Mezzo - Soprano  Melanie  Sonnenberg
== and ==
Director  Bradley  Vieth

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie,
about the Chicago Opera Theater
s production of
The  Grand  Duchess  of  Helmsley - Stein

In order to understand what is being discussed in this interview, here is a brief preview by Ted Shen which appeared in the Chicago Reader.

In updating Jacques Offenbach’s delectable satire The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Chicago Opera Theater’s Carl Ratner has picked a rich contemporary target: Leona Helmsley. Like the title character in the original opera bouffe, she’s an impetuous despot–the “Queen of Mean”–who rules over a tiny principality, New York’s Palace Hotel. Her humble subjects are the maids and bellboys, and she too is threatened by a powerful enemy, the IRS.

In the Offenbach, the duchess falls in love with Fritz, a foot soldier, and quickly promotes him up through the ranks to the dismay of her ministers; in the Ratner version Leona lusts after Fritz, a bellhop, to the chagrin of her managerial staff, while keeping the wealthy suitor Harry at bay. What remains to be seen is how Ratner’s adapted the original libretto’s razor-sharp swipes at mid-19th-century petty autocrats, their jaded manners and jingoism. Offenbach, who wrote the original for the Paris Exhibition in 1867, had to battle censors who thought the duchess was Russia’s man-crazy Catherine the Great. Ratner, under no such pressure from Leona and her ilk, only has to battle claims that the Reagan '80s is a straw man. Musically, however, he’s taking some risks, notably making the orchestra part of the action, as the lounge band onstage: while the slightly reduced ensemble might be all right for more courtly numbers, it could water down the bombastic silliness so crucial to the first act.

For this production, Ratner, who also directs, has recruited mezzo-soprano Melanie Sonnenberg, a veteran of the national musical-theater circuit, for the title role. Tenor James Doing is Fritz, and baritone Michael Sokol plays General Boom (from the original’s Boum), a warmongering buffoon who sings a tongue-twisting, onomatopoeic personal theme song. Bradley Vieth, who has conducted a number of musicals for the Goodman, is in charge of the music, which ranks among Offenbach’s most tuneful and biting. Performances are at the Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balbo.

 Reader June 5, 1997  



In early June of 1997, the Chicago Opera Theater presented their own adaptation of the Offenbach comedy Le Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein [1867], updating it to the scandal involving Leona Helmsley.  The production was a fun romp, and the audiences clearly enjoyed what they saw and heard.

About ten days before the opening, I had the chance to sit down with the leading character and the conductor.  Portions were aired on WNIB, Classical 97, to promote the performances.  Now [2024], as the COT is celebrating its 50th anniversary, I am pleased to present the entire conversation.

Bruce Duffie:   You are about to present The Grand Duchess of Helmsley-Stein.  First, how easy or difficult is it to update an established work into the 1990s?
Melanie Sonnenberg:   In this case it’s very easy.  It works very well because Carl Ratner has created a very clever translation for it, with it still being tasteful!  [All laugh]  We have not made any musical changes, other than certain cuts which are made any time you do a large piece.  There is freedom with that, but as far the flow and style, it works very well.  Even though it was very grand for its times, it’s a piece that’s not been done in this country very much.  So there’s not an issue of immediate comparisons being made, whereas in Europe, the original Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is done more often.  It’s actually very charming.

Bradley Vieth:   One of the problems with the piece is that it doesn’t really have an authoritative performing edition.  There are several versions floating around with several different sets of orchestrations, and several running orders.  So people are a bit bewildered by it when they receive the score and parts.

BD:   How do you decide what order the numbers will be done, or which pieces will be cut, etc.?

Vieth:   One would pick the most immediate appealing pieces... at least that’s what I did!  We actually haven’t cut a lot.  What we’ve done is taken what was there, and cut a couple of the small numbers.  Then we cut down the large numbers to make them much more compact.  The themes come back quite often, so it’s a little easier for the audience.  It’s not as extended as in the original, so everything just comes together a bit contracted, and that’s much better.  Also, we revamped the orchestration quite a bit, so we have a reduced group.  We have thirteen players, and are using the percussion as special colors with a more modern
musical theatre sensibility, rather than the traditional classical orchestration you’d expect to hear from a piece of this time period.  [Notice on his résumé, which is shown at the bottom of this webpage, besides conducting, Vieth also has done the orchestration of several productions.]

BD:   But you’re still keeping it in the French style of Offenbach?

Vieth:   Yes, absolutely, yes.  The classical precepts are there.  We
re just layering on things, and taking things out where necessary.

BD:   Are you always conscious of singing in the French style, even though you’re working in English?

Sonnenberg:   No, I don’t think of it, because I’m not singing in French.  The language really does tie in with the style fairly often.

BD:   Are you singing it more as a musical comedy then?

Sonnenberg:   No, the technique of the voice always remains the same no matter what I perform.  I sing all different types including cabaret and musical comedies, and as far as how I use my voice, this is how I sing.  This work has dialogue, which, like many operettas, you can cut or add.  That also allows you to use your voice in a variety of ways, not only in pitch but inflection.  It can be very similar to sung recitative, and not all singers always feel comfortable with speaking versus singing.

BD:   I would think it would be very difficult to go back and forth, from one to the other.

Sonnenberg:   Not in this case.  Perhaps, for instance, if I was singing a part that might be set in a higher tessitura, and had a lot of high extension with coloratura, which this does not.  This is a part which is typical of many operettas, both Viennese and French, in that a mezzo with a wide range, or a soprano with a good middle range could sing it.  It doesn’t have that absolutely rigid line as far as when you’re casting it, but it needs the personality.  I should I clarify right now that the Grande-Duchesse of the original version, and the character of Leona Helmsley are not necessarily one and the same.  Through the rehearsal period with Carl’s ideas, we’re finding a nice compromise.  I came here with an absolutely clean slate.  We hadn’t talked about what he had in mind, however the only thing I had any reference to
other than the tabloid articles and newspaper items which came out during the high point of the Helmsley scandalwas a made-for-television movie called The Queen of Mean.  In that, the character was played hard-lined, and really manipulative, and almost vindictive at times.  I have several friends in New York who have been associated with her from other pointslike insurance people and legal advisersand they’ve told me some very rather warm and human vignettes about this woman.  [Laughter]

BD:   [With mock horror]  Heavens!

Sonnenberg:   That’s good for me to know, because the papers usually always went along the one line of her character, and never presented any of her humanness.

BD:   Is this part of your responsibility, both in this piece and in general, to make each character as multi-faceted as possible?

Sonnenberg:   In general that
s true for almost every mezzo-soprano character in the repertoire.  That’s why I am never boring!  Never!  [Much laughter]  I have never had any aspirations to be anything but that.  There are many mezzos over the years who, for a variety of reasons, have wanted to become sopranos, and I’m not that!

BD:   [To the conductor]  I assume you always wanted to be a conductor, and not a stage director, or something else?

Vieth:   Actually no, I haven’t really decided what I want to be yet when I grow up!  [More laughter]  I was just going to mention in the Duchess’s music, there a real range to it.  For instance, the first entrance is very grandioso, with a very full choral part announcing the arrival of the great lady.  She comes on and pervades [has influence over everybody], looks over everybody, and then she kind of kicks up her heels and has a little fun.  One finds this dichotomy in much of the music.  There’s a serious side of her when she’s playing what you’d call the ‘corporate person’, and then when she thinks no one is looking, she’ll sing a little ditty about her husbands, or about how she likes the men in uniform, which is Carl’s wonderful translation.  Also, Melanie’s sense of style is right on and right to the point.  She knows exactly when to go ahead with the phrase and when to pull it back, when to emphasize words and when to emphasize the legato line, which makes it a real pleasure working with her.

Sonnenberg:   Thank you!  You should also know that Brad is talented in a variety of ways.  He’s a great piano player, and the other night we started getting into cabaret and cocktail piano right there after the rehearsal had ended.  He’s orchestrating Helmsley-Stein, so it will be a brand-new work.  I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that the basic setting is the open foyer, or lobby in the Helmsley Palace, and the band is right there on the stage.  So there are going to be little ‘repartees’ between the maestro and Leona throughout the evening!

BD:   Who’s in charge
the maestro or Leona?

Sonnenberg:   We exchange!  I told him that on the way home from rehearsal.  I said it’s not just me.  There are options here.  You could say something back, like, “And don’t take it any slower in that da capo.”

BD:   So, you’re going to be playing it for fun.

Sonnenberg:   Oh, I think the flow if it will be lots of fun.

Vieth:   I think so, too, yes.

Sonnenberg:   It wasn’t that long ago that this occurred.  We’re trying to do about fifteen years in a two-hour opera, including the time before she knew and married Harry, and owned the properties.

BD:   Because it’s in English, and because you’re putting across funny lines, are you very careful of your diction to make sure everything comes through?

Sonnenberg:   Oh, I think American singers as a rule, are careful... at least I hope so.  I’ve been doing this professionally since I was eighteen.  I actually started, as a number of my colleagues did, in musical theater, so we were trained to both sing and speak clearly.  That was before supertitles became popular, let alone were used in the theaters as they are now.
BD:   Are you, the conductor, going to make sure that her words are being able to be heard all the time?
Vieth:   Yes, and that does require a certain adjustment in tempo.  If it were in French, we would really be able to fly in certain places that we’re not able to, just because of the staccato consonant-based nature of our language.  So we have to bring the sparkle and the buoyancy to it in some other way.  It’s not really a problem, but it’s a challenge, and we hope that we can meet it.

Sonnenberg:   I think that’s what I meant when you asked me earlier about the French style.  Since we’re not singing in French, that’s where we might have to make a few adjustments with certain words.  Our language is so guttural at times, and so it has to be hard sounds.   French has almost nothing but smooth sounds...

BD:   ...and open sounds?

Sonnenberg:   Yes, and soft sounds.

BD:   Has there been any thought of putting in just a little French for flavor here and there, with the use of a French phrase or two?

Sonnenberg:   That
s another possibility.  [Laughs]

Vieth:   [With a wink]  We must ask the author of the libretto.  [More laughter]

Sonnenberg:   It’s a work in progress.

BD:   How could you learn it without having the translation in hand, or did you have the full translation?

Sonnenberg:   That’s a very good question!  [Has a huge laugh]  We were getting these … as is often the case if you’re doing a new version, or a new translation, singers are asked how do we go about learning the music?  Do we learn the notes first?  Do you go to the language and the history of the piece?  In this case, I knew both of her arias as far as the melodies were concerned, but I didn’t know to what extent, or length, the role was.  Once I received a score, I perused and paged through the whole thing, and was immediately relieved to know that it was not as big and bulky a part as a four-act Verdi opera.  [Laughs]  So that was one thing that calmed me down.

BD:   This is the first time you’ve done this work?

Sonnenberg:   Yes.

BD:   Would you want to do it again in the original French?

Sonnenberg:   Yes, yes!  Here, the translation was new, and also brand new dialogue was being written.  As late as two days before I flew out here, my manager called me to say he had received ten pages of fax, and wanted to know what to do with it.  I told him to call Chicago back and have the pages ready for me at the hotel, because I wouldn’t be able to look at it until then.  You can plan only so far ahead, and if you have a contract for a new role a year or a year-and-a-half down the line, you can organize your preparation, and your routine, and your schedule.  I didn’t know about this opportunity until about six months ago, and then I was also in the midst of other productions.  So you have to try to keep some order as to what you are going to do.  For example, I’m going to do Santuzza [Cavalleria rusticana] for the first time next season, and I haven’t quite looked at it yet!  [All laugh]  Then after this Helmsley-Stein I have two concerts at the end of June.

BD:   But this production is different.  Santuzza is going be Santuzza, all complete and standardized.

Sonnenberg:   But I do have to think about singing it!

BD:   Yes!  [Laughter]  But with this Grand Duchess, you’ve got to not only learn the piece, but it’s essentially a new piece.

Sonnenberg:   Yes, that’s right, and it’s a comedy, but it’s not always comedy which has a certain style about it.  A lot of the learning comes within the rehearsal period.

BD:   [To the conductor]  With all of this going on, are you more of a ring-master than usual?

Vieth:   Not necessarily.  I just keep my ears open and make little suggestions.
Sonnenberg:  [Making sure she has what she needs]  But you have to go by verbal cues.
Vieth:   Oh, absolutely!  It’s much more of things ‘bleeding in’, rather than coming to the spot where the dialogue is over and the song begins.  There’s much more of an overlap and more of a flow than you would find in a normal opera, or even an opera with dialogue, such as Carmen.  There’s also the old tradition of melodrama which has underscoring.  We’re using little bits and pieces of that, which is very interesting.  A lot of it doesn’t go with our dialogues.  We’ve had to change the sense and style of it to match the new dialogue.  We’ve also got a couple of surprises in store that aren’t necessarily part of the score... but it may soon be if this version takes off!

BD:   Do you think Offenbach is pleased with what’s going on, or he is spinning in his grave?

Sonnenberg:   Oh, he would be pleased!  The man was notorious for changing things and adding things.  Look at something as big and grand as The Tales of Hoffmann.  That’s a show I’ve done many, many times as Giulietta, and in many versions.  That’s the other side of the coin.  You become associated, either as a conductor or as a singer, with a certain role or a certain piece, and you get into it, but always wonder what version we will be doing.  There are four versions that I know I’ve done, and it can mean the difference between what kind of voice you’re going to have that night.  It could be anything from a dramatic soprano to a real legitimate mezzo soprano.

BD:   This depended on what singer he had in each production?

Sonnenberg:   Exactly, and that can drive you nuts.  Before you even accept the contract, sometimes the companies haven’t always made those final decisions.  They may be doing one version, but they may add that scene that was done in Venice, or an aria...

Vieth:   ...that was cut in 1893!  [Laughs]

Sonnenberg:   They did this in operetta all the time.  One of my very first jobs was a film of The Merry Widow with Beverly Sills.  They wanted girls who could actually sing and dance the Can-can.  We played the respective ambassador’s wives.  There were three of them, so we ended up doing the whole show.  I had never done The Merry Widow before and, all of a sudden, all these new songs were being inserted for Madame Sills, and rightly so!  For example, Meine Lippen sie kussen so heiss is from Giuditta [also by Franz Lehár].  They did this all the time for their stars, and I’m sure the same thing happened with the French pieces at the time, depending on who was singing it that night, and what her signature tune was...

Vieth:   ...and what her key was!

BD:   In opera or operetta, how much can you mix and match like a Chinese menu?

Vieth:   It depends on the intention of the composer.  Certainly, Verdi wouldn’t want anyone to mess around with the score, and besides the cuts, not Wagner.

BD:   But even Rossini did it.

Vieth:   Rossini, of course.  When the performer was the attraction, that is when you could mix-and-match.  But when the piece was the idea, then the composers would give less leeway.  With this piece, we’re keeping the idea that is paramount with Offenbach, and that is satire, wit, and social commentary.  Those have all remained very much intact, and I think he would be greatly pleased with it.  He would really be fascinated with Leona Helmsley, and then probably would have written a piece himself had he existed on the planet at the same time.

Sonnenberg:   The man had to have had a sense of humor, and he appreciated improvisation.  That happens within the rehearsal period.  You hope it doesn’t happen a lot when you’re in performance, but there are those moments.  [Laughter all around]  I find it fascinating, and a nice contrast to the absolute on-the-mark idea when you’re doing the more bread-and-butter classical pieces.

BD:   How do you divide your career between bread-and-butter and fun?

Sonnenberg:    I don’t know if it’s strategic by any means, but in my personal case, I’m grateful that I was trained in a way that has offered me a variety of things which did not hurt me.   On the way over here we were talking about musicals, because so many of the opera companies now program a musical or an operetta each season.  There are those purists and/or patrons that say it’s not opera, and I’m not going to get into that definition.  But as American singers, the point is that we are trained to do a variety of things, especially in my case as a mezzo soprano.  Perhaps certain other voice-types might be much more specialized.  A Verdi baritone might only sing certain roles, but as a mezzo soprano, you only do a select repertoire if you’re a very unique phenomenon like, say, Frederica von Stade was when she started her career.  I’m not that.  I wasn’t presented by my management or my teachers as a specialty person.  I was a versatile person, and I think it’s the best of all worlds.

BD:   [With a nod to Candide of Bernstein]  The best of all possible worlds?  [Laughter all around]

Sonnenberg:   That’s what we’re talking about.  When I would do A Little Night Music, and three weeks later go into a production of Cenerentola, I always felt that one helped the other.  You carried something from that experience of doing Sondheim into the patter in Rossini, and vice-versa.

BD:   [To the mezzo]  Your voice, of course, will dictate what you sing.  [To the conductor]  You have a baton in your hand, so you have a little more freedom of what you’re going to conduct.  So how do you decide what you’re going to conduct and what you’re not going to do?

Vieth:   My repertoire?  Oh, my gosh!  I pretty much take what’s given to me.  I do like doing really odd pieces... not that this is an odd piece, but it’s out of the ordinary.  I like something where I can add a part of myself.  In this case it would be re-orchestrating it.  In the past I’ve done a lot of touring of Broadway shows in Europe, sometimes in German, sometimes in French.  It was very interesting to do West Side Story in French, and Chicago [the musical] in German, which worked very well because it very much plays on the style of Kurt Weill.  They recognized that, and I actually was the Master of Ceremonies, and announced all of the acts.  It’s set up in the style of a Vaudeville show, so I announced all the acts in German, and they loved it!  I just like doing that kind of thing, that mixes genres together.

BD:   But it’s all entertainment?

Vieth:   Yes, entertainment, absolutely!

BD:   How much is art?

Vieth:   I think a great deal!  The more entertaining it is, people don’t recognize the art that underlies it.  It’s an artless thing!  [Laughter]

Sonnenberg:   Yes, but we’re constantly communicating.  We’re communicators, and that’s art.

BD:   Do you feed off the audience that’s there?
Sonnenberg:   Oh, absolutely, and especially in this kind of piece.  In fact, we have been told that there would probably be a very small invited audience at the dress rehearsal, and I hope so, because especially when you’re playing comedy, you get caught up when you’re doing dialogue.  But whatever piece it is, you are involved in the little world of that piece, and when you’re on the inside of it versus the outside of it, you start laughing at things.  There might be a little inside joke with something that happened, and you just connect with it.  But your audience might have a completely different perspective or reception to that same moment.  So it’s beneficial when you’re doing buffo opera, comedy, or light opera that you have some idea of the pacing.  When you’re plowing through a piece of dialogue, and all of sudden you have an audience, they might laugh in the middle of something which you’re not accustomed to hearing, and so it changes your speed of delivery, or where you’re going to take a pause.  No matter how well prepared you are, and how you think the flow will go, it still is absolutely necessary.

Vieth:   There is always the unexpected...

Sonnenberg: matter how often you do it.  If you’re not accustomed to doing any kind of light or comic piece, then you really need to have some people out there.

Vieth:   In a way, it’s more difficult because there is much more of an interaction with a comic or a lighter piece.

BD:   Then, who’s in charge
the conductor or the audience?

Vieth:   It’s both, and also the performer.  The performer really sets the pace, and if the audience starts laughing in the performance, and the performer is not giving that beat, then they will stop laughing.  It’s almost a control thing.  You determine when to stop the laugh just as it reaches the peak.  Then you cut her off, and you go on with the next line.

Sonnenberg:   It’s just like the athletes in some ways.  I became fascinated with tennis some years ago, the season when Jimmy Connors was in the Open.  It was phenomenal to see one person take the energy from these thousands of people, and turn it completely around to his use.  He just soaked it up, and gave it right back to them.  I’m sure most of my colleagues do the same.  I love being out there.  The easiest part of my job is being out on stage, being able to present and communicate my art.  I need those people there, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s twenty-five or 2,500.  Whether I send it this way or that way, I feel it.  It might be something different to each artist, but there is an energy exchange, and the artist has to be open for it.  The one thing with comedy is that if you work too hard at it, nothing’s going to happen.

Vieth:   Then it falls flat.  It’s got to be within the context of a character and an intention.  If it’s not then it doesn’t relate to anything, and it’s not a funny bit.

Sonnenberg:   But you really can feel it up there when they’re with you, or when they’re not.

BD:   I hope the audiences here in Chicago are with you!

Sonnenberg:   Me too!

Vieth:   We don’t want the Palace Hotel strewn with tomatoes!  [Much laughter all around]

BD:   Does Leona know that you’ve done all this with her life?

Sonnenberg:   I was working on it with a coach of mine in New York before coming here, and we both looked up at one another at some rather dry moment of translation, and I told him that I assumed they had checked it all out legally, and he agreed with me.  Mark Tiarks is now the General Director of Chicago Opera Theater, and I have known him for many years because he’s been associated with other opera companies in this country.  I asked him how this worked when you do a show about someone famous, and he said that was exactly the case.  She is completely public.  Everything that has been involved, either in the text or in the dialogue, is historic.  History happens.

BD:   So as long as you don’t liable her, then it’s all right?

Sonnenberg:   Yes.  It’s already been printed many times over in books, newspapers, magazines, interviews, etc., and he said it’s open territory.

Vieth:   It was much the same in Offenbach’s time.  They made sure they lampooned critics who had a certain favorite in the political arena, or a king, or a queen, or some other who was being satirized.  It’s open season, really.  It’s public domain.  They are public figures, and unless it’s something libelous or scandalous, it should be fair game.

Sonnenberg:   We’re not creating anything fictitious.

BD:   Have you invited her to see the production?

Sonnenberg:   No stone is left unturned!  [Bursts out laughing]

BD:   Do you think she will show up?

Vieth:   She’s certain to come for the Leana Helmsley look-alike contest!

Sonnenberg:   Yes!  On the Friday performance, there’s going to be a Leana Helmsley look-alike contest, so anyone who attends the performance can come as Leona .  It is my understanding that the cast will make the decision as to who wins.

Vieth:   And you don’t necessarily have to be a woman to enter the contest!

BD:   [At this point I thanked both my guests, and wished them well with the production.]




See my interviews with Linda Brovsky, Julian Patrick, and Robert Orth

© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 24, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.