Princess Ida: An Academy of Song

Antique illustration of court scene in first act of "Princess Ida" featuring the Princess, Gama and the Warriors Three.

A mysterious book-length poem called The Princess by Alfred Tennyson became a popular craze in England about a century and three-quarters ago. The title of this book barely hints at the complexity of the story inside — a story within a story, a poem inside a poem, featuring a crew of lackadaisical young British layabouts at an outdoor party who decide to invent a medieval legend together.

Think of young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron scribbling furiously somewhere by lakelight, and you get the flavor of the kind of poetic creation Alfred Tennyson was putting together in 1847 with The Princess. It was a bestseller and a popular craze because it’s a lovable frolic of ardent verse, written by and for the British literary generation that had grown up with Shelley, Byron and Keats as romantic and Romantic heroes.

Author pic and title page of 1922 Macmillan edition of The Princess by Tennyson

In the outer story, a gang of young men and women at an idyllic summer garden fete concoct a tale about a fearlessly bold and strong woman named Ida, now 21 years old, who was married as an infant to another royal infant who she hasn’t seen since.

Ida is a Princess, but she’s no Disney princess. She doesn’t even want to associate with her father, the King Gama of some minor principality in the Holy Roman Empire, nor does she have any time for her simple and dutiful knight brother, Arac. She runs away and creates a college for women in a mountain castle called Castle Adamant. All the women at Castle Adamant reject marriage and child-rearing and womanly compliance. They all idolize Ida. She is their role model, a bookish yet fierce and fearless super-woman, determined to ignore her royal trappings and forced marriage and instead define her own path in life, inside a sealed environment of her own creation.

Princess Ida from Tennyson's poem, standing reading a book

That’s the setting of the poem that caused a sensation in 1847, and the story was still widely known 37 years later when Gilbert and Sullivan debuted an opera called Princess Ida. Gilbert wrote comic operas and Tennyson did not write funny poems, so Princess Ida wasn’t necessarily an easy fit for Gilbert and Sullivan, and it would be their only work based on another writer’s source material. The adaptation proved a bit of a thorny bundle for Gilbert and Sullivan’s loyal fans, and this show remains somewhat misunderstood today.

Where Gilbert’s and Tennyson’s minds meld most completely is in the theme of moral and romantic confrontation — the battle between idealistic innocence and worldly cynicism. I sense traces in this work of Mozart’s masterpiece Cosi Fan Tutte, which was subtitled The School for Lovers and also featured fervent, helpless young romantics challenged by brutal adults to fight to the depths of their soul for their dignity and independence. Like Mozart’s desperately vulnerable Ferrando and Fiordiligi, this opera’s Prince Hilarion and Princess Ida have trouble getting in touch with their feelings because they use intellect as shields, spinning metaphors of broken toys and granite determination.

I’ve had to plumb the depths of my own determination in a different way with relation to this opera, because, incredibly enough, I will be appearing in Princess Ida with the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island through the months of May and June 2023.

Yes, you read that right! Your favorite literary blogger, opera podcaster, antiwar podcaster and Javascript developer will be appearing onstage and singing. In fact I already appeared in two Gilbert and Sullivan operas in the past year without finding the time to write a blog post about it. I’m finally getting over my own shock about finding myself singing on an opera stage enough to tell the story now.

I wonder if anyone thinks I’ve been lazy in the past year, since I haven’t dropped an episode of Lost Music since I talked about Les Contes d’Hoffmann eleven months ago, and I haven’t been very prolific on this blog either. Hah. If you know me in real life you know I’m a lot of things, but I’m not lazy. Learning to sing with a community theater group has been rewarding but mind-blowingly tough, and I’ve barely had the time to reflect upon the experience yet at all.

I’m certainly not a trained singer. I have to thank three people for helping me develop enough confidence to join an opera company. It’s not the kind of thing anybody who knows me would imagine me ever doing.

The first person who helped is my father Eli “Iz” Stein, who sang baritone chorus and an occasional Dick Deadeye with the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island in the 1970s and 1980s. My Dad is also a cartoonist and graphic designer, and runs a cartooning blog with a caption contest that anyone can join. Like me, my father loves to sing but is a self-taught amateur, and the fact that he could do this inspired me to imagine that I could too. It turns out that what it really takes to sing with a regional opera company is a competent voice, a basic ability to sight-read, and — most important of all — a willingness to work really hard in rehearsal. Here’s my Dad (second from right) in a 70s-era “HMS Pinafore” with the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island, the same group I’ve been enjoying performing with for the past year and a half.

Stage picture of HMS Pinafore performed by the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island sometime in the 1970s.
“HMS Pinafore” by the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island, 1970s.

Another person who helped me develop the courage to sing is my friend Nicola Mills, a British opera singer I met when she spent a year in New York City. I was fascinated to have a friend who’d sung at Glyndebourne, and on a whim I asked her if she thought I could ever possibly sing opera. She found a keyboard, walked me through a few variations of “Do Re Mi” by her favorite singer Julie Andrews, and told me I had fine pitch but needed to work on my legato. I interviewed Nicola on episode 2 of Lost Music, and I’m still grateful today that she took the time to listen to my mediocre voice and let me know that I didn’t suck as bad as I thought I might as long as I was willing to work on my legato, which I always try to do.

Finally, the person who really helped me gain the courage to sing opera is Gayden Wren, director of this year’s Princess Ida and author of the excellent book A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan. Gayden had sung with my father way back when, and after I had the crazy idea to follow in my father’s footsteps and join this troupe I gathered my courage enough to visit Gayden Wren in his book-filled apartment in Queens and ask for an honest appraisal of my voice. He sat me down at a keyboard, sternly looked me in the eye, asked me to sing a low F up to a high F and then down again, then told me to my great relief that I was good enough for the Long Island company. Gayden is a great vocal coach and musical comedy director, and a very cool operator during moments of backstage chaos (which, I’ve now learned, are constant). The original staging of “Princess Ida” we will be performing this summer is really Gayden’s own concept, and I believe it expresses his own ideas about life, love, toxic parents, toxic teachers, trained violence, trustworthy friends, dainty triolets and the sway of love.

Joseph Anthony Smith and Kara Vertucci as Hilarion and Ida - Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island
Joseph Anthony Smith and Kara Vertucci as Hilarion and Ida – Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island

I know most Litkicks reader are nowhere near Long Island, New York, but if you are I hope you’ll come see one of our full-orchestra shows which begin in June. The great cast and team includes Kara Vertucci as Ida, Joseph Anthony Smith as Hilarion, Ben Salers as King Hildebrand, Chris Jurak as King Gama and Terry Hochler as Blanche. There are also principals-only preview performances in various libraries in April and May with our esteemed musical director Leonard Lehrman pounding the ivories. Come see us, and support this intrepid troupe trying to bring musical comedy back to Long Island in the days of post-COVID and (um) George Santos. We need the power of song in these maddening times.

I’ll be playing the role of Scynthius, one of Princess Ida’s three dumb, dutiful and militaristic brothers along with (left) John Benvenuto as Guron and (center) Henry Horstmann as Arac. Yes, I know I look crazed. Don’t worry — I’m acting.

ohn Benvenuto, Henry Horstmann and Marc Eliot Stein as Guron, Arac and Scynthius in Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Workshop of Long Island's "Princess Ida", April 2023, Great Neck Public Library

Since I’m an outspoken pacifist, it is probably strange to see me brandishing a sword. Well, do you think I would brandish a sword in an opera that didn’t end with a major pacifist message? I’m not putting out any spoilers here, but you’ll have to see our show yourself to find out where it all ends up.

I’d also like to give a shout to the updated MIkado I was in last year, when I was too surprised to find myself on an opera stage to even think of blogging about it here. This Long Island Mikado was directed by Tony Tambasco with musical direction by Stuart Waters starring Sabrina Lopez, Michael Ruggiero, Richard Risi and Patricia Gallagher. Here we are at Hecksher Park in Huntington last July.

I’ll be talking about the Iolanthe I appeared in earlier this year with the Village Light Opera very soon, and this will be the first episode of Season 4 of my opera podcast, which is finally coming back!

I read somewhere just recently that Tennyson’s The Princess was one of the first popular stories featuring college students. In this sense it’s a precursor to everything from Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise to Donna Tartt’s Secret History. There’s something wild about the atmosphere of an academy, with so many controversial and high-minded ideas flying this way and that, imprinting upon eager minds who may or may not be ready to handle the contradictions they bring.

As I’ve become more comfortable being part of the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island, I’ve sometimes had a sense of myself as a student in an ambitious academy. It’s really something special that people who barely know each other will meet in a room and sing five-part harmony from songbooks written over a hundred years ago, and that people will come and listen to us and applaud. I think I am myself in an academy now — an academy of song.

Oh dainty triolet, oh fragrant violet, oh gentle heigh-o-let (or little sigh) …

5 Responses

  1. My compliments on your posting, Marc. Just two things occur to me:

    1. In addition to COSI, MAGIC FLUTE had a strong influence on PRINCESS IDA, as did Shakespeare’s works, more of which are quoted or alluded to here than in the rest of the G&S canon put together.

    2. In between the Tennyson and the G&S was Gilbert’s play, THE PRINCESS, with music largely by Offenbach. Others who’ve written music to words from Tennyson’s epic include Sullivan, Stanton, Roger Quilter, and yours truly –

    Leonard J. Lehrman

  2. Thanks, Leonard. I forgot to mention the Shakespeare influence in this show.

    Even with all this, I believe the most literary Gilbert and Sullivan of all is “Patience”.

  3. As regards last season’s “Mikado”, one needs must not forget to credit the late-in-the game arrival of conductor Valerie Grehan, who performed the yeoman’s task of getting up to speed with the score over a two-week period in order to direct the full-orchestra shows.

  4. Chris – yes, definitely, and that is Valerie conducting in the “Mikado” photo! It was an exciting season. I should also acknowledge the many talented other performers at people who make GASLOCOLI shows happen!

  5. Thanks for an excellent article, Marc. You taught me some things and I’m ready for June 17… can’t wait! Also, I happily remember that 70’s era HMS Pinafore. I wish you could get Iz Eli Stein back on stage with the company just once for the nostalgia!

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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!