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El Capitan by John Philip Sousa (review)
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The Ohio Light Opera has recently added John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan to its impressive roster of recorded works. Established in 1979 and based at The College of Wooster, this adventuresome company specializes in operettas that “charmed the publics of an earlier era,” according to the liner notes of this recording. Of what does this charm consist? Sentiment, wit, and the comfortable pleasures of diatonic harmony and singable melodies abound in this repertory. Moreover, thanks to the happy collaboration between Ohio Light Opera and Albany Records, lesser-known operettas such as Emmerich Kálmán’s Der Zigeunerprimas and Carl Zeller’s The Birdseller now appear on CD, along with the company’s interpretations of classics such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta, and Reginald DeKoven’s Robin Hood.

El Capitan straddles both of these categories. Rarely heard nowadays, the work has nonetheless been called “the most enduring American comic opera of the nineteenth century.” Yet as we read in Michael D. Miller’s fine liner notes, the March King initially struggled with operetta. During the 1870s Sousa labored over stage works that remain either unfinished or unperformed, and in 1882 his The Smugglers premiered in Washington, DC with less than resounding success. Yet all the while, Sousa remained close to the theater, reorchestrating Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer and H.M.S. Pinafore, conducting multiple performances of the latter. He also persisted in composing for the stage, premiering his Désirée in 1883 (not 1884, as stated in the liner notes) in Washington.

Although not much more acclaimed than The Smugglers, Désirée introduced the singing actor DeWolff Hopper, a compelling comic presence. It was he who persuaded Sousa to examine a libretto by Charles Klein, one that treated in buffa fashion the Spanish empire in colonial Peru. That work was El Capitan, the title role of which Hopper created and which became Sousa’s first theatrical hit. Hopper’s “abnormally long legs and … loose-jointed awkwardness,” to quote one critic, perfectly suited him to the role of Don Mendigua, the bumbling viceroy so ill-suited to the solemn duties imposed on him by the Spanish crown that he formulates a ruse to evade them. By disguising himself as the formidable El Capitan, a rebel leader feared throughout the viceroyalty, Don Mendigua hopes to avoid annihilation at the hands of freedom-loving insurgents. The operetta’s brilliant trajectory began on April 13, 1896, with the premiere at the Tremont Theatre in Boston. Audiences loved its varied score and Hopper’s antics, and several revivals followed, including a run of 112 performances in New York. Also popular was the “El Capitan” march, based on two melodies from the operetta and still a favorite of bands. In the wake of the operetta’s success, the march was heard in parlors throughout the United States in arrangements for piano, piano duet, piano six hands, banjo, mandolin, zither, or various combinations of the above.

Given Sousa’s initial difficulties with operetta, we might well wonder: what was the magic ingredient in El Capitan? Certainly audiences loved its toe-tapping marches and jaunty melodies. The straightforward language of Gilbert and Sullivan also left its mark on the score. Just as the British team’s characters proudly proclaim their identity, so too do Sousa’s protagonists, as in the opening chorus (“Nobles of Castilian birth”), for example. Exoticism was another factor. Audiences of the day craved contact with mysterious lands such as the Japan of The Mikado or the India portrayed in DeKoven’s Begum. Thus, the “Spanish” touches in El Capitan, such as Phrygian seconds, sixteenth-note triplets, and “rollicking castanets” (described by Princess Isabel in her paean to the “beautiful land of Spain”) were all guaranteed to appeal just as much as Hopper’s onstage shenanigans.

But there was more to El Capitan’s popularity than its sparkling score and humorous plot. In the 1890s the United States was looking enviously at Puerto Rico and Cuba, then ruled by Spain, as was the Philippines. The expansionist United States wanted Spain out of the hemisphere and to that end the so-called yellow presses...

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