Cardboard, operetta and irresistible enthusiasm. These are the ingredients the Haarlem director, designer and performer Steef de Jong uses to enchant his audience, both on the smallest and the largest stages.
Text: Laura Roling
A warm July day is coming to an end. On the grounds of the traveling theatre festival De Parade, a long queue has formed for the third time that evening in front of the tent where Steef de Jong is performing his ‘one-man opera’, A Lieutenant. Over the course of half an hour, moving at breakneck speed, he takes the over-capacity audience through Oscar Straus’s operetta Ein Walzertraum, about a newlywed lieutenant who is homesick for Vienna.
The performance is a dry run for Steef’s debut with the Volksoper in Vienna, the mecca of operetta. This season he will be doing a semi-staged performance of a number of works, including Ein Walzertraum. But whereas he will have two singers in Vienna, Steef is on his own at De Parade: he plays all the roles (about five), and serves as his own chorus. It comes in handy that Steef is a gifted singer, with a charming voice that is reminiscent of the vocal style of the cabaret artists of yesteryear.
The sets for A Lieutenant are ‘typical Steef’: all of them designed and built by the man himself. It is easy to see that he is a past master of the ‘pop-up book technique’, fold-out books from which all kinds of worlds suddenly spring forth. An apparently simple life-size cardboard sketchbook turns out to contain one surprise after another. The presentation is anything but neat and tidy; quite the contrary in fact: the look of show rather playful and a bit rickety. ‘You have to throw it all together lickety-split so the viewer thinks: “Hey, look, a fold. I bet there’s a whole world behind that fold.”’
Steef also bring the elements that made his performances at the Parade so irresistible to Operetta Land, his debut with Dutch National Opera: a captivating stage presence, his cardboard creations, and of course operetta.
‘For me, operetta is an escape from reality’
For over a decade Steef has devoted himself to operetta, a genre that sometimes has a reputation for being dusty and old-fashioned. Until a few decades ago there were still plenty of operetta societies in the Netherlands, but in recent years the genre seems to be caught in a negative spiral: the less familiar it is, the less that people are inclined to seek it out; the less that people seek it out; the less familiar it becomes. In the spring of 2021, Dutch National Opera included an operetta – Franz Léhar’s The Merry Widow – on its programme for the first time in years, but the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the proceedings.
What attracts Steef to operetta – ‘the unloved stepchild of opera and the mother of the musical’ – is its light-heartedness and heart-on-its-sleeve sentimentality. It’s that latter quality in particular that he sorely misses in daily life: ‘These days, people can be dismissive of romance and sentiment, but that’s exactly what I crave. The world is already so ugly and hard. For me, operetta is an escape from reality.’
But for Steef, operetta is about much more than just escapism. Traditionally, operetta has also been an art form that also offers scope for tongue-in-cheek social criticism. Since its early days, the genre has delighted in turning roles and power relations on their head. An example of this is Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), which puts its own spin on the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this re-telling of the story, the two ‘lovers’ hate each other’s guts, so when Eurydice is brought back from the underworld by her husband, she decides to join the Bacchantes – the followers of Bacchus, the god of wine and intoxication. This contrariness and wilful ‘desecration’ of a myth would be unthinkable in grand opera.
Steef cultivated his love for operetta in an unlikely place: DasArts, the master’s programme of the Amsterdam Academy of Theatre and Dance, which he attended after the Rietveld Academy because he also wanted to become proficient in directing theatre. ‘During my time there I developed a bit of an allergy to the avant-garde. The first three-month block was entitled ‘the glamor of violence’, and you were made to reflect on that. We all went to watch terribly violent movies, and we took boxing lessons.’ With a spark of mischief he thought: ‘Making my own operetta might be the most avant-garde thing I could do at this school.’
Existing music + new libretto
For his debut with Dutch National Opera, Steef could have directed an existing operetta, as he did for Toneelschuur Producties in 2021 with Johann Strauss’s Eine Nacht in Venedig. But instead he opted for a collage performance, partly because this allows him to showcase as many different sides of the art form as possible: from the French to the British and of course the Viennese repertoire. The music that made the final cut includes solos, duets and ensembles from Der liebe Augustin by Leo Fall, L’île de Tulipatan by Jacques Offenbach, The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan, Der Vogelhändler by Carl Zeller, The Merry Widow by Franz Léhar and Das Spitzentuch der Königin by Johann Strauss II, the king of the Viennese waltz.
‘Operetta doesn’t give a damn about rules. It lets go of concepts with the greatest of ease’
Steef devised the show’s ‘operetta-esque’ storyline at an early stage: a character called simply ‘the Imaginer’ travels to the made-up country of Operetta Land, which is teetering on the brink of financial collapse. To resolve the crisis, Princess Galathea must marry a rich suitor. The arrival of the mysterious (and wealthy!) Prince Nicola is announced, but there is some question as to whether he really exists. In any case, the evil King Pygmalion and the infatuated Count Lothar both disguise themselves as Nicola in order to compete for Galathea’s hand. Of course, as befits an operetta, everything goes awry: schemes and misunderstandings pile up until everything reaches a boiling point. The story serves as an ode to the power of human imagination that we all possess (even if we tend to lose it a bit as we get older).
Parts of the music selection will be sung in the original language, but the vast majority will be performed in Dutch. For the libretto Steef was able to use the services of no one less than Paulien Cornelisse, a writer and comedian known for her witty and sharp analyses of contemporary language and social situations, in books like Taal is zeg maar echt mijn ding, En dan nog iets, Taal voor de leuk and her absurdist novel De verwarde cavia in which a guinea pig goes to work for a communications department, in an open-plan office.
In addition to Steef himself, the performance also features some younger opera talent, accompanied by the National Youth Orchestra. Three singers from the Opera Studio, the talent development programme of Dutch National Opera, are taking part: soprano Elenora Hu, mezzo-soprano Maya Gour and tenor Ian Castro. They are joined by bass-baritone Frederik Bergman (an alumnus of the Opera Studio), baritone Raoul Steffani, soprano Laetitia Gerards and bass-baritone Marc Pantus. The majority of the singers are native speakers of Dutch, but the Israeli Maya Gour and the American Ian Castro will have a steep learning curve ahead of them to get to grips with their Dutch dialogue and lyrics.
In addition, all the singers will be faced with considerable acting challenges: in Operetta Land Steef has gone out of his way to avoid typecasting. Soprano Laetitia Gerards sings the part of Count Lothar, who is madly in love with Princess Galathea (Elenora Hu), while baritone Raoul Steffani initially appears as the King, until the Imaginer decides that he would rather a Queen than a king. It is an example of the creative way in which Steef often treats his material: ‘In my world the maid can suddenly become the butler and fall in love with another boy.’ In this regard he feels invigorated by the freedom that so typifies the genre itself: ‘Operetta doesn’t give a damn about rules. It lets go of concepts with the greatest of ease: “Oh, now we’re in love, la-dee-dee, la-di-dah. That’s why we’re going to burst into song and waltz around the stage.” Anything is possible. I want to ignite the audience with that sense of freedom and fantasy.’
- Operetta Land will run from 20 November to 30 December 2022 at Dutch National Opera.