A Chicago sausage heiress in Yekaterinburg, Russia? | Bleader

A Chicago sausage heiress in Yekaterinburg, Russia?

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Americas jazz age meets the Viennese waltz
  • America's jazz age meets the Viennese waltz

About 15 years ago, Philip Kraus, cofounder of Light Opera Works in Evanston, was sifting through the Northwestern University music library when he stumbled upon a 1928 Hungarian operetta titled The Duchess of Chicago. Kraus had never heard of the operetta composed by Emmerich Kalman, but he liked it so much that he decided to produce the first English translation. Kraus, who wrote the book, brought on Gregg Opelka, composer, playwright, and music director of Tommy Guns Chicago, to write the lyrics. And in 1998, Light Opera Works produced the first English production of The Duchess of Chicago. Now Opelka is on his way to Yekaterinburg, Russia, a city of three million, two hours east of Moscow by plane. There he will once again take on the role of musical director for a production of The Duchess of Chicago at the Sverdlovsk State Academic Musical Comedy Theater.

Opelka, who’s fluent in Russian, has a long-standing relationship with the Academic Theater. He first worked with it in 1993 when the theater produced his musical The Three Musketeers (it ran for four years). This time around, Opelka recommended that the Academic Theater bring over an American production team. So, New York-based director Michael Unger and Los Angeles choreographer Patti Colombo will join Opelka in Yekaterinburg. This is Unger and Colombo’s first time working in Russia, and neither speak the language.

“Of course language is a huge barrier,” says Opelka. “You’re working through interpreters all the time. There are also unique idiosyncrasies. Most of the performers have worked at the same theater for their entire life. They’re like a large family.” When Opelka received the cast list for The Duchess of Chicago, more than half of the cast had also performed in The Three Musketeers 19 years ago.

There are also cultural barriers to navigate. Opelka recalls arriving for a rehearsal for The Three Musketeers when no one else showed up. “It was the day of the egg, a national Russian holiday that no one had told me about.”

The Duchess of Chicago is about culture clash in the late 1920s. Mary Lloyd is the daughter of Chicago’s "sausage king." When she and her friends take a trip to Europe, they make a bet to see who can buy the most exotic item in Europe. In her search, Mary falls in love with Prince Sándor Boris of Sylvaria, a fictional, bankrupt European country. Mary ends up buying Sylvaria, but tensions arise when her love of jazz clashes with the country’s traditional Viennese waltz. “It’s all very lighthearted," says Opelka. "But it’s about this idea that Americans think they can buy whatever they want. It’s funny because we’re bringing over a team of Americans to produce the show in Russia.”

Opelka, Unger, Colombo, and Kirill Sprezhmev, artistic director at the Academic Theater, begin rehearsals next week.

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