LOVERS of Gilbert and Sullivan's popular comic operettas are marking the next step in the development of one of the oldest – if not THE oldest – G&S Society in the UK.
The multi-award winning Leeds Gilbert and Sullivan Society – which has already entered its second century of songs, shows and sophisticated silliness – has grown exponentially since humble beginnings in the terraced streets of the city.
Organisers and enthusiasts from the 150-strong society now hope to introduce a new generation to the musical satires, stage delights and clever social observations of the staged works of Messrs W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
The society – which has a regular rehearsal and performance base at the Carriageworks Theatre off Millennium Square, Leeds – staged the Yeomen of the Guard this year (March 2011), and is already actively preparing and recruiting for its next major performance of the topically satirical Iolanthe in March 2012.
Publicity secretary and cast member Katie Lister says although Leeds-based, the society boasts members from across Yorkshire and beyond and has enthusiasts aged 13-70 years old plus.
And while the troupe is looking to its future - with exciting plans to expand further its touring base and membership from across Yorkshire , Ms Lister says the society's illustrious history and the infectious appeal of the genius of the Victorian duo, remain key to its success.
She says the pair's innate ability to adroitly reflect the absurdity of social situation remains both timeless and universal.
“Their works are as popular as ever – and just as relevant in the 21st C as Iolanthe demonstrates. Their plots are topsy-turvy, but very funny and charming at the same time – and often have some moments of real pathos in them.
“Sullivan’s music can range from stirring marches via rousing choruses, to pretty ballets and lovely duets. He was incredibly talented and his music fits the plots perfectly. I still get goose bumps with certain numbers, even though I know them inside out.
“Iolanthe, which we’re performing in March 2012, is a great example of their satirical mastery; among other things, it pokes fun at the starchy House of Lords and politicians, so is still topical.
“G&S are part of our heritage; whole generations were brought up on them, from church societies to schools, a lot of people have cut their musical teeth on their music. And a lot of professional opera companies perform them nowadays, where historically they might have sneered at such. Opera North performed Ruddigore last year, for example.
“In Victorian times, there was nothing else like them in their day, and they were accessible and relevant to a huge cross-section of the population and caught their imagination – very much like the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber of their time. That’s why they continue to be popular – and still have that magic touch.”
The two men collaborated on fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896, of which HMS Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado are among the best known.
In 1861, to supplement his income, the younger Gilbert began writing illustrated stories, poems and articles of his own, many of which would later be used as inspiration for his plays and operas, particularly Gilbert's series of illustrated poems.
Sullivan was born in London on 13 May 1842. His father was a military bandmaster, and by the time Arthur had reached the age of eight, he was proficient with all the instruments in the band.
But it was the theatre manager and impresario Richard D'Oyly-Carte who commissioned the pair when searching for a new form of English light opera which would replace the bawdy burlesques of London at the time.
He assembled a syndicate and formed the Comedy Opera Company, with Gilbert and Sullivan commissioned to write a comic opera that would serve as the centrepiece for an evening's entertainment.
The Sorcerer opened in London in 1877 to success and critical acclaim, but it was HMS Pinafore, in 1878 which propelled the pair to international fame.
During the run of Pinafore, Richard D'Oyly Carte split up with his former investors. The disgruntled former partners, who had each invested in the production with no return, staged a public fracas, sending a group of thugs to seize the scenery during one performance.
Stagehands successfully managed to ward off their backstage attackers but this event cleared the way for Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan to form the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which then produced all of their succeeding operas.
H.M.S. Pinafore ran in London for 571 performances, the second longest run of any musical theatre piece in history up to that time.
And a little like the subjects of the operettas, a broad range of people from all walks of Leeds life have graced the society's stages.
“The Society was formed in Hunslet in Leeds. Among all the heavy industry of the area lived a large community of people, mainly living in hundreds of terraced houses, now long-since demolished, which had been built to accommodate factory workers, hence the name “South Accommodation Road”.
“The Vicar of St Silas'Methodist Church, The Rev S Froggatt, (the President of the first Society) was concerned about pollution for the inhabitants of the area and had commented that '..from the vicarage windows we can see about 40 chimneys'.
“It was against this background that the “Hunslet St Silas Choral and Operatic Society” was formed by a group of young people 'as a means of healthy recreation and to foster and develop a love of music in Hunslet.' ”
“Members originally had to be Churchgoers and to live within the tiny St Silas parish boundaries.
“In the 1930s, the Society decided to invite members of the other three parishes in Hunslet to join their ranks and after WW II, with a bank balance of £25.0s.7d, and a membership of 34, the Society became known as the Hunslet Choral & Operatic Society.
“Performances of choral works such as “The Holy City”, “Olivet to Calvary” were given in church and musicals, which included “The Mandarin”, “Princess JuJu” and “The Bandolero, ” as well as Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, were presented annually at St Joseph’s Hall, Hunslet.
“Rehearsals took place in the St Silas Church schoolroom on Monday evenings (which is still our rehearsal night) until 1953.
“When St Silas was scheduled for demolition, the rehearsal venue was moved to the factory canteen of TF & JH Braime Pressings on Hunslet Road when Ronald Braime became the Society’s President.
“At the same time, the name was changed to “The Leeds Gilbert and Sullivan Society” and for 52 years, annual performances of G&S took place at Leeds Civic Theatre.
“Now, with a slightly larger bank balance, and with over 150 members and Friends, rehearsals and annual performances now take place at The Carriageworks off Millennium Square.
“It goes without saying that we are deeply indebted to those visionary young people who started such a small society so many years ago and, already into our next century, we are looking towards the next chapter in our history with optimistic enthusiasm.
“Some tread the boards and others work backstage, as crew, makeup, costumes, front of house and in the production team and whole families are encouraged to take part.
“We welcome new members in any capacity so if anyone fancies themselves being in the chorus or prefers to be based backstage, we’d love to hear from them for either a chat or a not-too-daunting audition!”
Rehearsals are already scheduled for Iolanthe in 2012 and more can be found at the contact details below.
· Iolanthe was the first of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas to premiere at the Savoy. The story concerns a band of immortal fairies who find themselves at odds with the House of Lords. The opera satirises many aspects of British government and law.
· The Society has also performed/rehearsed in Filey Methodist Church, Chapel Allerton, Bedale, and at Leeds Grammar School and welcome members from across Yorkshire.