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Friday, July 19, 2013

Princess Ida

Apologies to W.S. Gilbert Dept.: My good friend Richard McKee, who died in April, was for many years Artistic Director of the Syracuse Opera. The company used to present a summer concert of a Gilbert & Sullivan score with spoken continuity. In 2006, he asked if I could write something for "Princess Ida." It seemed appropriate to write it in verse. What follows is quite lengthy, and I expect only the most ardent G&S fan to stick it out.


A PALACE. A PAVILION, thronged with courtiers debonair.
We don’t know where this kingdom is, and, frankly, we don’t care;
We also don’t know when it’s set, although it’s safe to guess
We’re in the 1880s, time of vintage G and S.

King Hildebrand, protective dad, determined he would try
To save his son, Hilarion, from courtship gone awry.
He worried that his son and heir might wed some selfish shrew,
And so he got the kid betrothed. The boy was only two.

Or married – in the dialogue, the terms are often switched –
Whatever happened way back then convinced the prince he’s hitched.
A most discerning two-year-old, he liked young Ida’s style
As she capered on a carpet wearing nothing but a smile.

And now he waits to meet his bride (fiancĂ©e, if you’d rather);
She’s due at any moment now, escorted by her father.
This guy’s a king as well, to up the ante of this drama,
But nothing much to look at (sorry, if you’re singing Gama).

His daughter Ida – she’s the one who drew these eager masses:
They search the land with telescopes, and even opera-glasses.
Florian is Hilarion’s friend, he gamely stands before us,
To sing a song of welcome with assistance from the chorus.

    [1 – Chorus & Solo (Florian) “Search throughout the Panorama”]

King Hildebrand now enters, seeking news
Of how to welcome Gama. He can choose
To see that Gama’s party’s wined and dined,
Unless, of course, the Princess stayed behind.
If that’s the case, forget it – they’ll be fed
Inside a dungeon cell on crusts of bread.
(If this were set in 1964,
I’d murmur to the king, “Make love, not war!”)

    [2 – Song (Hildebrand and Chorus) “Now Hearken to My Strict Command”]

(Can be recited over the opening chords of #3)
With such a charming show of rage,
The whole assembly leaves the stage.
Now enters Prince Hilarion
To say . . . but let him carry on.

    [3 – Recitative and Song (Hilarion) “Today We Meet”]

Hilarion is hopeful. Not the King,
Who says: Forget this wife. Return the ring.
Let’s muster out the forces, load the guns,
Here’s Gama at the gate with his three sons.
Now, is the song that asks for your attention,
A Gilbert biographical invention?
Is it Gama? Is it Gilbert in the patter?
As Gilbert said, it really doesn’t matter.

    [4 – Chorus “From the Distant Panorama”]
    [5 – Trio (Arac, Guron, Scynthius and Chorus) “We are Warriors Three”]
    [6 – Song (Gama) “If You Give Me Your Attention”]

Then Gama, brazen rudeness as his forte,
Insults the King, the Prince, and half the court.
The King, already angry, wants to know
Why Ida isn’t there. “Let’s have it, bro.”
“Oh. Ida? Well. She’s elsewhere. She directs
A college only for the fairer sex.
They’re up at Castle Adamant. No men
Have ever breached that tough-to-get-to den.”
“No males at all in evidence, you say?”
“Just what the postal service sends their way.
And while we’re punning, here’s a gag that’s grim:
In church, they find it hard to sing a hymn.
The girls are at their studies every day
From cockcrow till the twilight fades away.”
“For cockcrow you must have a rooster, then?”
“Oh, no,” says Gama. “An accomplished hen.”

    [7 – Finale (Gama, Hildebrand, Cyril, Hilarion, Florian and Chorus of
        Girls and Men) “P’raps If You Address the Lady”]

Act Two. The Castle Adamant. You’ll find
A garden here, a river just behind.
Here’s Lady Psyche with a student throng,
Whose learning now they celebrate in song.

    [8 – Chorus of Girls & Solos (Lady Psyche, Melissa and Sacharissa)
        “Towards the Empyrean Heights”

They run this place with such an iron hand
That even having chessmen here is banned!
Here’s Ida now, amidst the happy crowd –
A goddess! (And why not? No gods allowed!)

    [9 – Chorus of Girls “Mighty Maiden with a Mission”]
    [10 – Recitative & Aria (Princess) “Minerva! Oh, Hear Me”]

Now Ida makes a speech – she’s quite the sage –
That occupies the best part of a page.
She talks at length of Man (but she means “men”)
And notes that Man dissembles (“men” again)
When he says women lead his sex astray,
But ends up on her doorstep every day.
So Ida and her cohorts have a plan:
They’ll take their rightful upper hand to Man,
And when at last they hold that upper hand,
They’ll take that “father” out of “fatherland.”
But all’s not well with Ida’s perfect band:
Another woman wants to take command.
It’s Lady Blanche who’d like to rule this throng,
And so she’d tell you – but we cut her song.
(It’s always cut. Don’t worry.) Next we find
A man is sneaking in, with two behind.
Hilarion’s the first one through the door,
With Florian and Cyril, scraped and sore.
They sing of women’s rights in these next songs,
But somehow make it sound like women’s wrongs.

    [12 – Trio (Cyril, Hilarion and Florian) “Gently, Gently”]

A play picks up excitement when you’ve got good props around:
And so three academic robes are spotted on the ground.
Hilarion, Cyril, Florian – they don them in a trice,
And, since the play is British, well, they think they look quite nice!

    [13 – Trio (Cyril, Hilarion and Florian) “I Am a Maiden”]

Ida meets the ersatz students and they beg to study there.
“That’s very well,” the Princess says, “but first you have to swear
You’ll never marry any man.” “Oh, no,” the three insist.
“Fair maidens have the only faces we have ever kissed.”
“Don’t think in terms of beauty,” Ida tells them, “and you’ll save on
Unnatural enhancements.” So. She won’t be selling Avon.

    [14 – Quartet (Princess, Cyril, Hilarion and Florian) “The World is But a Broken Toy”]

Ida leaves; Hilarion, smitten, knows he can’t resist her.
And here comes Lady Psyche. And guess what? She’s Florian’s sister!
She warns them they should get away, for when it comes to men, it
Is wrong to even talk to them. (That’s Ida’s favorite tenet.)
They’re taught, she says, a fundamental truth you can’t escape:
That aping man is folly, for, at heart, a man is ape.

    [15 – Song (Lady Psyche, with Cyril, Hilarion and Florian)
        “A Lady Fair, of Lineage High”]

Lady Psyche has a very high IQ;
To Melissa, each and everything is new.
Melissa enters, overhears the plan,
And sees (she’s never seen one yet) a man!
She falls in love at once. It’s fate, it’s bliss:
Does love get much first-sightier than this?

    [16 – Quintet (Psyche, Melissa, Cyril, Hilarion and Florian)
        “The Woman of the Wisest Wit”]

All but Melissa exit. When she tries,
She catches Lady Blanche’s beady eyes.
There’s more, much more to tell you, but I think
I’d better stop and get myself a drink.
You’ve listened well. Of this we’re very proud.
But now I think we sense a restless crowd.
It’s time to get some coffee, tea, and cake:
Let’s give ourselves a fifteen-minute break!


Act Two continues. Blanche would like to know
About those girls who charmed Melissa so;
Melissa’s Blanche’s daughter, so she’s wise
To how her mother prods and pokes and pries.
“What charming girls!” says Blanche. “How well they sing!”
Melissa just agrees with everything.
But then, says Blanche, the sound got rather strange
With baritone and tenor in their range.
“I know those three are men. What do they want?”
“They’re on,” Melissa says, “an Ida hunt.”
Melissa gets a glimmer in her eye.
“I think that you should help their plan. Here’s why:
The Prince wants Ida. Should he have his way,
Then you would rule the roast, you see. Okay?
(I should point out, as long as you’re awake,
That “rule the roast” is nobody’s mistake;
When neighbors roasted oxen on a spit,
To “rule the roast” put you in charge of it!
A most important place, I bet you’d find –
It’s where to be when you’ve an ox to grind!)

    [17 – Duet (Melissa and Lady Blanche) “Now Wouldn't You like to Rule the Roast”]

Blanche goes out. Florian comes in,
You feel your head about to spin;
Florian says, “Let’s leave this bunch!”
Melissa says, “It’s time for lunch!”

    [18 – Chorus of Girls & Solos (Blanche and Cyril) “Merrily Ring the Luncheon Bell”]

You’ll note that Cyril’s getting rather tipsy at this meal,
Hilarion, with Ida near, is acting more genteel.
She asks about the Prince. “Oh, he’s as handsome as can be;
And if I wear his clothing, people think that he is me!”
Then Cyril cries, “We all adore that son-of-a ... son-of-a-king,
And he sure loves the ladies, as he often likes to sing.”
When Cyril sings, but doesn’t ask the Prince to harmonize,
A jealous fire flickers in the other’s angry eyes.

“You dog!” cries Prince Hilarion. “I chastise you! For shame!”
At which point Cyril calls the not-too-happy Prince by name.
And then poor Ida, maddened that this witless man has sought her,
Attempts to make her getaway — and tumbles in the water!
What noble person saves our struggling non-amphibian?
Why, Prince Hilarion, of course: A mainly manly man.
The Princess, soaking wet, her threadbare patience sorely tested,
Commands that these arresting men themselves should be arrested!

    [19 – Song (Cyril) “Would You Know the Kind of Maid”]
    [20 – Finale, Act II (Princess, Hildebrand, Melissa, Lady Psyche, Blanche,
        Cyril, Hilarion, Florian, Arac, Guron, Scynthius and Chorus of Girls and Men)
        “Oh Joy! Our Chief is Sav'd”]

Outside the Castle Adamant, the ladies form a ring;
They’re armed and ready to resist advances of the King.
Then Ida tells her forces, “Fight for life if he attacks us!”
The stage directions say the place is filled with battle axes.

    [21 – Chorus & Solo (Melissa) “Death to the Invader!”]

I almost hate to tell you now what thwarts potential war –
It seems these women weren’t prepared for blood and cannon roar.
So, one by one, they quit the field and hope there lives were spared.
Till Ida’s left alone. I’ll bet she has a song prepared.

    [22 – Song (Princess) “I Built upon a Rock”]

Now Gama and his sons come in, entrusted with a mission
To tell the college women of the King’s new proposition.
But first, says Gama, listen to the ills I’ve had to suffer:
I’ve never seen a prison where the punishments are rougher.
As well you know, I’m at my best when I can throw disdain about;
This Hildebrand – he tortures me! – there’s nothing to complain about!

    [23 – Song (King Gama with Chorus of Girls) “Whene'er I Spoke”]
There’s nothing like a battle to stir the boyish soul,
When enemies are toasted to a crispy casserole.
See the Royal army enter! Hear the Royal army boast!
They’ve had their morning coffee – now they’re hungry for that toast!

    [24 – Chorus of Soldiers “When Anger Spreads His Wing”]

But here’s the proposition – never mind the troops and horses –
King Hildebrand suggested they reduce the fighting forces;
Hilarion and both his friends will put aside their guns,
And, sword-to-sword, the three will face in battle Gama’s sons.
Those boys are somewhat slow in wit, but filled with fighting will-o,
Each clad in heavy armor like a giant armadillo.

    [25 – Song (Arac, Guron, Scynthius and Chorus) “This Helmet, I Suppose”]

As the chorus starts to sing the fighting boys pick up their sticks,
But Gama’s sons surrender after measure twenty-six;
They weren’t the kind of fighting men to fall upon their swords –
Instead, they ease their bodies down and sprawl across the boards.

    [26 – Chorus During the Fight “This Is Our Duty”]

You win! says Ida. Stop! I’ve been a fool.
I’m also giving up, she says, this school.
If I resign, who steps into my shoes?
“I could,” says Blanche. “May I suggest we use
My favorite philosophic teaching tool:
The Five Subjunctive Varied Outcomes Rule.
We’ll do this once; let’s hope it’s understood:
The May, the Might, the Would, the Should, the Could.”
Says Blanche, “The Prince May claim you. If he Might,
You Could. And if you Should, I Would – tonight!”
And so you shall, says Ida, who laments
A plan which made – to her – a lot of sense:
Steer clear of men. Succeed alone in life.
Don’t sacrifice it all to be a wife.
But Hildebrand points out that there’s a flaw,
A certain consequence of Nature’s law:
One plus one is two, your math tells me,
But Nature’s math says one and one make three.
Where are your future students to be found
If educable offspring aren’t around?
That math takes Lady Psyche by surprise:
Let’s see, she thinks, how Cyril multiplies.
Division is on young Melissa’s mind:
She wants to leave ol’ Lady Blanche behind.
Subtract that lone remainder, recompute:
Add Florian. She thinks he’s kinda cute.
Who’s left? Well, grumpy Gama’s on the prowl,
But Lady Blanche rejects him with a scowl.
That’s it! An end to gender-based dividing.
Let’s hear the chorus sing with joy abiding!

    [27 – Finale “With Joy Abiding”]

– To Richard McKee, 8 June 2006

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