Arts & Culture

Comic opera 'Iolanthe' brings romance, magic to SLO

Phyllis (Kristina Horacek) and Strephon (Gregg Haueter) sing of their love in Central Coast Gilbert and Sullivan's production of "Iolanthe," playing this weekend at  Cuesta College's Cultural and Performing Arts Center.
Phyllis (Kristina Horacek) and Strephon (Gregg Haueter) sing of their love in Central Coast Gilbert and Sullivan's production of "Iolanthe," playing this weekend at Cuesta College's Cultural and Performing Arts Center.

The first time Marcy Irving saw the comic opera “Iolanthe,” she was so excited she threw up.

“Gilbert and Sullivan always excited me like that,” joked the Cuesta College music instructor, who was six or seven at the time. “Luckily, it was an outdoor production.”

Irving hopes audiences will have a similarly enthusiastic reaction – albeit a less messy one – when Central Coast Gilbert and Sullivan brings “Iolanthe” to Cuesta College’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo this weekend.

Irving, who directs the production, founded Central Coast Gilbert and Sullivan with Cassandra Tarantino, director of Cuesta’s North County Chorus, in 2012. So far, the theater company has produced two other operas created by composer Arthur Sullivan and lyricist W.S. Gilbert: “H.M.S. Pinafore” in 2013 and “The Mikado” in 2014.

This time around, Irving and Tarantino selected a more obscure offering — “Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri,” a charming foray into fairyland that combines romance, magic and biting political satire.

“A lot of people, even people who are into opera, have never heard of it,” Irving said. That’s unfortunate, she added, because she considers “Iolanthe” -- with its lush soundtrack and whimsical plot -- to be one of the British songwriting duo’s best.

"Even if you don't understand all of (the humor), it's still hysterical because there's a bunch of fairies dancing around," said Irving, who will give a pre-opera lecture before the Saturday and Sunday performances.

As the opera opens, the Queen of the Fairies (Anna Carey) — swayed by her subjects (Jacqueline Ashford, Jayne Cohen and Ashlynn Emerson) — summons the fairy Iolanthe (Leah Ginsky) from the frog-infested stream where she’s spent the past 25 years in exile.

Banished from fairyland for the capital crime of marrying a mortal human, Iolanthe was forced to leave her husband and never communicate with him again.

Their relationship resulted in a son, handsome Arcadian shepherd Strephon (Gregg Haueter), who’s half human, half fairy. (The opera derives much merriment from the fact that Strephon is mortal from the waist down.)

Now 24, Strephon has fallen in love with the beautiful Phyllis (Kristina Horacek), ward of the Lord Chancellor (Steve Cohen).

But they’ve been forbidden to wed by the Lord Chancellor, who wants to marry Phyllis himself.

So, it seems, do half the members of the British House of Lords. They've come to the English countryside for some rest and relaxation.

When Phyllis and the peers — led by Earl Tolloller (Anthoney Hernandez) and the Earl of Mountararat (Liam Daley) — spy Strephon chatting with his ageless mother, who resembles a beautiful 17-year-old girl, they get the wrong impression.

What follows is a series of comic misunderstandings and merry misadventures that involve magic, politics and a faithful guard named Private Willis (Michael Irving).

With 35 cast members and a 24-musician orchestra, "Iolanthe" is Central Coast Gilbert and Sullivan's largest production to date. Jennifer Martin, chair of Cuesta's Performing Arts Division, serves as conductor and Tarantino is chorus master.

The rest of the crew includes choreographer Julia Corbett, lighting designer Richard Jackson, set designer Bob Knowles and costume designer Laura Pryzgoda.

"There's some pretty awesome staging that's going on that complements a lot of the dialogue and the libretto," said Haueter, who plays Strephon. "The way those two things work together is where the magic is."

Haueter, who played courtier Pish-Tush in "The Mikado," grew up in Los Osos and graduated from San Luis Obispo High School in 2007. He transferred from Cuesta to CSU Long Beach this past fall.

A fan of Gilbert and Sullivan's "dry, sarcastic sense of humor," Haueter considers "Iolanthe" on par with "H.M.S. Pinafore," "The Mikado" and "The Pirates of Penzance." (Central Coast Gilbert and Sullivan plans to present the latter opera next summer.)

"They're all just really funny and fun to watch and be a part of," he said.

Irving wants to eventually introduce local theatergoers to all 14 of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas.

"I want to make sure people know them because they're fabulous,” she said. “They're little gems."


7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Cuesta College

$15 to $20

546-3936 or