Lamplighters Return to Princess Ida With Fresh Eyes

Janos Gereben on January 6, 2020
Barbara Heroux, center, in a Lamplighters gala, one of 30 that she has cowritten | Credit: Joe Giammarco

When the San Francisco Lamplighters’ new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida premieres on Feb. 1, will it be just “another opening, another show”?

Not for Barbara Heroux and Cheryl Blalock, former and current Lamplighters executive directors, respectively, who have worked through the holidays to prepare a special new production.

Heroux, who is stage director and author of the revised version, says her G&S experience covers most of her life, beginning with being a fairy in Iolanthe, with the task of teasing the handsome actor playing Private Willis:

“My character’s job was to get him to break his stone-faced, frozen sentry pose. The rest is history: we’ve been married for almost 34 years.”

Jennifer Ashworth as Ida in Lamplighters’ Princess Ida | Credit: Lucas Buxman

For Blalock, with extensive singing experience, the first Lamplighters role was as a bridesmaid in Ruddigore. “The late Gerald Nachman of the Chronicle picked me out of the chorus in his column and deemed me one of his sweethearts for Valentine’s Day of 1983. 

Blalock also has long experience with Ida, which was once advertised by the Lamplighters as “cross-dressing princes, and the feminists who love them.”

“Having played Ida in two separate (non-Lamplighters) productions, I can say that Ida is a wonderful challenge. Her music is passionate, her character idealistic and regal. Playing it in the traditional version was a great joy until the end of the show.

“It was incredibly difficult to play this powerful, passionate person and have her forced to give up her dreams of a women’s university and a life of her choice because her women failed her and her brothers lost the battle for her. It felt like a tragedy, not joyful at all.”

To the rescue: Heroux, Blalock’s predecessor and currently artistic director emerita, righting that wrong.  Having already overseen a Princess Ida, which triumphed both here and on tour in the U.K. (not in Newcastle and no coal involved, but this is still triumphing on G&S’s home field. and resulted in a commercial CD), Heroux made changes this time to maintain the humor of the original “but give us a plot that is pleasing to our 21st-century views.” 

Promotional image for the Lamplighters’ upcoming production of Princess Ida

Victorian audiences regarded the original Ida — based on the poem The Princess by Tennyson — as a barely disguised, not-too-kind satire on feminism, women’s education, and the newfangled, obviously nonsensical science of Darwinian evolution.

And yet, for today’s audiences, there is much to cheer in Ida’s Castle Adamant, where she presides over an all-women’s school where “maiden fair radiant beings” are shielded against men, even the best of whom “though well behaved, at best is only a monkey shaved.” Who is satirized now?

In Heroux’s new version, “re-assigning a few key lines,” Ida’s brothers win the battle, Ida saves Hilarion, and he becomes her loving choice, not her fate:

It were profanity
For poor humanity
To treat as vanity
The sway of Love. 
In no locality
Or principality
Is our mortality
Its sway above!

As usual though, there is no need for deep analysis when charming entertainment is at hand. As before in their 68-year-long illustrious run, the Lamplighters manage to integrate the properly lighthearted approach with imagination, hard work, and great musical and stage talent.

And, the music is outstanding. Anthony Tommasini, not a G&S fan, wrote rhapsodically about the music (if not the story) in The New York Times:

Gilbert, who adapted this three-act text from one of his existing plays, is not at his best here. The blank-verse dialogue is a little stiff and wordy.

Still, the material clearly inspired Sullivan. The score deftly shifts from bubbly vitality to wistful elegance. There are elaborate ensembles, including an extended Act 2 finale for soloists and chorus, rousing music of almost Verdian grandeur."

Heroux adapted the libretto the first time she directed Princess Ida in 1989. She’s tweaked it further since then, keeping the hero (Prince Hilarion) free of the misanthropist remarks originally attributed to him by Gilbert, “so that Hilarion is always admiring Ida and never putting her down,” thus qualifying for Ida’s love.

The Lamplighters’ Princess Ida Live CD

A major change now is in the story, with a new outcome of the fight at the end. “Gilbert has Hilarion and friends win,” says Heroux, “which means Ida has to marry Hilarion – those were the terms of the fight. By reversing that, it becomes Ida’s choice, she stops the fight, stops her brother from killing Hilarion, even though that would be a ‘win’ for her, because she suddenly realizes that she has come to love Hilarion in his disguise as one of her students, and she cannot bear to see him killed.”

And one of the new tweaks, Heroux says, “is a new awareness on my part, and I think that of many others, of transgender people, and an increased sensitivity to how language can be hurtful if not used thoughtfully.”

Heroux’s association with the company is “historic” — she calls Lamplighters “a part of my life since I was cast in the chorus of The Merry Widow in 1974.” She has performed onstage in choruses, small roles, and lead roles; she has directed all of the existing G&S shows, many of them more than once; and she helped to write at least 30 of the annual original-book galas.

While serving as executive director of Volti contemporary music vocal ensemble since 2008, Heroux was Lamplighters’ general director for five years, and when the position was split into two jobs, she remained artistic director for another eight years, until becoming artistic director emerita.

“I simply cannot imagine what my life would be if I hadn’t stumbled into that audition back in 1974,” Heroux says. “Nearly all of my closest friends are people I met through Lamplighters.” And then there was that Iolanthe fairy charming Private Willis ...

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