By Angela Roberts
Photo by Jason Smith

The wonderful thing about the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company is that … the same spirit is there year to year. Walk into any performance, and it’s the way it always has been.”
—Michael Kotze

Singing along to an opera was the last thing Michael Kotze expected when he decided to check out a special performance of Iolanthe by the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company in 1982.

“I thought I could paint a set or something just to get involved,” says Kotze, AB’86, an opera fan since he was a teenager. “I had never done anything, never sang in a show or done any kind of performance.”

But that was about to change. “When I walked in, they put music in my hand. They asked, are you a baritone, a bass? I thought, I don't know.” But when the audience was invited to sing along with the chorus parts, Kotze joined in. “I thought, if that’s all there is to it, heck, I'll do it!”

For 50 years that brand of spontaneous enthusiasm has helped fuel the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, which traces its campus roots to a performance honoring the 100th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Each year the company brings together people from the University, Hyde Park and surrounding communities, all united by their affection for the witty work of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. This year’s production of The Mikado, to be staged March 12–14 in Mandel Hall, marks the company’s return to one of the most beloved of all comic operas.

Like other amateur performers who join the company and remain involved for years, Kotze has been hooked since he earned his first chorus role as a sailor on the H.M.S. Pinafore. Over the past 27 years, he’s also been a director, the board president and now, a board member.

Timeless Satire and Silliness

Part of the operas’ appeal may come from their timeless irreverence. “Honestly, the stories are silly,” says Michael Swisher, who will play the lead in The Mikado this year. “Yet every story seems to translate well to what’s going on today,” says Swisher. “As a civilization, we haven’t grown out of these themes.”

It was that irresistible silliness that first sparked the opera company at the time of the Darwin anniversary. For a performance at the University’s anniversary celebration, the late UChicago business professor Robert Ashenhurst and alumnus Robert Pollak co-wrote a satirical musical play, Time Will Tell, in the Gilbert and Sullivan style.

That musical featured an ode to a trilobite, a jaunty piece about hunting for fossils, and “The Facts,” a rueful reflection on how scholars disseminate their ideas to the public. The successful performance helped convince Ashenhurst to help officially launch the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company.

Those First 25 Years

For the inaugural performance, Ashenhurst and his sister Nancy Lorie recruited Hyde Park resident Roland Bailey to direct the production’s music. “Perhaps we were both quite mad,” Bailey says. “At least I was.” Bailey, who arranged the music for every production during the first 25 years, helped secure singers, actors, and musicians for that first performance. In November 1960, the group staged The Gondoliers in Mandel Hall, where they still perform.

Bailey, 94, continues to consult and assist with musical arrangements, says Calvert Audrain, a current board member who helped curate a 50th anniversary exhibition at the Joseph Regenstein Library. It features props, costumes, playbills, set models, and other memorabilia from the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s productions.

Audrain, a 30-plus-year volunteer, is one of the many longtime company supporters who still perform with lifelong friends or paint sets with their grown children. To date, all four of Audrain’s children have helped build or paint sets. “People from the community come to the shows, help sew costumes, build sets, and sing.” It’s these individuals who will keep the traditions of the company alive, he says.

During the first 25 years, the Parent’s Association of the University Laboratory Schools sponsored the productions. In 1985, those reins were handed to the University’s Department of Music. Soon thereafter, the University Chamber Orchestra became the official orchestra of the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company.

Perfect Artistic Partnerships

Barbara Schubert, Senior Lecturer and Director of Performance Programs in Music, says the sponsorship reaps many rewards, including the chance for the chamber orchestra to establish “an artistic independence” distinct from other departmental ensembles. “The opportunity to accompany a fully staged opera performance provides a valuable learning experience for our student musicians,” she says. “Plus, it’s a lot of fun.”

Part of the performers’ challenge is to channel the original spirit behind the operettas.

“The partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan was an amazing phenomenon,” says Shakespeare expert David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, who plays viola in the orchestra. “Gilbert was a wonderful lyricist who created witty, sardonic humor combined with pathos, interesting characters, and verses that puncture one’s pretentions.” And, he adds, “Sullivan wrote soaring musical phrases that illustrate Gilbert’s lyrics” to perfection.

The Mikado Returns to Mandel

Bevington says memorable scenes from the repertoire are plentiful, but he recalls one from his favorite operetta, The Mikado. “There’s the moment when three hapless friends are describing to the Mikado the supposed execution of Nanki-Poo to satisfy his wish that an execution has taken place. Pooh-Bah gets to go last, and comes up with this splendid exaggeration:

Now though you’d have said
That the head was dead
For its owner dead was he,
It stood on its neck
With a smile well bred
And bowed three times to me.
It was none of your impudent, off-hand bows,
But as humble as could be,
For it clearly knew
The deference due
To a man of pedigree.

Later, says Bevington, when Pooh-Bah is accused of spoiling the whole thing by exaggerating, he defends his song, saying he was merely adding, ‘ corroborative detail’ to give ‘artistic verisimilitude’ to an otherwise ‘bald and unconvincing narrative.’”

Like the witty, lyrical plots of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, improvisations and pranks are production mainstays that can challenge the musicians. “We must watch the conductor very carefully, because he must watch—and react to—the singers,” says Bevington. This weekend, the 30-member University Chamber Orchestra will take their cues from conductor David Cubek, as the 2010 cast and crew produce the company’s seventh performance of The Mikado.

Since 1959, when Ashenhurst and his friends staged the precursor to the company, the creative group has prospered. “The wonderful thing about the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company is that it hasn’t evolved much,” says Kotze. “The same spirit is there year to year. Walk into any performance, and it’s the way it always has been.”