End of an aria
When the curtain rises on the Nevada Opera’s opening-night performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic, two-act comedy, The Mikado, vocalist Rick Cornell will get into both costume and character. Naturally, there will be lines and songs to commit to memory—all to do justice to a show that first ran at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1885 and has been going strong ever since. In commemoration of its 40th anniversary, Cornell and the chorus will be singing the praises of Nevada Opera founder, the late Merle “Ted” Puffer, whose 2003 death marked the end of an era.
“As time goes on, there are less and less people in the chorus who sang under the baton of Ted,” Cornell says. “Without Ted Puffer, there is no Nevada Opera. For anybody to build an opera company of any size in Reno, such as it existed in 1968, is virtually impossible to fathom. We were truly a desert island. We were a town of, what, 40 or 50 thousand? Imagine trying to build an opera company that’s a bona-fide regional opera company in Elko, for example. Impossible. It wouldn’t happen. Yet it happened here.”
Cornell, 55, has been a singer since high school, when a barbershop-quartet performance in The Music Man inspired the second-tenor’s love not just of singing, but also of performing. He sang all through law school, sang in UNR’s Symphonic Chorale, and sang—literally—in the shower.
“Finally, my wife persuaded me, in 1996, to audition [for Nevada Opera],” Cornell says, adding that his law career “gives me the time to sing opera, when I can. Sometimes, actually, I cannot. I’ve had many an opera where I’m backstage summarizing transcripts. The call comes for the chorus to get onstage, and I drop my transcripts and get going.”
The Mikado, which he also performed while a college student, remains a favorite of Cornell’s, who plays Pish-Tush.
“He kind of sets the opera’s satiric edge off early in the show with his aria,” says Cornell of his character. “[It’s] a broad spoof on the sexual mores, if you will, of Victorian England—such an obvious spoof that they had to write the story as though it were happening in the fictitious, Japanese town of Titipu!”
Controversy over the work has been about as long-running as The Mikado itself, with racism and sexism at the core of claims by nose-to-spite-their-face viewers who simply missed Gilbert and Sullivan’s emphasis on satire. Similarly, the character of Ko-Ko—the Lord High Executioner himself—also preferred to snub death, saying, “I can’t consent to embark on a professional operation unless I see my way to a successful result.”
Cornell says the same held true for Puffer—as well as the opera’s successful life span.
“Without Ted, you don’t have the opera company not only starting, but sustaining. Forty years later, we’ve gotten to the point where I think we can objectively say that while we’re a small, regional opera company, we’re one of the best in the country. The principals that have come in over the years have all marveled at how good this chorus is. … [Ted] helped establish a professional ethic for the production of these operas. … He instilled that ethic from the get-go. Even though the company has changed over the years, it’s an ethic that’s been passed down.”