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Looking behind the scenes of comic operas at Smith College 

  • Cast members rehearse for "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Cast members rehearse for "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Elizabeth Anne Biddle performs during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College. Biddle wrote, directed, choreographed and stars in the opera.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Elizabeth Anne Biddle performs during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College. Biddle wrote, directed, choreographed and stars in the opera.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Elizabeth Anne Biddle, left, and Kathryn Berg perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College. Biddle wrote, directed, choreographed and stars in the opera.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Elizabeth Anne Biddle, left, and Kathryn Berg perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College. Biddle wrote, directed, choreographed and stars in the opera.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hannah Woodman and Zen perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Hannah Woodman and Zen perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jonathan Evans as Arthur Sullivan, left, and John Iverson as W.S. Gilbert perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College.JERREY ROBERTS

    Jonathan Evans as Arthur Sullivan, left, and John Iverson as W.S. Gilbert perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Cast members rehearse for "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Elizabeth Anne Biddle performs during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College. Biddle wrote, directed, choreographed and stars in the opera.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Elizabeth Anne Biddle, left, and Kathryn Berg perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College. Biddle wrote, directed, choreographed and stars in the opera.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Hannah Woodman and Zen perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jonathan Evans as Arthur Sullivan, left, and John Iverson as W.S. Gilbert perform during a dress rehearsal of "The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan" Monday at Smith College.JERREY ROBERTS

Gilbert and Sullivan’s theater productions are legendary; their operas have been sung and re-sung on stages around the world for over a century. This weekend the lives of the people behind the scenes — the original ones who made those productions — will be told in “The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan,” an original opera written, directed, produced and performed by Elizabeth Biddle, a theater and music student at Smith College.

The opera that premieres Friday details the struggles and challenges that theatrical partners W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, and their actors, faced while producing their now-famous operettas in London during the Victorian era.

“It’s certainly a backstage story,” Biddle said in an interview last week. “We get to meet these actors and actresses who formed these very iconic characters in their natural environment, the love affairs and the fears of these people.”

Biddle, who grew up in Hong Kong, is a senor at Smith. She began to work on the opera — her senior thesis — five months ago.

Her professional study of theater began when she played Cinderella at the Shouson Theater in Hong Kong during a gap year between high school and college, but her interest in performing began much earlier.

“Growing up I was just so desperate to do theater, I would analyze “The Wizard of Oz,” “Hello Dolly,” I was probably 10,” Biddle said. “When I finally got to do it I was so enthusiastic.”

Biddle attributes the inspiration to write the opera to her studies at the National Theater Institute in New London, Conn., the University of Oxford in England and at Smith.

She attended NTI during the fall of her junior year and Oxford that spring. It was in England that she discovered the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and her interest in the duo bloomed.

“That’s when I started thinking, ‘I need to continue with Gilbert and Sullivan. This stuff is too good,’ ” she said.

Female roles

After returning to Smith for her senior year, Biddle went to her advisor, Ellen Kaplan, with an idea for her thesis. At first, she planned to present a recital which would feature songs from Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

But as her excitement about the project grew, so, too, did her plan.

“She was so excited about researching it,” said Kaplan, the chair of the theater department at Smith. “What she came up with were the ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan and an in-depth look on the female roles in [their work].”

Kaplan said Biddle became interested in perspectives on gender in England at the time and how Gilbert and Sullivan challenged them. So the project grew to include an in-depth look at women in 19th-century England. Biddle focused specifically on the actresses who sang with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, for which Gilbert and Sullivan produced their work, and how they were affected by assumed gender roles of their century.

“She’s taken on an amazing project of such breadth and scope,” Kaplan said.

Biddle says she was not deterred by the enormity of creating and producing an opera, but, rather, was enthusiastic.

“Theater has just been a dream that I made work,” she said.

Biddle says all of her studies have helped to prepare her for this. Her government classes, for example, helped hone her writing skills, while her analysis of movies and plays from a young age taught her how to develop characters.

“You have to make every scene count, to capture the essence of the character in a few songs, in a few scenes,” Biddle said. “It was a big growth experience, my first time directing anything of this size, my first time music directing, second time choreographing.”

Of course, there have been challenges. For example, Kaplan said, Biddle’s first draft of the script was about five times longer than it should have been.

“But she did it beautifully when she went about editing it ... keeping the life in it,” Kaplan said.

The opera combines scenes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s productions with stories about the D’Oyly Carte troupe. Gilbert and Sullvian wrote many of their roles specifically for the D’Oyly Carte singers, many of whom remained with the company for years.

“So many women in their lives, from their mothers to their lovers, had something to do with the female Gilbert and Sullivan characters,” Biddle said.

Biddle held the auditions and chose the cast for her show.

“I love my cast, I chose them not only because they’re talented, but because I thought they could really add to this,” Biddle said. She and her cast have been rehearsing for three months.

“I think she has a really good play that I hope goes on to have productions elsewhere,” Kaplan said.

The show will take place Friday, Sunday and April 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Earle Recital Hall, Smith College. Tickets are free, but limited. To order tickets, send an email to ladiesofgs@gmail.com.

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