Princess Ida isn't new; the comic opera debuted at the Savoy Theatre in 1884, and its satiric takes on feminism, women's education and Darwinian evolution rankled the knickers of conservative Victorian England.
Now Alistair Donkin, who has been jetting in from England to work with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston for 35 years, says the play (the eighth collaboration by composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W.S. Gilbert) was due for another outing.
Donkin is not only directing this production – bringing together an all-volunteer cast including musicians from Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony and the Houston Ballet orchestra – he's also playing Ida's father, King Gama. “It is fairly well-defined as a twisted monster. It's a nasty piece of work and great fun to play,” says Donkin.
A marriage is arranged between two toddlers, and the opera opens 20 years later when the princess is to be handed over to fulfill her wifely duties. "Of course, my character arrives without Princess Ida because she has formed a women's university and doesn't want anything to do with men," says Donkin. "But I do bring with me three other people – my sons – who are as equally stupid and ugly as me. When King Hildebrand [the groom's father] realizes there is no Ida, he throws me and my three sons into prison, and they go to the university with the intent of persuading her to marry."
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Princess Ida is a typical British cross-dressing romp, with the prince, Hilarion, and his entourage donning academic robes and clowning around disguised as female students. As with most farces, things soon come to a head, but Ida refuses to submit. "She wishes to bind all women to her cause, the tyrannic man, so that everybody would bow in gratitude to what she's done," says Donkin. When it's pointed out by King Hildebrand that the human race could not survive without both sexes, Ida acknowledges the hole in her logic. “It is quite the battle of the sexes,” says Donkin. "There's a love element but also, physically, an all-out war."
Donkin says that we're in for a visual treat with the scenery. "This is the set created in 1954 in London for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company [the same company that performed the opera in 1884]. I sang with them in London in the late '70s and early '80s; it was from there that I was invited to come perform." He says the set was purchased in 1993 and brought over from England, and that it's been used twice before in Houston. "It can best be described as surreal, if you can imagine the Walt Disney castle painted by Salvador Dalí; spectacular,” says Donkin.
"When Hurricane Ike blew the doors off the scenery store, it severely damaged the set. The society has been raising money to restore the set, and it looks as good now as it did in 1954," says Donkin. The D'Oyly Carte stenciling is still on the backside of the scenery, reinforcing the huge sense of family felt by the devotees of the society. He says that, the Saturday before the show opens, everybody who has been performing for the past 40 years will gather for a picnic. "Babies and children everywhere. Some of the children from 1982 are now in the cast; it's that much of an institution."
Performances are at 8 p.m. July 22-23 and 29-30; 2:30 p.m. July 24 and 31 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, For information, call 281-724-8363 or visit gilbertandsullivan.org. $28-$53.