Not many people list their occupation as “Tenor” on their business card, but Forest Park’s Erich Buchholz has been a professional singer for almost two decades. Although he sings in a variety of styles, his specialty is performing in operettas. His current production is a comic operetta called Madame Pompadour. It debuted at the Vittum Theater, in Chicago’s historic Noble Square neighborhood, on July 17.
Buchholz realizes there is a limited audience for operetta, even hilarious ones like Madame Pompadour. So he also performs with a male classical comedy group known as Hudson Shad. They sing everything from barbershop to cabaret, touring throughout the U.S. and internationally and have an upcoming gig in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Closer to home, Buchholz has sung with the Grant Park Chorus, Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Lyric Opera Chorus. He met his wife, Kathryn, when they were both singing at the Lyric. It wasn’t a very romantic opera — Mephistopheles is a dark drama about a man making a deal with the devil. No doubt there were gags about that at the wedding.
Kathryn is also a professional singer and has the same comic sensibility as her husband. She has played male parts in light operas while Buchholz is likewise fearless in drag.
His part in Madame Pompadour does not require him to wear a dress, but he does play a ridiculous character. He is a poet named Calicot, who is commissioned to write a comedy to celebrate the birthday of Louis XV. At Versailles, he becomes involved with the king’s chief mistress, Madame Pompadour. The title character is based on the real-life Jeanne Poisson, who wielded considerable power behind the throne.
“We have a hilarious duet, which is a highlight of the show,” Buchholz said, “Our costumes are also comical: wide dresses, with narrow waists and white powdered wigs.” The humor is of the adult variety.
“It’s very naughty, lots of double entendres,” Buchholz said. The audience will get the jokes because the libretto has been translated from the original German to English.
Madame Pompadour was the greatest hit of Leo Fall, a Viennese composer. He wrote it after World War I, during the heyday of Viennese operettas. While America enjoyed the “Jazz Age” during that period, it was the “Silver Age of Operetta” in Austria.
“The times were terrible, politically and economically,” Buchholz explained, “but artistry flourished.”
Audiences were particularly drawn to material that diverted their attention from grim reality.
“The plots of operettas are lighter than grand opera,” Buchholz said. “Madame Pompadour requires acting, complicated singing and lots of hijinks. It’s very much a farce, with beautiful music.” Buchholz’s part is particularly suited to his broad comic style of acting.
When asked if he is kind of a ham on stage, he replied, “That’s putting it mildly.”
They say that dying is easy but comedy is hard, and it takes a lot of work to convey the humor in Madame Pompadour. The show is being put on by the Chicago Folks Operetta company, which was founded by Jerry Frantzen and Oak Park’s Allison Kelly. The 22-member cast has been rehearsing the complicated material at three different churches in Oak Park. They will be accompanied by a 20-piece orchestra.
Violin was Buchholz’s first love, growing up in La Grange. He didn’t start singing until he was 16, but went on to earn his degree in voice performance from Oberlin College. Buchholz loved classical music but didn’t like opera until he performed it in college. He also admits he was a “musical snob,” steering clear of pop music. Now he enjoys and performs a wide variety.
“I’ve broadened my horizons beyond opera,” he said.
Buchholz also enjoys living in Forest Park and his new career as a massage therapist. Buchholz had previously worked as a waiter but restaurant work was an exhausting grind. He graduated from the Cortiva Institute of Massage Therapy in 2013 and has been happy in his work ever since. Kathryn’s day job is in digital marketing. The couple shares their love of music and often perform together in choruses. Kathryn also sings soprano with Chicago a cappella, a nine-member choral group.
Audiences can enjoy listening to Buchholz’s tenor voice and watching his bizarre antics on stage for the next three weekends at 1012 N. Noble Street. Tickets are $35 but parking is free at the theater.
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sundays. There is also a special performance on Thursday, July 30, in which the understudies perform the leads and the cast members join the chorus.
Buchholz will still find a way to ham it up.