letting us know that they have no idea in the world why they are doing all the things they are so busy with:

If you ask the special function
  Of our never-ceasing motion,
    We reply, without compunction,
    That we haven't any notion!

I’ve had the welcoming experience of working with two different community theater groups presenting Gilbert and Sullivan operas in the past two years – the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island and the Village Light Opera Group. I’ve learned that these community theater troupes work much harder, and rehearse far longer, than most audiences probably realize. As I endured extensive challenging and sometimes frustrating rehearsals with both these companies, sometimes doing endless reps until our heads spin, I sometimes hear the fairies words in my head: what the heck is the special function of this never-ceasing motion? Why do so many incredibly talented people work so hard to put on these shows, and why do we care so deeply about every detail we create?

Something Casey and I talked about at the end of this 90-minute episode gives me a notion of an answer, I think. The first show I was in, an updated “Mikado” set on Long Island that played in spring and summer of 2022, was originally scheduled for spring and summer of 2020. The world of theatre was hit hard by COVID, just as every other part of the world was.

It’s really a beautiful thing in New York City in 2023 to see so many regional opera companies putting their stuff out there with people I’ve gotten to know from one or another of these companies: VLOG, Utopia Opera, GaSLOCOLI (“Princess Ida”), Blue Hill (“Pirates of Penzance”), Bronx Opera (“Les Dialogues des Carmelites”), Amore Opera (“La Boheme”). I’m sure I’m leaving other companies out, and I haven’t even had time to see some of these worthy shows because I’m busy rehearsing on Long Island.

All of these are community productions from hardworking people who are coming out of hiding after two years of COVID crisis.

Here on Literary Kicks, we’ve always been about the fabric formed by literature and arts communities and alternative subcultures or underground movements. What a surprise it has been for me to learn that there is a beautiful opera subculture in New York City that’s strong enough to spring back together and put on a bunch of great shows after a major health crisis that shut us down for two years.

Marc Eliot Stein and Casey Keller at "Iolanthe" cast party
Marc Eliot Stein and Casey Keeler at “Iolanthe” cast party, February 2023

I’m still a newbie in this subculture, and as a newbie I’m honored that Casey Keeler took the time to share her own insightful perspectives on the whole world of live performance. She is an inspiring and natural leader with mystical abilities, like the character who lorded it over me in a favorite rehearsal shot from VLOG’s Instagram

Rehearsal for Iolanthe, Village Light Opera Group, Casey Keeler Fairy Queen lording it over kneeling peers including shocked Marc Eliot Stein. From VLOG instagram
Casey Keeler as Fairy Queen over kneeling lords, “Iolanthe” rehearsal from Village Light Opera Group instagram

I’m thrilled to open the new season of my podcast “Lost Music: Exploring Literary People” with this interview with a sagacious singer. Welcome back to my podcast listeners, and let the new season begin!

Musical excerpts from “Iolanthe” and “Utopia, Limited” from public domain recordings found at the Internet Archive.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!