An American Theatre First: La Jolie Parfumeuse Becomes The Pretty Perfume Maker at Mary Baldwin

February 1, 2007

First ever? The current production ofThe Pretty Perfume Makerat Mary Baldwin University is likely the first presentation of the comic operetta La Jolie Parfumeuse to be performed in English in the United States. Written in just seven weeks in 1873 by librettists Hector Cremieux and Ernest Blum, and set to music by Jacques Offenbach, the original French version toured briefly in America in 1876. How did it come to be translated into English now? At Mary Baldwin University?

Actors in the February production of The Pretty Perfume MakerIn spring 2006, professor of theatre and alumna of Mary Baldwin University, Virginia Francisco, attended a concert by Waynesboro’s Schola Cantorum, which included a performance of The Neighbors Chorus fromLa Jolie Parfumeuse. She was delighted by the music and then curious about the operetta it sprang from. After all, Mary Baldwin University Theatre presents at least one musical each year (in an ambitious small college theatre season of five productions), and Francisco knew she had great singers within the current student population. The college had a long tradition of music theatre scholarship, but had not presented a single one of Offenbach’s 90+ operettas during Francisco’s 36 years as a faculty member nor her years as a student.

Francisco quizzed her friend Louis Dolive, a member of Schola Cantorum. What was the full operetta like? Where was the English translation of the French operetta? A month’s research brought Dolive to the preliminary conclusion there was no English translation. If Francisco wanted to doLa Jolie Parfumeuse, it would need to be in French ? or it would have to be translated. Confinement due to illness during summer and fall was unwelcome, but it did offer her time to work on an English translation of the play and the 225 pages of musical score. She also knew she would need help if she was going to be ready to stage the operetta in the coming academic year, 2006-2007.

Francisco enlisted Leslie Rueff ’03, also an Mary Baldwin alumna, who had been music director of four of the college’s recent productions, to assist with translation and settings of the songs. Dolive, a well-known restorer of antique keyboards and co-editor of two volumes of troubadour and trouvere songs, made the final musical arrangements. The team was completed by retired associate conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, Susan Webb, who volunteered a literal translation of the first two acts of the operetta. Francisco translated the third act and most of the songs, aided by Rueff and Dolive, and made the final stage edition. The biggest challenge of the translation work? The songs, since the word rhythms of English had to work in music written for French. Typically, says Francisco, it took her one long day to complete the translation and preliminary setting of one of the briefer songs. Then Dolive spent another day or two refining the work and arranging parts.

Francisco directs the Mary Baldwin University production ofThe Pretty Perfume Maker, and Rueff is music director. One of the great appeals of the play for the translation team was that the cast requires six strong female leads (a good thing for a residential women’s college). Offenbach even wrote the leading male role for a woman — not uncommon in his time.

True to the musical format he made an art form, Offenbach created this operetta around charming chaos and confusion set in Paris (envision an Impressionist painting). Newlyweds celebrate marriage complicated by a double-crossing godfather, a gullible husband, and two other pairs of lovers.

Performance Particulars:
February 9–11 and 14–18, Wednesdays–Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm
For tickets, call: (540) 887-7189
$5 for students and seniors, $7 for adults
Fletcher Collins Theatre in Deming Hall at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia

Front Image: (l-r) Ed Smith as La Cocardiere, Laura Bouchard ’08 as Rose, and Alice Piepenberg as Bavolet in Mary Baldwin’s staging ofThe Pretty Perfume Maker.