A Rare Treat: Tupelo Symphony to present Sousa’s ‘El Capitan’

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Sometimes, a rare jewel gets buried, then forgotten by time.
That’s not exactly the case with John Philip Sousa’s operetta, “El Capitan.”
When Steven Byess and the Ohio Light Opera presented the piece over the summer, public demand was so great that extra shows were added.
“El Capitan” was a major hit in its day, and served as a precursor to the golden era of Broadway. It toured the United States, and spent five months in London, a town with refined musical theater tastes in the late 1800s.
But the work is a bit complicated, and there are some musical and artistic rough spots that a musical director has to smooth over to bring it to the stage.
Byess did that work for the Ohio Light Opera, and he decided Notheast Mississippi audiences should get a chance to enjoy a blast from the past.
“‘El Capitan’ was called in its time the most enduring comic opera of the 19th century,” said Byess, musical director of Tupelo Symphony Orchestra.
Sousa is known for his military marches, but he also worked with Gilbert & Sullivan and Jacques Offenbach, and he brought all of his experience to bear on “El Capitan.”
“It is supremely American in style. It has marches, lots of really catchy tunes,” Byess said. “It also incorporates Sousa’s deft handling of styles like Viennese waltzes and other great French conventions that Offenbach had created.
“Gilbert & Sullivan created this thing called the ‘patter song,’ very, very fast-worded songs, so we have some of that in this operetta, as well. It’s really remarkable what this combination of styles created.”
Byess will bring several of the Ohio Light Opera cast members to Tupelo. That includes the University of Mississippi’s Nancy Maria Balach.
Monica Roden Spencer, who directs the TSO Children’s Chorus, didn’t perform in Ohio, but she’ll get a chance to step into the spotlight during “El Capitan.”
“I think this is a great way to feature her,” Byess said. “She’s in the role of Estrelda, which is a pretty big role.”
In addition, members of the 80-voice Mississippi State University Chorus will perform in the ensemble.
Tupelo audiences won’t get full costumes and sets, but some costumes and props will be used to help people recognize the characters.
“We will have some narration that, I believe, will make things more understandable and more immediate,” Byess said.
At one time, Sousa’s “El Capitan” was a blockbuster. On Saturday, you’ll get a unique opportunity to find out why.
“It’s my job to bring these choice gems to our Tupelo audience,” Byess said. “I consider it my mission, to bring things that people would not have the ability to hear otherwise.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@journalinc.com.