Three times during his presidency, George Washington attended performances of "The Poor Soldier," one of the most popular theatrical pieces of his day. The president, who loved going to the theater, recorded those outings in New York and Philadelphia in his ledgers.
These days, theater-goers curious about Washington's taste in the dramatic arts need go no farther than Gadsby's Tavern Museum in Old Town Alexandria. "The Poor Soldier," a comic opera, is enjoying a comeback there thanks to a group of local performers intent on re-creating the popular musicals and plays of early America. Formed 18 months ago, the Opera Project is a professional, nonprofit opera company whose aim is "to bring early American theater and modern audiences together," said the troupe's artistic director, Kathleen Baker.
Performances of the ballad and comic operas of Washington's time are held in the second-floor ballroom of the museum at North Royal and Cameron streets. The project's one-month spring season, its third, begins this week.
"I think it's something Alexandria badly needs since we are very much interested in the city's history," said Gini Cyr, "The Poor Soldier" stage director. "We are endeavoring to produce 18th century entertainment in an 18th century style and we're doing it in an 18th century building.
"We hope to create a total 18th century ambiance," Cyr added.
Baker, described by one troupe member as "a walking encyclopedia of 18th century life," said Gadsby's Tavern Museum is particularly appropriate for the project's performances because the traveling theater companies of Washington's day, called "strollers," used to perform in taverns. "We know for sure there were performances at City Tavern, now called Gadsby's, and at Fullmore's Tavern in Alexandria," Baker said.
Strollers, traveling up and down the East Coast, would stop in Alexandria for about a month and put on about nine plays in repertory, Baker said.
The Opera Project, which has about 100 participants from the Washington area, has received a state grant of $5,000, but otherwise depends on ticket sales and donations, Baker said. Artists are paid for their performances, but everything else is done by volunteers.
In keeping with the 18th century atmosphere, the stage in the blue ballroom at Gadsby's is illuminated by candlelight. Some members of the Opera Project sit in the audience dressed in 18th century attire. "Ladies fan themselves and pretend to faint and men bang their canes on floor and yell things out," said Daniel Waters of McLean, a tenor with the troupe.
The room holds about 90 people, which creates an unusual intimacy between audience and actors, Waters said. "It's a very different theatrical experience . . . . Nobody has a bad seat. Everyone can see you lift an eyebrow," he said. "You look right at the audience. Some of them feel uncomfortable at first, but then they get used to it. Performers will say something to the audience and sometimes they will answer back . . . . It's a warm feeling; it's more intimate than people are used to in opera."
"We try to get them to respond in 18th century fashion," said Cyr, who lives in Springfield. By this, she means "showing approval by stamping their canes on the floor or applauding lightly with their fans against their wrist."
Occasionally, Cyr attends performances as Mrs. Alison Paxton, an 18th century Alexandrian drawn from Cyr's imagination. "Mrs. Paxton is a widow in 'reduced circumstances' who has a town house in Alexandria and who occasionally serves as a hostess at Gadsby's," Cyr said. She is "about 55 years old," works as a seamstress and "enjoys going to the theater."
As part of their educational outreach, Opera Project members visit local schools. This week, Baker and Peggy Lacey-Craig put on a workshop about "The Poor Soldier" at Thomas Jefferson Intermediate School in Arlington. The session was part of the school's bicentennial celebration of the Constitution.
Baker said the spring season's productions are drawn from "the repertory that was important in Alexandria in the 18th century." "The Poor Soldier" was written by the Dublin-based actor and playwright John O'Keeffe in 1783, Baker said. "It's the story of a poor Irishman who went off to the wars in America and returned to his village after two years. It shows what happens to him as he returns and looks for his friends and sweetheart.
"It was a big hit in America," she said.
The second production, "A Grand Federal Entertainment," is a three-act musical allegory celebrating the Constitution. A chorus of citizens, known as the "rabble," sings the popular music of the day, while the soloists sing "the grand music of the day," which was Mozart and Handel, Baker said.
The third piece is a two-act opera called "Thomas and Sally," written by British composer Thomas Arne in 1760. "It's about youth and old age and virtue and vice," Baker said. Waters plays the squire in "Thomas and Sally." The squire "is on the make for Sally and does everything to get her before Thomas comes back from sea," Waters said. "But he comes back in time and rescues her from an uncertain fate."