New S.D. Opera Company Is on Different Tack : Music: Reincarnation of Gilbert & Sullivan Company as the Comic Opera Company broadens the group's horizons.

The transformation of the 10-year-old San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan Company into the San Diego Comic Opera Company is clearly more than just putting the same detergent into a new, brighter package.

Artistic director Leon Natker's iconoclastic restaging last spring of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Gondoliers," replete with skateboarders dressed in contemporary Day-Glo sportswear, and his selection of the rarely staged 18th-Century vehicle "The Beggar's Opera," which opens the fall season Friday night, signal a new vision for the old company.

" 'Gondoliers' was partly an experiment to see if I could move from the 55- to 70-year-old audience to one in the 40- to 45-year-old range, and it did," Natker said. "We drew a completely different audience. That's the audience I need--the audience anybody needs to survive. Now, we have to broaden the repertory to develop the new audience and also to interest the singers here in town who might work in the company."

Over its first decade, the local company had exhausted the artistic possibilities of an essentially Gilbert and Sullivan diet, according to Natker, who became the company's artistic director last year after the resignation of longtime director Hollace Koman.

"When Holly (Koman) ran the company, they had been through the Gilbert and Sullivan canon three times. By that time, the audience that had started 10 years ago was quite literally dying."

Natker initially described the scope of the Comic Opera's repertory by what he won't stage.

"We're not going to do grand opera or modern Broadway musicals. We want to leave San Diego Opera and Starlight with their own bailiwick, but anything which combines legitimate singing with dialogue I consider ours. For the time being, we will produce operettas and certain early musical comedies that still require singing actors."

If Natker intends to be scrupulous about not treading on the turf of San Diego Opera and Starlight Music Theatre, he is not above a selective raid on their audiences.

"I'm going after a crossover audience," he explained, "people who attend the opera and who are really interested in opera as musical theater, not just a rarefied, romantic foreign-language event a lot of people make it out to be. And I'm partly after the Starlight audience, appealing to that audience that sees musical theater as America's classic theater form."

Natker's desire to demystify the experience of opera for his audience is reflected in his choice of "The Beggar's Opera," an English-language musical that mocked the British fascination with Italian opera's lavish spectacle in the early decades of the 18th Century. Written by the English playwright John Gay in 1728, "The Beggar's Opera" is a concoction of popular ballads, which is why the work is called a ballad opera by music historians.

Johann Pepusch, an immigrant German organist who lived in London, harmonized the opera's ballads and added a few purloined tunes and marches from popular operas of the period.

The success of the original London production of "The Beggar's Opera" and other stage works that imitated its musical style effectively shut down composer George Frederick Handel's prosperous London opera house, the Royal Academy of Music. Gay's opus not only poked fun at operatic convention, but it also skewered London's political establishment by representing the likes of prime minister Robert Walpole as a duplicitous highwayman. "Polly," Gay's equally political sequel to "The Beggar's Opera" was never granted a license to be staged by Walpole's government.

San Diego Comic Opera's production of "The Beggar's Opera" is based on a 1920 London revival of the work. This version of Gay's work was its first 20th-Century revival and the production that inspired Kurt Weill to compose "The Threepenny Opera" with playwright Bertolt Brecht. That version is an updated rendering of "The Beggar's Opera" in German.

"We chose Frederic Austin's 1920 version, which ran 3 1/2 years on the London stage, although I had done the Benjamin Britten version in a successful production for Oak Park (Illinois) Civic Opera several years ago," Natker explained. "Some of Austin's orchestration sounds a bit like (early 20th-Century composers) Peter Warlock or Roger Quilter, but we'll stick with the original 18th-Century style for the production as a whole. I don't want to contemporize it like I did 'The Gondoliers.' I don't do that sort of thing lightly."

The original version of "The Beggar's Opera" contains about 69 musical numbers, which can run to a four-hour performance of Wagnerian endurance. Natker has edited the musical material down to a more audience-friendly 2 1/2 hours.

The rest of the Comic Opera's season includes an April, 1991, production of Rudolf Friml's classic operetta "Rose Marie" and a June, 1991, reprise of Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore."

"We still have some avid Savoyards on the board," Natker said.

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