Interview: Amy Maude Helfer of THE SORCERER & TRIAL BY JURY at Kaye Playhouse

Bringing a female voice to a Gilbert & Sullivan role for the very first time on 4/6 and 4/7

By: Mar. 18, 2024
Interview: Amy Maude Helfer of THE SORCERER & TRIAL BY JURY at Kaye Playhouse
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The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP), a non-profit group dedicated to preserving the living legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan, does things a little differently than most performance groups: they’re a true repertory company, with shows designed to have a role for each member – i.e., if you’re a young maiden in Mikado, you’ll be playing a young maiden in Penzance. Mezzo singer Amy Maude Helfer has been with the group since 2008. On April 6 and 7, when the group presents a double header of Trial By Jury and The Sorcerer, Helfer will be graduating for the first time from the “maiden” role, playing the Counsel and Mrs. Partlet in each respective show. In Trial By Jury, she will also be playing a role traditionally played by a male baritone, the first time a woman has taken the role in a major production of this rarely revived show.

We spoke about Helfer’s growing role with NYGASP, the process of stepping into these roles, and more.

You're going to be playing the Counsel in Trial By Jury, a role originally written for a male baritone. How did that casting choice come about?

So cool, right? James Mills, my longtime friend and colleague who is directing this piece, approached me for it. He had previously directed the piece with a mezzo in the role of the Counsel, and really liked the different "spin" it put on the relationship between Counsel and Plaintiff, especially. I believe there are a few recordings out there with a mezzo in this role, and there have been a few concert occasions of female-presenting singers in the role with NYGASP, but as far as I'm aware, I am the first mezzo and first woman to perform the role on the NYGASP mainstage!

How are you feeling about playing the part?

Oh, it's great fun! I am enjoying pondering whether this female Counsel may have ever been in a similar situation to the Plaintiff's, and it's very fun to really poke barbs at the Defendant for how "icky" he is! I get to observe how all these men – Judge, Defendant, Usher, Foreman, Jury – and women – especially the bridesmaids – interact with the Plaintiff with a very different eye than a male Counsel would. We wonder how sincere anyone in this courtroom truly is, and we get to appreciate how smart and intentional the Plaintiff and the Counsel both are!

Also, my longtime day job is an administrative position at a law firm, so I'm having a ball with marrying (is that too on the nose?) my two careers!

You've been with NYGASP for a long time, since 2008. What has it been like working with a repertory company for that length of time? Do you feel like your role in the company has shifted over time?

Haha, that is a long time, isn't it? My audition for NYGASP was quite literally my very first one in NYC when I moved here, and I loved at once the notion of singing opera, delivering dialogue, and dancing about the stage, altogether! I began first covering and then singing young lady roles like Kate (Pirates), Pitti-Sing (Mikado), Phoebe (Yeomen),Tessa (Gondoliers), Iolanthe, Melissa (Princess Ida), and Saphir and then Angela (Patience). In my early years with the company, I was singing "pants roles" (wherein female singers -- most often, mezzos -- play young boys) like Hansel (and Gretel), Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro) and Stephano (Romeo et Juliette) outside of the company, and when I began singing these female G&S roles, so did I grow to sing roles like Carmen, Mrs. Lovett (Sweeney Todd), Petra (Night Music), Dinah (Trouble in Tahiti), and even the Witch (Hansel and Gretel)! It feels almost full circle to now be singing a "male" G&S role! And I don't want to spoil anything, but I'm actually going to be wearing pants on the NYGASP stage! 

What are you looking forward to about this double header of Trial By Jury and the Sorcerer?

I'm very excited for the challenge of playing two totally different roles in one "show"; Mrs. Partlet, my role in The Sorcerer, likely would never have had the remotest opportunity to attend law school, though she certainly has the smarts for it. While I've previously performed in the ensemble of both pieces, it's a total thrill to debut two brand new roles in one evening! This also feels sort of like my debut of "grown up" roles on the NYGASP stage, as longtime audience members know me as merry maiden, mighty maiden, lovesick maiden, maiden who loves/sits/sighs, and other maidens!

What's coming up next for you?

I am currently studying Klytamnestra in Strauss' Elektra for performances in early June. I recently learned that the first Klytamnestra was Jewish and from eastern Europe, so being Ashkenazi myself, I feel like I'm following in the right footsteps! She reportedly made her Broadway debut in a comic role at 61, saying "I want to try everything!" which I certainly identify with, too! Elektra is a one-act like Trial by Jury, but the similarities end about there, since it's very loud, mostly atonal, in mixed meter, and altogether super intense! But my next engagement is actually another male G&S role!!! Stay tuned!

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Thanks so much for chatting with me! I really think audiences will love this double bill. It's so fascinating and cool to hear these two pieces together -- especially as they were among Gilbert & Sullivan's first collaborations -- to see where their partnership took them. You will hear early iterations of those signature "double choruses," heartbreakingly gorgeous melodies hidden amongst the frivolity, and topsy-turvy romantic pairings. Audiences on April 6 & 7 will also witness lots of role debuts in both pieces, which is totally exciting and nerve wracking for us all onstage! With all the terror and anger in the world, audiences will definitely want to come spend an afternoon and/or an evening with us and be transported to our magical world!

Tickets to Trial By Jury and the Sorcerer are available here.

You can learn more about Amy Maude Helfer at www.amymaudehelfer.com.




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