Or the delights of Gilbert and Sullivan.
A few years ago, the Dominican nuns from Ganmain came to our homeschooling camp. They swept in, resplendent and imposing in their spotless habits with plans, not only to teach our children the catechism, but also help our teenagers stage a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.
Sister Augustine had the scripts and music all arranged. She’d trimmed down the original production to a manageable level: the children had only four days to learn all the words. Speeches were modified, less important scenes and songs omitted, and a narrator was added so that the action could move from scene to scene without effort.
The sisters listened to all the children singing and, based on their ability and confidence, parts were assigned. Felicity who is a drama queen was ideally suited to one of the major comic roles. Duncan who couldn’t sing a tuneful note was assigned to the chorus where he could mumble away with the other sailors, without anyone noticing.
After a few days of practice, it was time to perform HMS Pinafore Sister Augustine style. On the last evening of camp, we gathered in front of the stage and took our seats. The lights were lowered, the camcorders whirred into action and the operetta began.
Sister Augustine was rather stressed out by the time of the performance. Teaching a group of teenagers all the songs and words, actions and dances to a performable level, in only four days was a tall order. Many times Sister must have wondered if her little theatre group would be ready to perform anything worthy of an audience. But she did a marvellous job.
The next year the children demanded another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. This time Sister Augustine swept into camp with an adapted version of The Gondoliers. Again parts were assigned. But this time something different happened. Someone discovered that, although Duncan doesn’t have a singing voice, he is a fabulous actor. So instead of languishing hidden in the chorus, Duncan was given one of the main roles, the Duke of Plaza Toro. Sister Augustine very cleverly turned his singing role in a speaking part.
The last evening of camp arrived all too quickly. Sister Augustine had worked her cast extremely hard. Would they put on another stunning performance? Of course! And the star of the show that year was the Duke of Plaza Toro.
I listened to members of the audience: “Who is that playing the Duke? He is so good!” And he was! With a wig on his head and a cane in his hand, he took control of the stage. He wasn’t Duncan. He was the Duke. He was so good no one recognised him as the usually very quiet teenager who never drew attention to himself.
After the performance, Duncan was given many congratulations and he received them all in a manner worthy of a Duke. Later at supper, with his costume removed, Duncan returned to his normal quiet self. You would never have guessed that he’d just been the star of the show.
By this time, we were hooked on Gilbert and Sullivan. It had become a family passion. We came home from camp and we all wanted to see an unabridged version of the operetta. We bought DVDs, and CDs of the music from The Gondoliers and HMS Pinafore. I borrowed a library book with the libretto.
Soon the children wanted to try a new Gilbert and Sullivan. We watched The Mikado and then Pirates of Penzance. Again we bought CDs of the music. We started looking out for different productions of the same operetta. We couldn’t get enough Gilbert and Sullivan.
Everyone started to talk Gilbert and Sullivan: favourite lines were repeated, stories were retold, the funny bits laughed over again, songs were sung…
Last term we decided to expand our Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire even further. I ordered a copy of Iolanthe and we impatiently awaited its arrival. The DVD dropped into our mailbox, Gemma-Rose fished it out and came running in excited. “Can we watch Iolanthe please, Mum?” We slipped the disc into the DVD player and took our seats, ready to be entertained.
Gemma-Rose at first was a little frustrated. She couldn’t work out what was going on. And I must admit Gilbert and Sullivan can be a bit confusing to start with. We helped Gemma-Rose out by telling her the story line and explaining the action of different scenes. I found a complete libretto online which I downloaded to help us. Sometimes the words of the songs are sung so quickly we can’t always understand them either. But with repeated listenings and a look at the words, they soon become familiar and enjoyable and everyone is eager to sing along.
“I am a pirate king…I am a pirate king… I am a pirate king…” sings Gemma-Rose loudly in the garden as she plays.
“Please someone, teach Gemma-Rose some more of the words to that song! She’s driving me crazy!”
The other day I bought something absolutely wonderful: an 11 DVD set of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. Everyone oohed and ahhed most appreciatively when they saw the boxed set. They gathered around as we tried to decide which operetta to sample next. Sophie’s choice won out: Princess Ida.
Already Imogen, Charlotte and I have been on the Internet doing some research.
“Princess Ida is based on an earlier operetta called The Princess. Gilbert used Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Princess for inspiration.”
Of course, we had to look up Tennyson’s poem which we discovered is very looooong! But interesting too.
“What shall we do today?”
“Can we watch Princess Ida?”
Imogen slips the DVD into the player as we settle ourselves on the sofa. We await the opening music.
Gilbert and Sullivan Resources:
Gilbert and Sullivan boxed set – Opera Australia
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas – synopses, words, music