For a dozen years, the Ohio Light Opera was as much a part of my summers as fastpitch softball, pizza picnics in the park or annual treks to the ocean.
Billed as “The Resident Theater Company of The College of Wooster,” the OLO offered an airy array of confectionery treats.
From the box office to the orchestra pit, it was a first-rate operation, and people would travel from not only around the state, but also neighboring ones to be part of the annual tradition.
I can certainly see the attraction now; in fact, I began missing it almost as soon as summer 2001 rolled around and I found myself 700 miles from Freedlander Theater, with its sumptuous seating that afforded plenty of leg room for tall guys like me.
But I remember being quite nervous in the hours before I was to witness and review my first production; in fact, had it not been for the guidance and reassurance of my good friend, newspaper colleague and OLO expert Eric Johnson, I’m sure things might not have gone as well as they did.
I had been hired as entertainment editor of the local daily newspaper the fall before, so I had missed out on the 1987 season. As the months rolled by, I gained some confidence covering country music shows at the county fair, the Buckeye Book Fair, the local theater scene, a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra and a few concerts at Blossom Music Center.
But knocking out 800 words on a Neil Young show, featuring the Blue Notes, was something I knew I could do.
Taking on “The Gondoliers,” an OLO favorite in its Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, was in another league altogether, and I was certain I sorely lacked the background to pull it off.
“You … are … going … to … be … great … at … this,” my friend Eric said, emphasizing each word with a finger jab to my sternum. “Just relax and enjoy the show.”
And Eric, as he so often was, proved to be prescient.
As anyone who’s ever experienced an OLO production in person can attest, it is a sensory feast with so much to hear and see that it can be a trifle overwhelming to a newbie. I took such notes as I could early on, trying to jot down complete thoughts and impressions, but soon abandoned that as foolish.
Instead, I just scribbled a word or two next to the song title in the program, figuring I’d know what I meant by “incredible range” or “strange bluish light” when the time came.
And that happened soon enough.
After the final curtain, I made my way out of McGaw Chapel and walked the three or four blocks from the campus to the newspaper office, where Eric was waiting, just making sure I had my bearings.
“Well?” he asked, a big smile on his bearded face. “You got this?”
“Yeah,” I said, pulling off my necktie and sitting down at my desk. “I think so. Thanks for all the help. You’re the best.”
“Just write well,” he said. “As if you could do anything else.”
So I constructed an opening paragraph drawing a parallel between Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the narrative structure of “The Gondoliers,” an idea that came to me on my walk.
After that, I just lined up the superlatives and let ’em fly.
And it wasn’t like I was gilding the lily. What I had watched that evening had been special indeed, and I tried to make sure everyone in the cast got at least a small mention while devoting most of my attention on the lead actors.
And the orchestra … oh, my.
As I’ve said, I’d done my share of classical concerts, but this wasn’t that. This was a true atmospheric performance, one filled with passion and playfulness, whimsy and wondrous passages, a summer evening’s satisfying main course.
And then there were the costumes and the choreography, the lighting and the sound. All of it had to be written about.
And then I realized this was only the first production of the season and there were many more waiting in the wings.
So I slowed my roll, made some strategic cuts, all the while trying to maintain the flow and keep my thoughts orderly if not profound.
Because that was another thing I learned that first summer: It was a newsroom tradition to assign any staffer, who had expressed an interest, his or her own show to cover.
So you’d have a woman who specialized in, say, crime and courts, take a turn, followed by the guy who covered city government … and so on. Every review was different, not only because the productions varied, but also because we all brought different outlooks to the theater, and that made the writing kaleidoscopic and communal.
It was a fine, rare thing, really, to be part of that kind of team effort.
And I miss it; I truly do.
I’ve somehow kept my name on the OLO’s mailing list, even though I was last in Freedlander Theatre in summer 1999.
It’s not because I’ve become a major donor — one of those Yeomen whose names would appear in the program — but maybe it’s because somehow, someone feels as if I made a small difference.
All those years ago, I’d get all spiffed up — well, for me, anyway — wearing either my black jacket or the white one, a blue or pink or black or cream dress shirt, faded blue jeans, and white Reeboks.
No socks and no more ties, either, not after my inaugural trial by fire. I always looked summer-hip-casual with my sunglasses as I strolled up the street for an afternoon matinee in that icy theater.
I enjoyed every bit of the ritual, even as the summers added up and I had to replace my sneakers every other year or so. From the box office, where they knew me, to the center-section primo seating, the OLO became as familiar as Spiro Matsos and his cameos.
Yes, Wooster’s most gregarious restaurateur was as much a part of the tradition as Dr. James Stewart’s expert direction or J. Lynn Thompson’s conducting performance, his long blonde hair flying, not to mention the playing — and singing — of “God Save the Queen” before every Gilbert and Sullivan production.
Oh, and don’t forget those ice-cream treats at intermission.
Like so much of what’s been lost due to this hideous pandemic, the Ohio Light Opera was forced to cancel its festival season this summer, and I know there are those who miss it much more keenly than I do, relocated to the Crystal Coast of North Carolina.
But I’ll be cheering from afar, sending along my own private standing ovation, when it makes its grand return someday soon.