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Girls just wanna have fun
Savannah Philharmonic & Chorus brings <i>The Merry Widow</i> operetta to the Lucas
The 'Grisettes' rehearse in the Hellenic Center the week before starting rehearsals on the Lucas stage - photo by Jim Morekis

LUCAS THEATRE Executive Director Ken Carter knew something special had happened in his theatre at the conclusion of last spring’s La Traviata by the Savannah Choral Society.

“The second the curtain hit the floor, the audience just exploded,” says Carter.

“Some of them actually jumped out of their seats and started cheering like crazy. I had never seen anything like that happen in Savannah. It was amazing.”

Carter surmises the reason for this reception was not only the quality of the production, but the fact that it came from such a previously unlikely source: A locally-based troupe relying largely on local talent.

“Many of the performers were people the audience knew, people who live here, people they’d met and seen before,” Carter says. “That seemed to really add to their enthusiasm. People didn’t think that was possible.”

This Saturday night the Choral Society -- now performing as part of the Savannah Philharmonic & Chorus -- hopes to continue in that vein with another opera — an operetta, to be exact — albeit one distinctly lighter in character: Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, the story of Hanna, the wealthy young widow who conspires to win back her former lover, Count Danilo.

Witty, bawdy, and sung entirely in English with snippets of dialogue between the songs, The Merry Widow is the exact opposite of the stereotypical over-the-top, tragic opera in a foreign language. But that doesn’t mean less work goes into it.

“It’s called an operetta only because the subject matter is considerably lighter than the typical opera,” says baritone Thorbjorn Gulbrandsoy, who plays Danilo.

“But there’s no difference whatsoever in the singing style or the training — all that’s exactly the same,” he says.

Peter Shannon, conductor and artistic director of the Philharmonic and Chorus, agrees.

“It may be fun music, but it not only needs emotional energy — it needs to be sung technically very well,” he says. “It doesn’t stand on its own two feet unless you really throw your luggage at it.”

You might remember Gulbrandsoy as the lead baritone in the Philarmonic’s 2007 production of Elijah. He’s but one of several high-profile professional singers brought to Savannah for this production by Shannon, who’s worked with almost all of them previously in Europe (though interestingly, none have ever worked together).

They include Oliver Mercer, German husband/wife team Volker Rabe and Gabriele Rosel, and Shannon’s own cousin, Edel Shannon, an accomplished soprano in her own right, who sings the title role.

Evidently all these relationships have been quite fruitful, because Shannon has managed to employ the singers essentially for free, paying only for their airfare.

So what’s in it for these performers, all of whom are in demand and are in essence losing money because they’re not working in New York or London this month?

“They’re professionals and have to pay their rent every month, and they sure won’t be doing it by coming here,” Shannon says. “The only thing in it for them is the opportunity to come over and make wonderful music, and realize people appreciate the sacrifice they’re going to make and won’t take it for granted.”

Shannon says he’s never forgotten the words of a friend of his in the Shreveport, La., orchestra:

“He once told me, never underestimate the lengths to which good musicians will go to play with other good musicians,” Shannon recalls.

“We as musicians never started this to make money — we do it because we’re born to do it. There’s nothing else we want to do. This is what we have to do.”

For Shannon, who came to town in 2006, The Merry Widow is part of a plan to make the Chorus as versatile an organization as it can be.

“When I got here I realized the Choral Society that I’d inherited, and Savannah in general, had a very conservative view of what a chorus could and should be,” he says. “I found the thinking to be that the only real classical music was Brahms and Mozart. And I was going, ‘Sure, that’s brilliant, but there’s so much else out there.’”

When it dawned on Shannon that his group wasn’t singing with enough emotion — “boring,” is his exact description — he had an idea.

“I said, you know what? The best thing for you guys to do is to rock.”

And rock they did, in a pops concert featuring ditties many of them grew up with, like “Build Me Up Buttercup” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

“By singing music where there’s no historical distance, no one could say, ‘Well, this is Mozart and it’s got to be static.’ If your ‘Buttercup’ is static, you’ve got a problem,” Shannon says. “If you go to a rock concert and the place isn’t hopping, it’s a crap concert.”

This rigorous, if light-hearted, regimen clearly benefited the later production of La Traviata, which called on all the singers’ powers not only of vocal artistry, but of emotion.

La Traviata went through the roof — no one had seen anything like that here,” recalls Shannon. “Of course afterwards everybody thinks it’s a great bloody idea. But beforehand they were like, ‘Oh, jeez, what’s he talking about?’ Literally it was a situation where in March they were singing the best of the Beach Boys, and a month later they were singing La Traviata. I wanted to make them versatile.”

After a return to oratory with December’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Shannon brings the Chorus back to opera with The Merry Widow.Aiding Shannon is guest choreographer Suzanne Braddy of Savannah Danse Theatre and guest director Peter McMahon, who is in charge of the stage segment of the show.

So where does one Peter’s job end and the other Peter’s begin?

“They really do overlap. The director’s job is to make all the action onstage happen, but of course all the movement onstage is also sung, so there’s a link between the director and the conductor,” Shannon explains. “There’s a traditional tension between the conductor and the director, so they do need to be able to work very well together.”

While ticket sales for The Merry Widow are brisk and all expectations are the show will do good business, Shannon continues to maintain his vigilance regarding the need for real commitment to a viable local classical music scene.

“Savannah, because it’s been burned with the Symphony Orchestra, is reluctant. But on the other hand people are thinking, ‘We have to back anything that comes here because we have to have our own symphony orchestra,’” Shannon says.

“But guess what? Savannah doesn’t have to have its own symphony orchestra. By coming to concerts, Savannah will decide for itself whether it wants this to work or not.”

For his part, Shannon promises to “go after this like a rat up a drainpipe.”

“I can’t come along and have all the hyperbole that I’ve got and not be able to back it up,” Shannon says.

“I want to leave no stone unturned for my part in showing people you can have this if you want it,” he concludes.

“I’m not holding a gun to Savannah’s head – all I’m doing is throwing down the gauntlet.” cs

The Merry Widow

When: Sat. Jan. 17, 7 p.m.

Where: Lucas Theatre

Cost: $32-52, $5 discount for students and children under 12