Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An interview with Gregg Opelka

In October and November 2009, Light Opera Works ran C'est la vie, local composer Gregg Opelka's "refreshingly new, witty, funny and slickly sophisticated musical" ( about two fading chanteuses who take over the cabaret one night to give the show of their lives, with their own droll and lively songs! Photo credit: Chris Ocken, Ocken Photography ©2009 Pictured l. to r. Jeremy Ramey, Jennifer Chada, Gregg Opelka, Kelly Anne Clark. Set by Courtney O'Neill.

We sat down with Gregg recently to ask him about the show and about being a playwright.

LIGHT OPERA WORKS: What had you been working on prior to C’est la vie?
GREGG OPELKA I began work on C’est la vie in 2001 and it premiered in 2002 at Theatre Building Chicago. Prior to that, in 2000 I was working in collaboration with Todd Mueller and Hank Boland on a big Wild West shoot-em-up musical called The Singin' Cowboy, very different in both storyline and idiom from C’est la vie. This was the same team that created Soup du Jour which Light Opera Works produced in 2002 on its Second Stage. After C’est la vie I wrote a show called Jingle Man about an ad jingles writer who gets a little surprise help from Tchaikovsky’s ghost; it’s the only show I’ve written that has never been produced. But I’ll get back to polishing it and peddling it soon.

LIGHT OPERA WORKS How does a new musical get produced? Do you “workshop” your shows? What is that like?
GREGG In general when you’re creating a new work, you go through a series of readings or “workshops.” The readings can be casual private affairs or open to the public. I used to go all out with elaborately staged public readings, but later found that you really just need the actors standing at music stands. A good actor can pull off a reading with a minimum of movement really well. So I’ve done that with my plays, and we did it with C’est la vie, of course. The public reading gives you valuable instant feedback from the audience.

C’est la vie actually had two “out-of-town” try-outs before being produced in Chicago, the first time at The Box Factory for the Arts in St. Joseph Michigan, and at Footlights Players in Michigan City Indiana. At the Box Factory we were able to set the audience up at cabaret seating, tables with candles, small sofas, all of which gave it a really authentic feel.

I wrote my first show when I was 21 or 22, and it wasn’t a very good show, but it really taught me how to write a show—the variety of song needed in the score. One important trick I discovered back then is that it pays to reward the audience early on with a real toe-tapper of a song. The audience is usually interested in the opening number automatically, but a really fun, hummable second or third song renews your bargain with them and makes them want to stay on the train. You need to grab the audience with a catchy, memorable song, right up front, and get them in your camp. You also have to balance the type of songs you write. I was good at writing ballads but you can’t have an entire show full of ballads. Most stories depict a variety of moods and emotions and the songs should reflect that variety. The songs exist to tell the story in sound.

While in college, I fell in love with Cole Porter, along with Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Lerner and Loewe. I realized that I wanted to do that kind of writing, musicals—to make people tap their feet and smile. My song in this show, It’s a Crazy World N’est ce pas? , I hope captures the tone of the whole show; it’s a little piece of ear candy that I want the audience to be humming as they leave.

I’ve written 10 musicals—with a number of collaborators—and nine of them have been produced. Writing a musical is a lot like golf—you’re always trying to improve your game.

LIGHT OPERA WORKS Is play writing a solo or collaborative exercise for you?
GREGG I’ve written both solo and collaborative shows, and it really depends on the story. I couldn’t really have written C’est la vie with any of my prior co-writers (NB: Jane Boyd, Jack Helbig, Todd Mueller, Hank Boland), because they just weren’t as obsessed as I was by the idioms and style of 1950s Parisian cabaret. I, on the other hand, fell in love with that music and that era while in college. But I didn’t want to write strictly an Edith Piaf bio-musical; bio-musicals are very hard to pull off. And, I would naturally have had to use her music, so then I wouldn’t get the opportunity to write in that wonderful French cabaret style. And that was just too much fun to pass up.

LIGHT OPERA WORKS What are you working on now?
GREGG I’m trying my hand at a film. Because, well, why not?, it’s something I’ve never done.

LIGHT OPERA WORKS Do you do this for a living, or do you have a day job?
GREGG Well, actually a night job. About three-fourths of my income comes from royalties and the other quarter from playing piano. I am the piano player at Tommy Gun's Garage, a roaring-20s gangster dinner theater and Chicago’s longest running-show. Like all authors, I still do some self-promotion and networking, but at this point in my career all my plays are handled by Dramatic Publishing and they do a fine job of promoting my works and getting my plays produced.

LIGHT OPERA WORKS Do you feel like growing up in the Chicago suburbs has informed your work?
GREGG Well, in fact, I grew up first on the south side of Chicago until I was seven—and still remember the old neighborhood with nostalgia. Then my parents moved to Glenview—taking me with them, fortunately—where I spent the rest of my childhood and adolescence. This is something people always ask: do you write about yourself? And actually, no, I don’t like to write about myself. I really don’t think I’m very interesting. Playwrights don’t fight wars, or jump out of airplanes or climb mountains, but we like to write about people who do.

LIGHT OPERA WORKS Do you love theater? Or hate it? In other words, has theater that you’ve loved inspired you to create, or has there been so much bad theater that you wanted to try to “fix it?”
GREGG Oh I love it. I love the theater. If you’re going to work in theater you have to love it, because it’s too hard to do if you don’t. And you have to have rhinoceros skin because you’re going to get beaten up from time to time. Not everyone will like what you write, and that’s all right. As long as enough people do—as long as you find that unique audience your voice speaks to—that’s what matters.

LIGHT OPERA WORKS Light Opera Works is known mostly for doing classic musicals and operetta and our audiences really love it when we do the familiar works. So what should our patrons be thinking when they walk into a musical they’ve never seen before?
GREGG That’s a great question. Audiences should just remember that once, no one had heard The Sound of Music or Kiss Me, Kate. We just want you to walk into the theater with that same openness and air of expectation that audiences had when they walked into those classic shows for the first time 50 years ago. Musical writers today are only trying to do exactly what Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter and others of that golden era were trying to do—delight your senses.

The playwright with Kelly Anne Clark (right) as Dominique Jolie, the sexy songbird who puts the ooze in chanteuse and Jennifer Chada as Fatiguée Fourbue, the woman who's seen it all, done most of it, and now just sings about it. Costumes by Darcy Elora Hofer, Hair and make up by Marvin Riebe. Photo credit: Chris Ocken © 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Can you hear me now?

Sound engineer Daniel Black gets ready for C'est la vie.

Thank you to our generous donors for the brand new sound system that is making our current show on the Second Stage, C'est la vie, merveilleux.

The system, designed by TC Furlong, features an Allen & Heath ZED-428 24 channel mixer, K12 mains and a snake by Whirlwind (don't be alarmed, herpetophobes--it's a kind of bundled audio cable). Individual donors sponsored various components, including the channel mixer at $1,438.33, 8 acoustical panels, lengths of cable (a bargain at $39.86!), and speakers.

General Manager Bridget McDonough "auctioned" the system, one component at a time, at our recent Wine, Chocolate, & Song benefit at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian. Each donor gets our eternal thanks (and our patrons' eternal thanks for the great sound upgrade at the Second Stage), and a full tax deduction for making a charitable gift to the company.

If you'd like to help with a few components that haven't found a donor yet, go to Make a Donation on our web page, or call us at 847-869-6300. Everyone who makes a donation for the sound system will be invited to a special event featuring a tour of the system.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

2009 Joseph Jefferson Nominations

The Jeff Awards have announced the 2008-2009 nominations for Chicago Equity productions, and Light Opera Works is proud to be on the list as a multiple nominee. George Andrew Wolff received a nomination for Best Actor in a Revue and Anne Gunn one for Best Actress in a Revue for Side by Side by Sondheim on the Second Stage in October/November 2008 (pictured. photos copyright 2008 Chris Ocken).

Scenic designer Courtney O'Neill, who designed our Iolanthe set in 2008, also received a nomination for her design for "Talk Radio" at The Gift Theatre Company. Courtney will be the scenic designer for our 2009 Second Stage show, C'est la vie, by local composer Gregg Opelka, which opens on October 9, 2009 at the Light Opera Works Second Stage, 1420 North Maple Street in Evanston.

Due to Jefferson Committee Award rules, our Main Stage shows are not eligible for the Jeff Awards.

The Jeff Awards sent judges to 141 productions offered by 57 producing organizations resulting in 179 nominations for the 2008-09 season. Committed to celebrating Chicago theater, the Jeff Awards has been honoring outstanding theater artists annually since it was established in 1968.

Congratulations Anne, George and Courtney!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Iconic costumes

A delightful find from last year's production of Gigi was the name "Karin Wolfe" stitched into the bathing costume. Who was Karin Wolfe? She was Broadway's first "Gigi" and the first person to wear that very costume.

Our My Fair Lady costumes have an equally good pedigree. Leased from Costume World in Deerfield Beach, Florida, they are primarily originals and exact reproductions of Cecil Beaton's designs from the original Broadway production and the 1964 movie staring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. Beaton’s designs won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design (1956) and the Academy Award for Costume Design (1964). Costumer for our production is Jill Van Brussel.

Natalie Ford, who plays Eliza Doolittle in the Light Opera Works production, also portrayed our Gigi last season, and has gotten the opportunity to wear these iconic costumes for two of our productions.

For more information about the show or to purchase tickets visit or call (847) 869-6300.

photos: copyright 2009 Chris Ocken, photos feature Nick Sandys as Henry Higgins, Natalie Ford as Eliza Doolittle, and Jo Ann Minds as Mrs. Higgins

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Congratulations, Joe!

Joseph Krzysiak (center), bassist with the Light Opera Works Orchestra, played his 50th show with the company at the opening production of our 29th season, Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Pictured with Joe are Conductor and Music Director RogerBingaman (left), and concertmaster Harvey Lobstein, (right). Members of the Light Opera Works are represented by the Chicago Federation of Musicians.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Waltz Time!

Here's Light Opera Works Music Director Roger Bingaman discussing the use of the waltz in Sondheim's A Little Night Music, playing through June 14 at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston. Roger spoke at our recent "At Home" event. For more about the waltz and A Little Night Music, come hear Mike Kotze's "Balcony Talk" on Sunday, June 14 at 12:45 in the upstairs Balcony of Cahn.

At Home with Light Opera Works

Last month we had our annual Season Opening Party for donors, generously hosted by board member Cathy Westphal and her husband Gary Raphael at their beautiful North Shore home.

Forty Light Opera Works supporters (including our Gala committee and Events staff, picture right) enjoyed wine, Sangria and a light buffet, and enjoyed meeting each other and several cast members from A Little Night Music.

I always enjoy speaking directly with our patrons, and it was great to introduce the season to such an intimate and enthusiastic crowd . The event is part of our At Home series, where patrons who make direct donations of at least $100 are invited to meet our actors and designers in homes and boutiques around Chicago and the North Shore.

Artistic Director Rudy Hogenmiller also spoke, telling us about Sondheim’s wonderful dancing script, and showing guests the designer’s model of the set. Said Rudy, “the show never stops moving, with scenes dancing in and out, so we’ve tried to make the set dance as well.” It was delightful watching Rudy, with his dancer’s background, practically start to dance himself as he enthusiastically described the show. You’ll get to see it all for yourself June 5 through 14 at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston.

Find out more about our production and buy tickets by visiting us at

Thursday, May 28, 2009

More than just Great Music Great Stories and Great Shows

Light Opera Works also offers great deals to our patrons who want to eat out before or after the show!

While we can't send you to Maxim's with Gigi and Gaston (picture) , we can introduce you to our Dining Partners just a few short blocks from Cahn Auditorium. These terrific Light Opera Works supporters also offer you, the patron, great deals—like a 15% discount with your ticket stubs at Prairie Moon, or 20% off on performance days at Trattoria Demi on Sherman Street in Downtown Evanston. Or you might think about joining us on New Year's Eve at Oceanique for exquisite 4-star pre-show dining.

Our restaurant partners are active sponsors, providing financial support for our programs. When you dine at one of these restaurants you help provide a direct financial benefit to Light Opera Works.

Our other Dining partners include Quince, Trattoria D.O.C. on Main Street, Lulu's dim sum & then sum, and Campagnola, all in Evanston.

photo credit: Chris Ocken, copyright 2008

Friday, May 1, 2009

Great Music, Great Stories, Great Shows and a Great Party!

It’s not all work here at Light Opera Works. Sometimes we get to cut a rug and bring our friends together for fun and fundraising. The stars and the checkbooks came out to support 2009 YouthReach and SeniorReach, with 150 people coming together to raise more than $45,000 for these great community engagement programs.

This year’s spring benefit was themed “A Devil-May-Care Affair,” chaired by Diane Blake and Lori Twombly and hosted by Jim and Rosemary Hughes in the beautiful terrace level at the North Shore Country Club in Glenview.

John and Lori Twombly (pictured, far left) also hosted a special V.I.P. reception, where guests at the Premium level met opera great Samuel Ramey and the Hon. Judy Baar Topinka (photo, center) at a private Champagne Reception. Later, following dinner, Light Opera Works presented Ms. Topinka with the Arts Advocacy Award while Mr. Ramey received the Artistic Excellence Award. Also pictured is event co-chair Diane Blake with Tom Blake (far right)

Charming as ever, star of Light Opera Works and Chicago theater James Harms acted as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, with Artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller hosting a star-studded musical program. Featuring More great Light Opera Works favorites including Larry Adams , Natalie Ford, Jessye Wright, Catherine Lord and Jim Harms, with Linda Slein on piano, performed songs from the upcoming 2009 season. For a finale, they surprised honoree Samuel Ramey by leading the crowd in “Happy Birthday.” You’ll be able to see all of these critically acclaimed and award winning actors in our upcoming season.

I’m so grateful to everyone who came and to our wonderful sponsors. Flowers were provided by Carl Davenport of Davenport Designs and photography by Jennifer Schumann of Horizon Photography. Other sponsors were Abt Electronics, LaserStar Productions and Marcus Productions.

We have lots more events planned for the season, and of course our wonderful shows. Check out our website for details, and subscribe to this blog to get the latest updates and offers!
(photo credits: Jennifer Schumann, © 2009)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Yekatrinburg, Russia

This is the third in a series of three blogs about my autumn trip to Vienna, Budapest and Yekatrinburg, Russia.

This was my fourth time to the city of Yekatrinburg and has it changed! I have not been to Russia in eight years, and seeing it again was an experience in itself. It would take many pages to describe the changes. I will just say it is now much like any other place in Europe in regards to technology, but still retains its Russian soul (for better and worse). But this is about my experiences at the Svedlovsk State Academic Theater of Musical Comedy, a major state theater in the third largest city in the Russian Republic.

I was one of 10 international judges at the Second Vladimir Kurochkin International Competition of Young Artists of Operetta and Musicals. The other judges were from Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

The competitors, age 21 to 35, were professional performers from theaters all over Russia. They entered in one of three categories: Musical Theater, Operetta, Musical Theater Dance.

It was our job, as judges, to watch a first round of competition, where each of the contestants performed two pieces. Operetta was performed with live piano; musical theater with recorded accompaniment and dance with recorded music. We were asked to rate the performances on a scale of 0 to 25, and to judge overall performances; not just voices. Everything counted - presentation, choice of material, dancing, acting, singing etc.

We then had to eliminate about one-third of the contestants. Those remaining moved to a second round, where they again performed two pieces. Some had one new piece and repeated one from the first round; others had two new pieces. In this round the operetta contestants performed their selections with full orchestra. (Ah -- the glories of state funded theaters!)

The entire contest took place in the theater, with full tech -- lighting, sound, costumes (which the performers brought with them), etc. Each contestant received one rehearsal of each piece.

After this round we again rated the performers on the scale of 0 to 25. Following the tabulation, we discussed who should receive the grand prize; plus first, second and third prizes in each category, as well as honorable mentions.

Then all performers were invited to perform in the final Gala Concert. The judging was completed on Monday evening and the concert was on Wednesday evening.

The prizewinners knew they would receive a prize, but did not know what it would be -- maybe honorable mention, maybe grand prize. At the Gala Concert, members of the theater also performed, as well as several of the judges. There were other prizes awarded that did not come from the judges. The audience got to vote for an "Audience Favorite" and the family of Vladimir Kurochkin, the actor and director for whom the contest is named, was awarded a prize.

The entrance fee was 500 rubles. The prizes were pretty substantial -- $5,000 (yes, dollars) for the grand prize, $1,500 for each first prize, $1,000 for each second prize and $500 for each third prize. Honorable mentions received certificates. The special prizes got trophies.

In addition to the contest, the theater held a concurrent meeting of musical theater professors from 15 universities, who shared workshops and master classes on the teaching of musical theater. They also attended some of the competition rounds and the final Gala Concert.

I was able to attend several master classes in addition to the judging. The theater was not running their season yet; it started on October 3. It would have been interesting to see their new musical based on the life of Catherine the Great, but I had to get back for the opening of Side by Side by Sondheim at my theater, Light Opera Works.

I have never served on a jury before and it was a great experience. It was fascinating to hear the judges' widely divergent opinions of the performers, and wonderful to meet musical theater professionals from other nations. I have many fond memories of my week in Yekatrinburg.


I was honored to be invited by one of Hungary's premiere actors and filmmakers, Robert Koltai, to attend a special invited performance of the musical “Sose halunk meg” which translates to " We Never Die".

The musical, which plays in the repertory of Jozsef Attila Szinhaz (Attila Jozsef Theatre) is based on Robert Koltai's 1994 hit film of the same name. Here is a link to the review of the movie:

This musical is a current favorite in Budapest with more than 50 performances last season and many more performances scheduled for the coming year.

The story, also written by Koltai, is based on the life of his own real Uncle Gyuszi, a small time salesman, hustler, gambler and womanizer who leads his teenage nephew on a coming-of-age adventure in communist Hungary in the 1960's.

Mr. Koltai worked with composer Dés László and lyricist Nemes István to turn this popular movie into a stage musical with Koltai himself as Uncle Gyuszi.

I found the show to be delightful and moving. A true love story between a nephew and his uncle and between the uncle and life. Of course, the performance was in Hungarian, but the humanity of the story transcended the language barrier. The music is catchy - ranging from 1960's pop, to gypsy folk, to contemporary jazz and more. I find myself popping the CD in my car player as I drive around Chicago -caught up in its infectious good feeling - even though I do not know a word of Hungarian.

The production's scenery is a minimal unit set that functions for many locations. The 1960's are evoked with the period costumes. An added bonus is the parade of Hungarian stage legends playing a number of compelling characters that the pair encounter on their journey.

The only drawback to the production was the use of recorded music. The theater in which it is performed is traditionally a drama theater and does not usually produce musicals - so there is no place for live musicians. But that aside, if you are traveling to Budapest - Check out “Sose halunk meg”

Vienna, Budapest and Yekatrinburg, Russia

This past summer I was invited to be an International Judge at the Second Vladimir Kurochkin International Competition of Young Artists of Operetta and Musicals in Yetatrinburg, Russia. The contest took place from September 25th to October 1, 2008.

When I learned that I could fly direct from Vienna to Yekatrinburg, I decided to finally visit Vienna. I have been involved with Light Opera Works for almost 30 years and had never been to Vienna. It was time.

In Vienna I was able to stay with my friend Suzanne Kerry and her family. She is an American who has made her living as an actress and singer in Vienna for many years. Through her contacts she was able to get me tickets to The Merry Widow at the Volksoper and to “Rebecca”, a new musical by Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay that is literally “burning up” Vienna. (You may remember the Hitchcock film based on the same novel.)

After seeing The Merry Widow performed at the most famous venue for operetta in the world, I believe that Light Opera Works can hold its head high and take great pride in the quality of our work here in Chicago. It is true that the musicians and vocalists at the Volkoper have a special affinity for the works of the composers that brought Vienna such renown in the 19th and early 20th century. But in many aspects of the production of operetta, including: scenery, costumes, staging, choreography, and the work of our singing actors and orchestra, I can honestly say that Chicago artists are as good as, if not better than their Viennese counterparts.

We cannot match a state supported operation like the Volksoper in terms of facilities, rehearsal space, number of performances etc. But in terms of what the audience sees on the stage when they attend a performance, Chicago can hold its head high.