It's a puzzlement. The whole world is sitting shiva for Michael Jackson. Newscasters who should know better are weeping copious tears for what they call the world's greatest entertainer. This points up a tendency of popular culture to rhapsodize the fads of their puberty while ignoring the sustained beauty that sent our forefathers Charlestoning across the Chisholm Trail.
Yet there is life beyond "Beat It." To relieve the cultural miasma, there is an oasis in Northeast Ohio — past the cornfields of Wayne County at the College of Wooster. Here, musical riches — from Jacques Offenbach to Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick — offer succor to pilgrims who thirst for the joyous sounds of trilling coloraturas and booming baritones.
Celebrating its 31st season, Ohio Light Opera was conceived as a preserve for voice majors to perfect their Gilbert & Sullivan etiquette. Over the years, its mission expanded to include all types of European and American operetta and, in recent years, Broadway fare.
This year's composers are the obligatory G&S, plus Offenbach, Johann Strauss II, the brothers Gershwin, Victor Herbert and Bock. To sample a broad range of 20th-century styles, we sampled Herbert's Mlle. Modiste (1905), the Gershwins' Of Thee I Sing (1931) and Bock's Fiddler on the Roof (1964).
The interesting paradox is that the further back they go, the more authentic and well-realized the productions become. Mlle. Modiste comes out of a world that expected luscious melody, perfumed romance and comical improbabilities. But first and foremost, there's Herbert's music.
To the great composer's glory is the Wooster orchestra, which is capable of making Herbert's lushness as fresh as if it were composed last Tuesday. Perhaps the company's greatest treasure is to introduce us to someone like Sara Ann Mitchell in the title role. She has the uncanny ability to evoke the aromatic acting and vocal style of long-dead divas who elicited the worship of diamond-bearing devotees.
Of Thee I Sing is basically a Marx Brothers movie with a lot more music. And because that music is well-wrought Gershwin, this means the century's happiest merger of melody and wit. The Ohio Light Opera production is amiable, raucous and charmingly ramshackle, as if the Marx Brothers had taken their act to an appreciative senior-citizens center.
Wooster also has given us something highly unusual: a Fiddler on the Roof that lacks essential Yiddish-keit. Ted Christopher portrays the kind of Tevye that we imagine Jimmy Stewart would have rendered if he could sing really well. And, horror of horrors, there's a Yente the Matchmaker played with the frightening shrillness of a witch salivating for her Hansel and Gretel.
Nevertheless, a trip to Wooster is a plaintive reminder of what music was like before you had to beat it.