20th - 22nd April 2012

 
"And echo forth the joyous sound"

Gilbert and Sullivan Society National Convention

 
 

The Alma Lodge Hotel, Stockport

 

The Gilbert & Sullivan Society Convention 2012

onvention

David Jones reports on the events of 20th to 22nd April, at the Alma Lodge Hotel, Stockport

The eighteenth Gilbert & Sullivan Society Convention, which was hosted jointly by the Manchester and Norwich Societies, was held at the Alma Lodge Hotel, Stockport, and was attended by over eighty delegates.

There were members from the Bath, London, Manchester and Norwich Societies, as well as performers and guests who had travelled from Wales , Scotland and Northern Ireland , and three who travelled from the USA .

During the course of the Convention, Jean Dufty, Manchester Society Secretary, told us that after the 2007 convention, which was held in Stockport, one of the letters received from a member was very congratulatory but complained that the weather had been ‘far too good and sunny’ to be kept indoors for the whole weekend at a convention, and requested that Manchester arrange for it to be cold and wet next time. Jean pointed out that the committee had done that, although she thought we might have ‘overdone it a little’. During the daytime on Friday, we had wind, torrential rain, sleet, hailstones and even thunder. Things moderated somewhat during the course of the weekend, but it was still dull, showery and rather chilly.  Well done the Convention Committee!


Friday

“Now to the banquet we press” 

At 7.30 pm on Friday, the convention opened with a four-course Celebration Dinner which also marked the eightieth anniversary of the Manchester Society. The well-designed A4-sheet menu, which was adorned with several attractive graphical illustrations, announced that it was also the seventy-seventh anniversary dinner.

Menuclick for larger image

Below the heading, Menu, came the quotation: “learn your appetites to subdue”. Well, with mouth-watering dishes such as: Fan of Melon Yum Yum; McCranky’s Scottish Smoked Salmon; Cream of Asparagus in May Soup; Yeomen Medallions of Beef; Utopian Lemon Sole Mornay; Titipu Vegetable Pancakes (and all the main courses accompanied by Bunthorne’s Market Vegetables - “a bashful young potato, or a not-too-French French bean!”) as well as a choice selection of delicious sweets or a cheese and biscuits platter to follow, there was no chance at all of us following that instruction!

After dinner, Manchester Society Chairman, David Walton, welcomed us all and after a short opening speech, proposed the Toast ‘The Queen, The Duke of Lancaster”. He then invited Manchester Society President, Royston Nash, to address us. Royston began by reminding us that David Walton had been our Manchester Society Chairman for twenty years, and thanked him for his dedicated service to the Society during this period.

During the warm and friendly speech which followed,Royston recounted that his first visit to Manchester, as Music Director of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, was to conduct a performance of Yeomen of The Guard, and that it was scheduled to be performed on a Good Friday. He remembered that to give the performance on that day, it had been necessary to seek permission from the Manchester Watch Committee (who ‘policed’ such matters at that time) and, perhaps because it was one of the more serious G&S operas, permission was granted to go ahead. Royston also told us that he had calculated recently that if William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan had both been born on 29th February, in a leap year (as Frederic had been) then, calculated by the actual birthdays which they would by now have had, they would have been 43 and 41 years of age respectively and, perhaps, still alive and well and able to attend the convention! He then proposed the Toast “The Immortal Memory and Manchester G&S Society”. We were also delighted to welcome Royston’s wife, Lois, as a convention guest.

“Strictly Victorian Entertainment”

click here for video
We then transferred to an adjacent area for some ‘strictly Victorian entertainment’ which utilised arrangements of Sullivan’s music. David Norris first played piano arrangements of various pieces from the Savoy Operas and, later, the “Pirates Gallop” arranged by Charles D’Albert. Then, to the strains of a march from Utopia Limited, eight of the Manchester Society members entered and were all very elegantly attired in Victorian evening dress. They danced for us the “Sorcerer Quadrille”, again arranged by Charles D’Albert, and they all responded well to instruction from the ‘caller’, Jean Dufty, who was also attired in Victorian costume. After that, members of the audience were invited to join in, and several did so, with great enthusiasm. Afterwards, we listened to a pot-pourri of instrumental music containing ‘all the best-known tunes from the operettas’. We heard the “Mikado Quadrille” which was played by the London Salon Ensemble - on a CD recording supplied by Paul Taylor.

And so a very enjoyable evening came to a close, and we made our way home (or simply, upstairs) to bed.


Saturday

“Hark the hour of ten is sounding”

At ten o’clock on Saturday morning, Manchester Society Chairman, David Walton, made a short speech and welcomed the assembled delegates. He then introduced the speaker for the first lecture/recital of the day.

“I’ll teach you all, ere long” - A lecture/recital by Oliver White (tenor)

Sir Arthur Sullivan: “Performing the music of Sullivan; breaking conventions?”

Oliver informed us that, as he was performing professionally on stage in Liverpool that evening, he wished to limit the amount of singing during his lecture/recital and would illustrate his talk mainly by use of the piano.

He began by discussing Sullivan’s writing for the tenor voice in the Savoy Operas, and he thought that in the earlier operas (The Sorcerer, HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance), the pieces written for the tenor roles of Alexis, Ralph and Frederic, were, perhaps, not as sympathetically written by Sullivan as in the later operas - but that things improved as time went by and the series progressed. Oliver explained that in order to reach and execute the high notes in the tenor range, it is necessary to relax the voice in order to achieve the desired effect, and that this can be influenced by the way in which a composer constructs the piece. He thought that Sullivan’s sympathy for the tenor voice and his technical expertise in writing for it, improved during the series of operas.

Having said that, Oliver expressed his admiration for Sullivan’s genius in writing for the voice and the subtlety with which he achieved his aims. Demonstrating this with frequent short bursts of the voice, or on the piano, he showed how Sullivan would change the meaning or mood of a particular passage by the subtle use of chromatic colouration, harmonic suspension, discordant passing notes, or discrete changes of rhythm or tempo. He also explained how Sullivan would sometimes use a gentle and sustained accompaniment in the instrumental line of a score to accompany the vocal line in such a way as to allow the singer some artistic freedom in interpreting a passage by change of rhythm or emphasis in much the same way as one would do in the course of conversation.

Oliver delivered his whole presentation with such verve and enthusiasm, that we were all held spellbound by it.

He also made me realise that there is much more to the interpretation of these roles than just singing and acting.

“I’ve tea and I’ve coffee” [or fruit-juice, plain iced-water, or ‘comfort’, or both!]  during a short break before:

“I can teach you with a quip, if I’ve a mind” - A lecture/recital by Martin Lamb (bass-baritone)

Sir William S Gilbert: “Entirely New and Original Comic Opera: W S Gilbert and Innovation”

Martin began by playing an extended excerpt from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and then explained that this had been the inspiration for one of Gilbert’s earliest plays, Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and the Great Quack – his first solo stage success, which was, in fact, a musical  burlesque of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. They were both, in turn, the source of inspiration for Gilbert’s collaboration with Sullivan in writing The Sorcerer.

Martin explained that John Wellington Wells is a ‘stage cousin’ of Dr. Dulcamara, but that Gilbert’s characters are, in general,  much more equivocal and unpleasant than those invented by the librettist for Donizetti’s operas and those of his contemporaries. He explained how Gilbert also used puns, jokes, and other devices to change the mood in his operettas, and how he also developed a metatheatrical aspect to heighten the drama and tension.

He showed how Gilbert developed much more depth in his characters and introduced ‘a comedy of manners’, and how ‘class differences’ became a big feature in the Savoy Operas. Martin explained that The Sorcerer had, at first, confounded the critics as a genre - because it was quite radically different from what had been produced before it. He also showed how, in the operas of Donizetti and the other composers of that time, set pieces (arias) were used to carry the narrative forward, whereas Gilbert wrote ballads, but not arias, and that Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music were used in combination to carry the story forward in The Sorcerer and in all subsequent Savoy Operas. Gilbert and Sullivan were in general writing for ‘actors who could sing’ rather than ‘singers who could act’ and they frequently developed roles for specific artists which had a marked influence on the course of development of the Savoy Operas. Sullivan wrote for ‘Gilbert and Sullivan singers’ not ‘opera singers’ and he frequently scaled down the orchestral accompaniment accordingly. Martin quoted pieces written for George Grossmith as an example to illustrate this point. He explained that the world of opera and the people in it were changed forever by Gilbert’s writing. He also explained how the unique combination of Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music work well in delineating the characters and that working together, as equals, they secured the success of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. He concluded by paying tribute to the innovative approach of Richard D’Oyly Carte who ‘experimented’ with many modernising aspects of theatre design and management.

“Merrily ring the luncheon bell  [at 12.45 pm  - for a three-course hot luncheon]

After an excellent and very substantial lunch, I felt inclined to go for a ‘nap’, but decided instead to opt for:

“Basingstoke it is”- an audiovisual presentation by Arthur Barrett ( Norwich Society)

Ruddigore (appropriate for the 125th anniversary of Ruddigore on 22nd January 2012)

This presentation was dedicated by Arthur to the memory of Bernard Sharpe who, unfortunately, died last year.

Arthur used video equipment and a TV screen, as well as audio equipment, to present a series of excerpts from performances of Ruddigore which had taken place over an extended period of time: some historic, some recent,

some in black and white, some in colour.  Other items were played in sound only. They were all from Arthur’s unique and extensive collection of videos, LPs, EPs, audio-cassette tapes and CDs, and he certainly used them to excellent effect to provide a most stimulating and rewarding audio-visual experience centred on Ruddigore.

We began with a few shots of Basingstoke taken by Arthur’s daughter, and of Mossley Light Railway (another of Arthur’s interests.) We, later, saw excerpts from the 1966 cartoon film, and from St. Mary’s School, as well as Thomas Round dancing the hornpipe. There were other visual excerpts from the Brent Walker videos, and excerpts (in colour) of ‘ Basingstoke’ from Charles Mackerras’s production with Sadler’s Wells of “Pineapple Poll”. There were numerous audio excerpts from a range of artists: Philip Potter, Julia Goss, Kenneth Sandford, Peggy Ann Jones, Margaret Howard, Vincent Price, Charlotte Page, George Baker and the Ohio Light Opera Company. There may have been others, but of the huge profusion of artists, those are the ones I can remember.

“High Art” –– presented by Joy Joseph ( Bath Society):           

A collection of images suggested by references in Patience

Joy began her presentation with a short visual exploration of some styles of architecture including Early English and Gothic. We then moved on to look at the huge influence (from 1848) of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood on buildings, furniture, furnishings, paintings and poetry, and noted Gilbert’s reference in Patience to the “inner brotherhood”. Joy went on to discuss and show examples of the work of three individual pre-Raphaelite artists: William Holman Hunt, John Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and how the movement had developed out of ‘a rejection of the materialism of the age of machinery’; and she showed how they had sought and followed ‘the dream’ through their art and poetry. Examples were shown of the later development of these themes, by other artists, such as: William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones; and all this was contrasted with the work of Gustav and his famous painting of a bleak industrial scene in London. Joy went on to discuss the development of medievalism in Florence and showed some examples of the paintings of Botticelli, Henry Holiday and others.

She also discussed the development of the ‘aesthetic movement’ and showed how all of this had an influence on the writings of Gilbert and many of the references in Patience in particular. Rossetti’s collection of old musical instruments was even to have an influence on Gilbert’s stage settings; and his painting, The Blessed Damozel, was reflected in Bunthorne’s dialogue as well as in his carrying of a lily on stage; and the painting, The Water Willow, became a symbol of ‘undying love’, another theme developed in Patience. There were also connections with the Grosvenor Art Gallery. Gilbert’s use of the phrase, “I do not care for dirty greens by any means”, is a direct reference to Edward Burne-Jones use of these colours in his paintings. Fred Lewis’s painting, Lilium Auratum, could have been another source of inspiration for Gilbert ‘s use of:  “ If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand”. Joy also explained that Bunthorne and Grosvenor are composite pictures derived from several people, e.g., Whistler, Walter Crane, Oscar Wilde and Swinburne. Gilbert’s use of the poetic devise, alliteration, may well have come directly from Swinburne’s use of it in his poem Nephelidia.

Joy concluded by telling us that which started off as a small handful of references, just simply ‘grew and grew’.

After another fifteen-minute break for fluid refreshment, etc., we moved on to the final afternoon presentation.

“Changing scenes” – a visual presentation by Raymond Walker ( Manchester Society)

A history of the changing patterns of D’Oyly Carte staging over 130 years – images from Society archives

Ray began by bemoaning the fact that, nowadays, scenery and stage-settings are often simple, functional and rather un-romantic, whereas the Victorians liked picturesque settings with romantic associations. Ray was of the opinion that romantic music definitely does need romantic scenery and costumes. He then showed us an outline plan of a theatre stage dating back to 1675 and showed how little the basic plan had changed since then:
from back to front, a Cyclorama (back-cloth), ground-rows, wings (for entry/exit), and tabs at the front.

Looking to the earliest staging of the D’Oyly Carte productions, Ray commented on how little information there was on this subject. Engravings from books were used to depict some of the early productions - but with varying degrees of accuracy. Photographs of theatres only began to appear from around 1900. Richard D’Oyly Carte employed a series of good scenery painters for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. These included: Henry Hawes Craven [Green] (1837-1910) who was brought in for Pinafore. The scenic designers who worked with the D’Oyly Carte Company were: Henry Hawes Craven Green, Gordon Harford, John O’Connor and Henry Emden. There appear to be scant records of the scenery painters employed by the D’Oyly Carte Company. Henry Hawes Craven was responsible for the scenery for the 1885 production of The Mikado and his scenery for the 1888 production of Yeomen of The Guard was probably the first to be photographed in 1902. For the 1915-1921 London revivals, Richard D’Oyly Carte put William Bridges-Adams in charge of the scenery for: Iolanthe, Patience, The Sorcerer, Princess Ida, Yeomen of The Guard and Ruddigore. William Bridges-Adams was definitely brought back, in 1936, to redesign the settings for Princess Ida in readiness for a tour in the USA .

George Sheringham (1884-1937) worked alongside William Bridges-Adams on the costumes and scenery. For the productions in the 1920’s and 1930’s of HMS Pinafore, Patience and The Pirates of Penzance, the scenery was much blander. ‘Forty-Foot Art’, a British Pathé film, gives a rare glimpse of Joseph Harker at work in his stage painting studio. The early painters were landscape artist in their own right, but from Ricketts onwards, they had a leaning to graphic art. Charles Ricketts was the first artist in the 1920’s productions of The Mikado and Gondoliers to provide a bolder approach. A rather bland scenery painting technique was used (but this was generally invisible from the audience) and was enhanced by incorporating emblems to add some highlight and detail. Ray then showed a four-minute film of the production of The Mikado in 1926 (courtesy of Peter Parker) which served to highlight Charles Ricketts’ costumes and scenery for the production at the Princes Theatre. Peter Goffin, a friend of Bridget D’Oyly Carte from Art College, was in charge of the stage designs from 1939 to 1961, and this included the productions of Yeomen of The Guard (1940) and Ruddigore (1949). During a wartime blitz on London, much of the scenery for four of the major D’Oyly Carte productions was destroyed.

A leaning towards a graphic design style (in general) was developed in the 1950’s: for example, that used in the 1951 Festival of Britain. Similar designs can be seen in advertising literature and scenery for the productions of the G&S operas. In 1975, the concept of Unit Sets was introduced, utilising ‘variations on a basic theme’ for the repertoire of productions. This method included the use of grey wings - on which various different panels were stuck. James Wade was brought in for a new production of Princess Ida in 1957. He produced a ‘fantasy Gothic setting’. The 1978 D’Oyly Carte Company sometimes toured with poor lighting and scenery incorrectly set, as one slide showed. Ray then commented that he thought that the recent Opera North production of Ruddigore improved matters by introducing more stage props, even if Act 1 looked bland. He concluded by restating his opinion that, in general, modern scenery is functional and un-romantic and doesn’t fulfil an audience’s needs.

“Many kinds of food” After an hour’s break, we indulged ourselves again in a Hot (and Cold) Buffet High Tea.

“All the corners of the earth ring with music sweetly played” – A Professional Celebrity Concert

Songs of the Savoy – a concert given by:
Victoria Byron (mezzo-soprano), Pauline Birchall (mezzo), Stephen Brown (tenor), Ian Belsey (baritone), Martin Lamb(bass-baritone) and David Mackie (piano).

The concert began at 8.00 pm, and lasted for two hours - with a short interval at about the mid point. It was a highly entertaining and polished performance throughout, and all the participating artists excelled themselves.

There were solos from all the vocal artists, as well as duets, trios and ensembles. The works we heard were from the G&S operas: The Sorcerer, Patience, The Grand Duke, Princess Ida, The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, Utopia Limited, Ruddigore and Iolanthe.  In addition, we heard two items from Messager’s Mirette and Edward German’s Merrie England. It was all highly enjoyable and very entertaining. As the entire concert was accompanied by David Mackie at the piano, it almost goes without saying that the accompaniment  was also highly polished and entertaining. After each of the artists was presented with a small gift in token of our appreciation, they gave us a rousing encore, very appropriate in the Queen’s Jubilee year: God Save Elizabeth! from Edward German’s Merrie England.

“Now for the strawberry jam !”


After the concert finished, at around 10.00 pm, some of us just retired to bed.

Others indulged themselves with Danish pastries, scones  and jam, washed down by tea or coffee, etc.

There was not much self restraint there then, and “learn your appetites to subdue” was long forgotten!


Sunday

“In fair phrases, hymn their praises”

An Act of Worship using some of Sullivan’s sacred music, led by David Walton

At 9.40 am promptly, on Sunday morning, a significant proportion of the delegates gathered, as requested by David Walton, the previous evening, to rehearse (some of it in four-part harmony) several of Sullivan’s hymns which were to be sung in the Act of Worship which was to commence at 10.00 am. This was introduced and led by David Walton, Chairman of the Manchester Society, who is also a Methodist lay-preacher.  David, who led this Act of Worship, had designed it so that it was centred round two highly significant events: the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Year. He succeeded in weaving these two rather contrasting ‘themes’ into the service in splendid fashion, and the informality of his approach meant that even those delegates who were not particularly ‘religious’ or at home with the formality of ‘an act of worship’ could not fail to be impressed and interested in what he had to say, and to be carried along by the meaning of it all.

There were also prayers, two appropriate readings (well executed), and no less than seven hymns sung to music composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan, They were: Alleluyia! Alleluyia! Hearts to heaven and voices raise (Lux Eoi),

Let us with a gladsome mind (Ever Faithful), Nearer, my God, to Thee (Propior Deo) My spirit on Thy care (In Memoriam), Safe home, safe home in port! (Safe Home), Oh King of Kings, whose reign of old (Bishopgarth) and [of course!] Onward Christian soldiers (St Gertrude). The latter sung as a rousing finale to the proceedings!

Following another break for coffee, etc., we were invited to attend the final presentation of the convention.

“Blend amusement with instruction” – Entertainment by Patrick Dawson (baritone)

Patrick talked about his experiences in performing in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and particularly as a ‘patter man’ in a variety of productions and events, and in various places, including Buxton, Derby and Grim’s Dyke (the latter over the course of the last ten years.) His anecdotes and vocal illustrations were wide-ranging and highly entertaining and were introduced by a good deal of additional ‘patter’ of his own making. Some of the most memorable items had us all ‘in stitches’. I particularly liked and remember his caricature of ‘Prince Charles’ talking about and ‘singing’ “When I was a lad I served a term” from HMS Pinafore, in which, quite apart from the excellent mimicking of the voice and mannerisms, he convulsed us at the end of the song by changing the words from “That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!” to: “That now I am the Ruler of Mummy’s Navee”.   He also produced his own up-to-date ‘little list’ for The Mikado which contained references to Meerkats and ‘Go Compare’; and an oblique but thinly-disguised reference to David Walton, in poking fun at Methodist lay-preachers. All very amusing stuff and very well executed by Patrick. He also did some excellent impersonations (vocal and actions) of Bunthorne, King Garma and the Learned Judge. He encouraged David Walton to join him, on stage, for a ‘spoof duet’ which involved some vocalisation as well as dancing; and gave us a couple of amusing anecdotes regarding rehearsing with the late Patricia Leonard, who managed to throw him across a piano; and Jill Pert, who rather forcibly twanged the braces on the trousers of his evening dress.

Patrick told us about the time that he was performing as the Lord Chancellor in a production of Iolanthe at the Inns of Court, and how he was dressed in a borrowed, genuine, horse-hair wig and robes, but when he crossed the courtyard, in full costume, none of the many passers-by even noticed that he was there. He then concluded with a splendid and quite rapidly executed rendition of the Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song from Iolanthe.
(Not forgetting our very own "little list")

David Walton then formally closed the convention, in the main function room, thanking everyone who had taken part in the planning, organisation, lectures, entertainment, and catering - during the entire convention.

Jean Dufty, Manchester Society Secretary, who had played a major role in organising the convention, was presented with a bouquet of flowers; and a Californian baseball cap from Los Angeles delegate John Welch!

“We’ll crown our rapture with another feast” – Sunday Lunch – another four-course feast of a meal

We had become used to indulging ourselves with the liberal helpings of food served at all the formal meal breaks during the course of the three days over which the convention has been held. This was no exception.

After lunch, and much convivial conversation, we all dispersed “most reluctantly” as the programme stated.

Driving home, my wife and I were discussing how excellent the whole convention had been, and how much wholesome food we had consumed during the course of it. We both quite independently agreed that we were:

“Stouter than I used to be”

 

 David Ll. Jones

 
 
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