Keeping the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan alive in 21st century
Take a bow, Plymouth Gilbert and Sullivan Fellowship, which is celebrating another landmark in its lifetime.
The UK's longest-established, continually running company devoted to the distinctly British shows created by the Victorian-era partnership has turned 90.
It is old, but remains the very model of a modern major musical society, confounding fashion and economic uncertainty to continue to be a success. Hard work and commitment have ensured that the award-winning company still attracts full houses to performances of a style of show that has long since ceased to be trendy.
Crucially, those two qualities have also been employed to ensure that the company's finances are in fine health. So the fellowship can look forward with confidence to its centenary.
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Hard work and commitment categorised the amateur singers from the start. The fellowship was founded by an energetic and forceful Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast, Horace Bickle, in 1923.
The power of his personality seems to have seeped into the company and stayed there ever since. For example, take how he dealt with a big problem at the fellowship's first show, The Mikado, when about to open in 1924.
The day before the dress rehearsal, principal tenor Gordon Crocker sent a telegram to say he had had an accident and couldn't appear. His were big shoes to fill: he was a former member of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, the professional company that staged Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
Horace took the train to London to see Rupert D'Oyly Carte. Rupert was the son and heir of Richard D'Oyly Carte, who built a hotel empire, including the Savoy, as well as two theatres and first brought W S Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan together.
Horace later said: "On hearing my trouble he said he had no spare tenors and when I suggested that perhaps we could borrow an understudy he told me he did not keep understudies for **** amateurs."
Despite the brusque reply, there was hope. D'Oyly Carte added that perhaps his secretary could help if Horace saw her on the way out.
"As I was walking out of his room he said, 'By the way, there will be no charge for your accommodation'."
The fellowship's official history recounts how Horace enjoyed a night free at the luxurious Savoy Hotel, which even provided pyjamas as he had left Plymouth in such a hurry he had not taken an overnight bag.
The next day, Horace tracked young tenor Dewey Gibson down at his lodgings and told him: "You are playing Nanki in The Mikado at Plymouth tonight and for the rest of the week."
Dewey replied that he had never acted with amateurs – and Horace replied that now was his chance and that he might learn something.
So credit, then, to Horace's gift of the gab. As a lawyer he was clearly in the right profession.
The fellowship, with stand-in guest, was an immediate success. The chorus was so large that it was divided into sections, which played on different nights at the Repertory Theatre.
Today the fellowship can't boast such numbers. But at 60 members in total and 40 of them regular performers, the company is one of the best-supported amateur stage organisations in the South West.
The attraction for performers and members is much the same. Chairman Kim Gilley says the appeal is the quality and distinctive style of the operettas.
"Gilbert and Sullivan has a pull of its own," says Kim, a soprano who sings under her maiden name, Willcocks. "It is in English, which means the audience can follow every word. There is no need for subtitles. The songs and shows are very well-known and the tunes are very catchy.
"The shows are very light-hearted, with the exception of Yeomen of the Guard. It is more fun than real opera."
By that Kim means that Gilbert and Sullivan is operetta – there is dialogue as well as singing. "We have different audiences [from those that go to opera]. We aren't considered as high-brow. A lot of people who like real opera would not come to G and S."
Nor would many who go to musical theatre shows, she adds. That's because G and S is seen by some who enjoy a Broadway-style show as almost as high-brow as opera. And there is the slightly dusty Victorian air to it: it's simply not fashionable.
But when those who ordinarily dismiss Gilbert and Sullivan do see a show, they are often won over. Fans of musical theatre are engaged by the humour and the tunes, and opera aficionados are taken by the quality of the music.
"It is not all 'rumpy pumpy'," says Kim. "The harmonies are quite complicated."
The pun-heavy, frequently tongue-tying, lyrics add to the difficulty. The patter requires very clear diction.
"When somebody new is introduced to G and S they are really surprised," adds Kim. "They love it."
As for the members of the fellowship, they aren't only in love with the music. They have a tendency to fall in love with each other. Kim is one of many who have met their partners through the company – her husband, Ray, is a baritone.
Nor is she unique in coming from a family of fellowship members. Her connection actually began before birth.
"I was born into G and S," she says. "My mum, Joan, was pregnant with me when she sang in the chorus of The Mikado. My dad, Gordon, was the musical director."
Kim, who went to public secondary, trained with vocal coach Alice Pooley, reaching Grade 8. She made her debut 36 years ago at 16 – the youngest you can join the fellowship – playing Fiametta in The Gondoliers.
Kim was a lead soprano for more than 20 years and still performs regularly. For her the operatic society provides a contrast with her job as a donor carer for NHS Blood and Transplant.
In the three decades with the fellowship she has been through all the main G and S female roles. Her favourite operetta is Yeomen of the Guard, partly for its more serious elements. And Princess Ida, from the show of the same name, gets her vote as her top role. "She has beautiful arias to sing and it's also one of my favourite shows. It's about a woman founding a university, feminism and women's education – unusual topics. Gilbert was ahead of his time."
Concentrating on the output of one creative pairing is limiting: although Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 operettas, "only six will sell out: The Mikado, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, The Gondoliers, Iolanthe and The Yeomen Of the Guard. And we have to sell out a show to get our money back."
Big casts, hiring a theatre and paying for professional directors is an expensive business. Staging a show at the Devonport Playhouse, the company's current home, costs £20,000. When they played at the Theatre Royal for many years the cost was double.
"When the Athenaeum Theatre closed [in 2009[ that was a big blow," says Kim. "We miss having an affordable venue in the city centre."
Fortunately their shows continue to be financially successful, thanks to loyal support and lack of competition. "There is no Opera South West any more. We are the only amateur operatic company in the city."
The fellowship has always had a sufficient pool of talent to diversify into opera or musical theatre, but an obstacle had to be removed before they could step away from Gilbert and Sullivan.
"We are a charity, so we had to go to the Charity Commission to get permission to change our constitution," says Kim.
Four years ago the first non-G and S show was performed, Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow. And last year came the first musical theatre production, My Fair Lady.
"Instead of having to repeat ourselves every seventh year, we can do a different show every couple of years to keep the appeal to audiences.
"We won't stray too far from the operetta feel, and there is a limit on where we can go in the types of musical theatre we do.
"We won't be doing shows that have a lot of dancing. We are much stronger on singing."
The fellowship has the prizes to prove it, including National Operatic and Dramatic Association awards.
Careful management of their performance schedule has enabled the fellowship to treble the amount of money in its bank account while still managing to raise cash for charities including the RNLI and St Luke's Hospice.
The innovation of performing concert versions of their shows on the road, including at the Hall for Cornwall in Truro, in addition to one big costumed production each year at the Playhouse, has been the key. The concert venues take a much smaller share of the profits.
The fellowship also has the Wand'ring Minstrels, a touring cabaret group with a master of ceremonies, pianist, singers and dancers. The group performs G and S, opera and musical theatre excerpts, plus standards and comedy readings.
There is another reason to vary the programme: one concern is that the next generation is not coming through. While there is no shortage of performers, the worry is over audiences.
Opera's appeal has been broadened by crossover performers such as Katherine Jenkins and the high profile of some operatic singers – starting with Luciano Pavarotti a couple of decades ago. Musical theatre goes from strength to strength with revivals of old shows and a constant stream of new work.
"But young people aren't introduced to Gilbert and Sullivan like they used to be," says Kim.
"When I was young there were school productions. My first appearance was playing the Plaintiff in Trial By Jury when I was 15 at school. Now every school seems to be doing Les Miserables.
"I think it's a shame. G and S has this old image but the shows are wonderful and they are so well-written, so clever with parodies of British characters and society.
"Schools are missing out. G and S is a great introduction to opera and it is part of our heritage."