What’s So Special about Gilbert and Sullivan? Or We’ve Got a Little List...

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With the first-ever Gilbert and Sullivan sing-along taking place at Symphony Space on Sunday and Caramoor kicking off its summer season with H.M.S. Pinafore on June 25, Naomi Lewin and Midge Woolsey talk about the timeless charm of the dynamic operetta duo and list the reasons that they’re dyed in the wool Savoyards.

Midge: I think the amazing thing about Gilbert and Sullivan is that even though they had very adult intentions with their writing, first and foremost they were entertainers. As a result, their operettas appeal to audiences of all kinds – from the very young to the very old.

Naomi: That’s so true. I fell in love with Gilbert and Sullivan as a kid, and spent hours listening to recordings of their shows. I could sing every line of every song from most of them.

Midge: I’ve loved Gilbert and Sullivan since I was a child, too. My parents participated in the annual faculty G&S productions at Casady School in Oklahoma City. If I close my eyes, I can still see my mom giggling and chattering with the other teachers ‘Climbing Over Rocky Mountain’ in The Pirates of Penzance. And my dad fooled us all when he crept through the audience as a bearded pirate “With Cat Like Tread.”

To make the productions super special, an incredibly funny man used to come all the way from the East Coast – with his own costumes in hand! – to play the patter roles. He was indeed “the very model of a modern Major General!” I distinctly remember him dressed in a nightshirt and cap with a candle in one hand posing in an arabesque forever and singing ”Sighing Softly to the River.” His name was Lee Bristol.  

Naomi: Lee Bristol also figured in my “well spent” Gilbert and Sullivan youth! I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, where Lee Bristol was President of Westminster Choir College, and participated in local G. & S. productions. I have vivid memories of his Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. in Pinafore. My father, who was a composer, introduced me to Gilbert and Sullivan. Dad worshipped the operatic ground Wagner walked on – but he also adored Gilbert and Sullivan, for the extraordinary combination of beautiful melodies and clever lyrics. The moment I got the chance, I started performing G.&S. Our seventh grade class play was The Mikado, and when I became a professional singer, I toured with a Gilbert and Sullivan company.

Midge: I was 30 years old before I played my first G. & S. role – Gianetta in The Gondoliers. Gianetta was followed by Dame Hannah in Ruddigore. This was when I started to realize precisely how brilliant Gilbert and Sullivan were. And I learned that as long as you played the role with complete conviction you could have as much fun as you wanted and never go over the top.

Naomi: I’m a mezzo-soprano, but neither my voice nor I were ever hefty enough to be cast in plummy G.&S. alto roles like Buttercup, Katisha, and Lady Jane. Fortunately, Gilbert and Sullivan created a whole series of wise-cracking sidekick mezzo roles like Pitti-Sing (Mikado), Tessa (Gondoliers), and Mad Margaret (Ruddigore). They’re right up my vocal alley, and lots of fun to sing. (Lots of words, too!) My Dad’s favorite number was always “The Silver Churn,” from Patience. I’m pretty partial to the madrigal from The Mikado, and the “Matter” trio from Ruddigore.

Midge: I recently spoke with G&S specialist extraordinaire, maestro Gerald Steichen. Jerry made his New York City Opera debut in the 1980’s conducting the Lotfi Monsouri production of The Mikado. The Jonathan Miller Mikados followed soon after. (Full disclosure: Jerry also played The Duke of Plaza Toro in that production of Gondoliers with me many moons ago.) Jerry says that he approaches a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta exactly as though he’s conducting Mozart, striving for the ”same clarity of line and cleanliness of articulation.” He says, “It requires that same level of musicianship. And politically speaking, the operettas still say so much about mocking ourselves and human fallibility.”

Naomi: It’s amazing how well they satirized 19th-century Victorian conventions, and how well those satires hold up today. What’s also amazing is that two such different people as lyricist William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan – who basically didn’t like working with each other – created lasting pieces that people of all ages still adore. When my “Gen Y” nieces were little, I took them to see The Sorcerer, and they rode all the way home singing “My name is John Wellington Wells.”

Midge: If you’re geared up to sing a few G&S tunes, too, consider the G&S Sing-Along this Sunday at Symphony Space.

Naomi: Representatives from all the local G. & S. companies will be there – and New York is a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-rich place. (So far this season, I’ve seen the NYGASP Mikado and Blue Hill Troupe Pinafore.) The sing-along is B.Y.O.S., or bring your own scores. If you want to know which ones… well, of course, on the Web site for the event, they’ve got a little list.