Omari Tau as the Chevalier, in a workshop rehearsal – Photo by Tracy Cox
The world premiere of an operetta commissioned by Lamplighters Music Theatre launches this weekend (5-7) in San Francisco, with another set of three performances in Mountain View later in the month (20-21). It’s called By Georges! – A Day in the Life of the Legendary Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The show is by James D. Sasser and Charles Vincent Burwell, who tell a fictionalized story of Joseph Bologne, the composer, violinist, and soldier who’s been having a long overdue rediscovery recently.
Cheryl Blalock, Executive Director of Lamplighters, says the commission came about during the pandemic, at a time when there weren’t staged performances, and events like the murder of George Floyd inspired many organizations to reevaluate themselves. For more than 70 years, Lamplighters has specialized in the light operas of Gilbert & Sullivan and others.
“What we wanted to do was to try to increase the relevancy and the actual repertoire of operettas, and make it something that was more modern, more diverse, more inclusive,” Blalock explains. “And so I reached out to several composers and librettists that were recommended, and it so happened that we were recommended to contact Vince and James.”
At that time, no one knew that there would currently be a feature film with the Chevalier de Saint-Georges on the big screen. But when live performance was possible again, an outdoor festival concert in Yerba Buena with seven other companies brought together this production’s stage director (Céline Ricci from Ars Minerva), music director (Mary Chun from Pocket Opera), choreographer (Antoine Hunter from Urban Jazz Dance Company) and their star, Omari Tau.
The challenge for the team of Sasser and Burwell (who had already written a show about Alexandre Dumas) was to make a show from the extraordinary life events of the Chevalier, while still keeping a comic tone.
Composer Charles Vincent Burwell says, “We wanted to do it justice, but not have it become epic. And we wanted to be able to have fun with it. And I think that Lamplighters provided us with the outstanding and wonderful opportunity for us to work with this character, and discuss this subject while having it also be somewhat light and fun and enjoyable.”
James Sasser adds: “When we were looking, he had very distinct eras in his life: the early court/music era, and then his military era, and then the revolution era. There was one moment that really stuck out during the early court era when he was really at his peak, both socially and professionally as a composer and musician… By making it a fictionally inspired day in the life, it also sort of followed this comic operetta framework, that you’re following him through 24 hours of just absolute nuttiness.”
As the operetta opens, Joseph learns of the death of his patron, who was to fund a production at the Paris Opera. He has to find a way to raise the funds, fighting three duels along the way, while also confronted by the racism that prevented him from being appointed the director of the Paris Opera in real life.
“Ideally, with the tone of the show, and the lightheartedness of many of the moments, we’re not held to the flames in terms of fact and (I won’t say fiction) embellishment,” says Burwell. “Truly what we want people to leave with is that this is an incredibly talented person, that had to juggle a lot of the things that come with his identity and who he is, and the culture he represents – with grace. And then just have a good time and have fun. And ideally the songs are something they can leave remembering.”
The music brings together a variety of styles, from patter songs, oratorio, hip hop, as well as the 18th Century works of the era being depicted.
“I wanted to try to merge the styles together,” says Burwell, “so that if you are on one side or the other side then you can appreciate the side that you’re not on from a place that feels kind of like home… There’s enough that’s familiar, and there’s enough that is new for any segment of the audience. So that there are some new people that can possibly get into Gilbert and Sullivan. Because in Gilbert and Sullivan’s time, they were very progressive. And we want to try to maintain that legacy, as well as give it something to stand on so it can continue to thrive.
The world premiere performances are this weekend (Friday at 7:30, Saturday and Sunday at 2) at the Presidio Theatre Performing Arts Center in San Francisco – the Sunday show will also be simulcast. And performances at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts will be May 20th at 2 and 7:30, and the 21st at 2.