10th Anniversary Feature Chicago Tribune

John von Rhein-Reporter

Chicago Tribune

Ten years on, a little operetta troupe in Oak Park thrives by thinking big.


Chicago Folks to the rescue of obscure operettas

July 14, 2015-

When you occupy as specialized a niche in the area’s classical scene as Chicago Folks Operetta, you just naturally try harder.

Indeed, trying harder has been a kind of mantra for the Oak Park-based music theater troupe, whose speciality is resurrecting rare and forgotten gems of silver-age Viennese and German operettas – many of them unheard in the U.S. since the early 20th century, if at all – and presenting them in fully staged productions with orchestra and new English translations.

Beginning Friday and running weekends through Aug. 2 at Chicago’s Vittum Theater, the company will celebrate its 10th anniversary with another tuneful rarity: Viennese composer Leo Fall’s “Madame Pompadour” (1922), a romantic comedy involving King Louis XV, his mistress Madame Pompadour and a handsome soldier vying for her affections.

Chicago Folks Operetta’s husband-and-wife directors, Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly, take enormous pride in the fact that they have contributed to the revival of interest in neglected operettas in recent years in the U.S. Their abiding commitment to this considerable body of work has rescued such toe-tapping confections as Emmerich Kalman’s “Arizona Lady” and “The Circus Princess,” Franz Lehar’s “The Land of Smiles,” Eduard Kunneke’s “The Cousin from Nowhere” and, last summer, Paul Abraham’s “Ball at the Savoy.”

In addition, CFO presents annual multimedia concerts of operetta excerpts, emphasizing overlooked works by Jewish composers and librettists who were brutally silenced by the Nazis during World War II. The troupe also conducts children’s operetta workshops to give the young practical performing experience in the art form.

“We regard (Chicago Folks Operetta) as an opportunity to fill a void practically nobody else is filling,” says Frantzen, the company’s artistic director. “We consider ourselves almost the tip of the spear among the very few American companies who are keeping this musical genre going,” he adds, noting that the Evanston-based Light Opera Works has staged operettas over the years but now focuses on musicals.

If American pizazz usually trumps Viennese style in CFO’s shows, you have to admire their fidelity to the original texts, not to mention the spirit and dedication of the performers. They include singers from the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony choruses, and orchestral players from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago augmented by area freelance musicians.

Both the Libertyville-born Kelly (the troupe’s executive director) and Frantzen hold masters of music degrees and studied voice in Europe. They met in 1996 while they were performing with the operetta ensemble Ohio Light Opera in Wooster, Ohio. They were married two years later and have spent the better part of the last decade singing with the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Frantzen also sang for nine years with the Lyric Opera Chorus.

The mom and pop entrepreneurs aren’t a bit ashamed to admit they run their not-for-profit out of the basement of their Oak Park home. They are CFO’s entire staff, and neither draws a salary. “Everything we do is a labor of love,” Kelly remarks.
You better believe it. Virtually every cent of the operating budget – about $110,000 for the three shows the company is producing this year – goes toward the singers, chorus, orchestra, production team and music director Anthony Barrese, plus hall and score rentals and miscellaneous expenses.

Support comes from the Pauls Foundation, Richard Driehaus Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, along with private donations and contributions from the company’s seven board members.

“With us it’s really all about the projects,” Frantzen says. “Not many companies could do such large-scale works on a budget like ours.”

Everyone in the folks operetta orbit pitches in. Frantzen and Hersh Glagov, the couple’s next-door neighbor in Oak Park, typically spend long evenings working on English translations for current and future shows. “I call him over when I need him,” Frantzen remarks.

The directors audition about 200 singers a season for roles in the company’s shows. “We hear everybody from music theater-trained singers and actors to classically trained perfomers – we need both types in our shows,” Kelly explains. “And we expect our singers to be good dancers as well.”

“Many people have the misconception that because our shows have lighter subject matter they are easy to do,” says Frantzen. “But oftentimes these works are just as challenging to produce as ’serious’ operas.”

Simply tracking down full scores and orchestral parts takes up a great deal of the directors’ time and energies. Some shows are available only in piano-vocal scores, requiring the preparation of orchestral parts for CFO’s 20-plus instrumentalists.
If the Frantzens’ homegrown operation suggests a 21st century version of one of those old MGM musicals starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney (”Hey, let’s put on a show! There’s a barn out back!”), there’s only one problem with that picture – where’s the barn?

In fact, the biggest hurdle facing the company has been finding a proper theater – which is to say, a centrally located venue with good acoustics that’s equipped with an orchestra pit and intimate enough for operetta, yet big enough to accommodate full-size casts and productions.

“From the very beginning we have been nomads in search of a permanent home,” Frantzen declares. “Coming up with the right space is a challenge we are still trying to figure out.”

At least the good Folks have a toehold in the classical recording market. A couple of years ago, Frantzen succeeded in interesting the Naxos label in recording several of its shows. The CFO production of Fall’s “The Rose of Stambul” was released in 2013. “Ball at the Savoy” was recorded last year and is due out in 2016 or 2017. And a Naxos recording of “Arizona Lady” is on the books as well.

Looking ahead, Frantzen says there are more than enough good, stageworthy operettas to fill CFO seasons for at least another 10 years. His dream sheet includes Abraham’s “The Flower of Hawaii” and “Victoria and Her Hussar,” Kalman’s “Czardas Princess,” Lehar’s “Eva” and Oscar Straus’ “The Merry Nibelungen” – a spoof of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.

“The importance of the shows we do,” the artistic director observes, “is that we are giving these forgotten composers a new voice, after so many years of silence and neglect.