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An Evening of American Operetta:
Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert and Rudolf Friml
Interview with Roger Rees

Beth Herstein

The Collegiate Chorale, a prominent musical group founded in 1941 by the legendary conductor Robert Shaw, explores a wide ranging repertoire - from Benjamin Britten to Kurt Weill to Victor Herbert. The group has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and other respected New York venues. The Chorale has featured such guest artists as conductor Arturo Toscanini and singers Kathleen Battle, Juan Pons and Bebe Neuwirth. The 2004-2005 season celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Robert Bass as Conductor and Music Director. Upcoming highlights include a March 3rd production of Beethoven's Fidelio at Carnegie Hall, featuring renowned soprano Deborah Voigt; and, an April 20 program of Shakespeare and Verdi, co-conceived by Robert Bass and newly appointed Artistic Associate Roger Rees. First, though, is another project co-conceived by Bass and Rees: An Evening of American Operetta: Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert and Rudolf Friml, which will be performed on February 1 - Herbert's birthday - at Alice Tully Hall.

The job with the Collegiate Chorale is just one of many that Rees has held during his busy and varied career. Rees began as an actor on the British stage, eventually as a member the Royal Shakespeare Company; he has appeared on the New York stage in both musicals and dramas, and he won a Tony Award for the title role in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980. He has had recurring parts in the popular television comedy Cheers and on the drama The West Wing. In addition, Rees is an accomplished director; a recent New York project was the Kurt Weill musical Here Lies Jenny, which starred Bebe Neuwirth and ran during the summer and early fall of 2004 at the Zipper Theater. On January 1, 2005, Rees assumed the post of Artistic Director of the prestigious Williamstown Theatre Festival, after numerous appearances at the Festival as director and performer.

Before he flew to Japan to teach a class on Shakespeare, Rees took a few minutes to chat about the Collegiate Chorale - and, in particular, the February 1, 2005 concert which he co-conceived with Robert Bass.

Talkin' Broadway:  How did you become associated with the Collegiate Chorale?

Roger Rees:  I think I was introduced to them by Dana Ivey, who is a great friend of mine. Then I narrated [Carl Maria von Weber's] Oberon at Carnegie Hall [in April of 2002]. That seemed to go quite well, and so out of that grew some conversations.

TB:  What drew you to the group?

RR:  I think it's a tremendously exciting group of singers. Their repertoire and their search for new relationships with the voice through music is a wonderful thing. And, they're led by a truly inspiring maestro, Robert Bass, a man who has got a wonderful sense of leadership and fun. He possesses endless curiosity. I like him a lot, and we like working together. So it seemed like a very good mix.

TB:  What is the collaborative process with Bass like?

RR:  It's very enjoyable, very rich and rather demanding. Which is exactly what you would want from such an experience.

TB:  What are your primary duties as the Artistic Associate of the Chorale?

RR:  They vary. I try to pursue new ideas. Last year, we did an evening of Kurt Weill material at Alice Tully Hall, in which Bebe Neuwirth sang songs from almost every period of Kurt Weill's artistic life. Songs that he'd written before he was forced to leave Germany. What was astonishing about Kurt Weill was that he was able to - almost like a chameleon - write in the style of any country in which he was living. When he went to Paris, his songs were more French than any Frenchman could write. And it's almost true of his American work, too. He wrote some of the great American songs. Sadly, he never went back to Germany, and his songs are full of loneliness and aching for his homeland.

The Kurt Weill concert was a very moving and wonderful evening. It was very thrilling to be exploring these different authors with the Chorale in this manner. It's a very good example of the kind of work we're trying to do. Kurt Weill at times wanted the actor's voice rather than an operatic singer's voice. Yet, we do very operatic evenings. For example, we're going to do a Verdi and Shakespeare evening on April 20 [at Carnegie Hall], which will have the beautiful arias of Verdi. We try to embrace the range of the human voice in music.

TB:  Robert Bass stated that the February show explores the link between European grand opera, American vaudeville and the development of the American musical theater - all of which is very intriguing. Can you elaborate a little on this?

RR:  Originally, there was nothing in America, just a few trees and things. (Laughs). Then people came here - and it happened in the last 300 years. What came with a lot of these people were their great traditions of music from all over the world. From Europe came a great understanding of grand opera and the European musical and - in this case - French operetta. These things were the melange out of which eventually grew the American musical. That's what we're pursuing with this program. In addition, the Chorale will be performing the work of Victor Herbert, Rudolph Friml and Sigmund Romberg. In order, Friml takes over from Herbert, and Romberg finishes the cycle. He works with Oscar Hammerstein II, who goes on to write The Sound of Music and South Pacific. There's a real continuance there, and it's interesting.

TB:  I understand that there's also a production at the end of this weekend, in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day [Remembering the Dream: A Celebration of Freedom on January 17 at St. Mary's].

RR:  The Collegiate has a production, but I'll be teaching a class in Shakespeare in Japan.

TB:  That brings me to another question. Your career has been so incredibly varied. How do you juggle all of your projects?

RR:  Oh, I think badly. (Laughs.) I don't know. I just like to work hard, that's all ... People are very kind to me. They say, "Oh, you've had a wonderful career." But, really, all I've done is do the next thing that comes along. I just hope that things will continue to come along, that's all. Because I enjoy working, really.

TB:  Any other comments you'd like to add?

RR:  I'm glad there's an interest in what the Collegiate Chorale does. The people in the Chorale do wonderful work. Not quite enough people are aware that they're doing all these various works. Last year, they did the Britten War Requiem, and now they're doing American operetta. It's just a wonderful, wonderful organization. Musically, they do things at the very height - the very best of their ability. It's just extraordinary. And, on the few occasions that I'm actually onstage with their orchestra and the enormous choir, it's such a thrilling thing to be near this music. I encourage everyone else to do the same.

The Collegiate Chorale
and Music Director Robert Bass
An Evening of American Operetta: Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert and Rudolf Friml
With the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players
On February 1, celebrating Victor Herbert's Birthday at Alice Tully Hall
Tickets are $25-60
Call (917)-322-2140 for more information.
For more information, please go online at


Selections by Victor Herbert (1859-1924)
Streets of New York (The Red Mill)
Ireland my Sireland (Eileen)
Toyland (Babes in Toyland)
Naughty Marietta (Naughty Marietta)
Tramp Tramp Tramp (Naughty Marietta)
Southern Moon (Naughty Marietta)
Italian Street Song (Naughty Marietta)
Intermezzo (Naughty Marietta)
Old New Orleans (Naughty Marietta)
Quartet (Would You Say To a Rose) (Naughty Marietta)
Finale (Naughty Marietta)

Selections by Rudolf Friml (1879-1971)
Giannina Mia (The Firefly/movie)
Donkey Serenade (The Firefly/movie)
Allah's Holiday (Katinka)
L'amour (Love Everlasting)
On Hawaiian Shores (Luana)
The Mounties (Rose Marie)
Rose Marie (Rose Marie)
Indian Love Call (Rose Marie)

Selections by Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951)
Song of the Riffs (The Desert Song)
The Desert Song (The Desert Song)
Eastern & Western Love (The Desert Song)
It (The Desert Song)
Finale: One Alone (The Desert Song)

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