Friday, January 18, 2008
Becoming British: Savoyards present Gilbert and Sullivan in concert
Lyricist W. S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan together created a canon of light opera that defined and parodied what it meant to be British in the 19th century. They knew that the British were famous the world over for the "stiff upper lip," for a superbly trained military that operated on land and sea with surgical precision, and, among other things, for taking a social class system to almost absurd extremes.
The stiff upper lip
The genius of their collaboration, known worldwide as G&S, is that you can hear and see all of this in their work. Sullivan's music exactly mimics the stiff upper lip: "I am the Monarch of the Sea," from H.M.S. Pinafore, has a severe march tempo, but the lyrics exaggerate the tempo into a rat-a-tat report. The lyrics themselves emphasize precisely the important words and make the character of Sir Joseph humorous and even ridiculous. Because he appears more concerned about the cadence than about the proper pronunciation and meaning of his words, Sir Joseph, and by extension British peers and naval officers, are musically skewered as all form and no substance. Note the stress (in bold) on the second syllable of "Navee" (navy):
Sir Joseph: I am the monarch of the se-a,
The ruler of the Queen's Nave-e,
Whose praise Great Britain loudly cha-nts,
Cousin Hebe: And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts!
The Carlisle-based Savoyard Light Opera Company presents a unique concert of G&S favorites, created especially for them by British singer and director Roberta Morrell on Sunday, January 20, at 2 p.m. in Corey Auditorium. Tickets are $15 and are available at www.savoyardlightopera.org and at the door.
In rehearsal last week, the Savoyards were hard at work to meet the musical and lyrical demands of G&S. Their Sir Joseph is a powerful basso named Bob Russell, whose exaggerated British pronunciation is enormously amusing. However, Russell is an American, and piano accompanist Eric Schwartz had to remind him to "open [his] 'a' on the word 'land,'" so that the word would be devoid of any American nasal quality. In addition, Russell's impressive bass range is truly tested in the music. Sullivan does not simply provide an oompah-cadence to underscore the lyrics, but also requires the singers to use "legitimate" (operatic) voice techniques to master the arc of the melodies.
American speech and singing patterns are a disaster in G&S pieces. We Yanks lack the open vowels and clipped consonants of our BBC counterparts, and lean toward a little swing in our rhythms, both in speech and in music. In rehearsal, the Savoyards exerted themselves to counter these tendencies. Over and over, Schwartz cautioned the choruses: "This can't sound legato [smooth]." There could be no ritards (slowdowns); the tempo had to be always accurate. Americans tend to want to hang onto a nice note, especially at the end of a phrase or song, but in G&S the cutoffs have to land exactly on the beat. Consonants cannot be slurred, and soloists and chorus were continually reminded to spit them out or roll them over to the next beat so they could be heard and the lyrics would be clear. When attention to these details flagged, the result was to "swing" the music a little bit, so that it sounded quite American. A Carlisle resident accurately described it — Gilbert and Sullivan meet Gershwin.
If strict precision were the only consideration, however, the songs would sound wooden. To humanize them and make them accessible to the audience's ears, they have to be phrased within the parameters of their musical structure. The ladies' chorus in "Comes a Train of Little Ladies," from The Mikado, labored in rehearsal to breathe exactly in unison on the right rests. As a result they could set off phrases in the music and make the lyrics clear and full of meaning.
John Small, well known for his performances with the Concord Players, worked through these lines of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General," the breathless patter song from The Pirates of Penzance:
In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin,"
When I can tell at sight a chassepôt rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat"
The tempo flies and every syllable of the lyrics is pronounced, a challenge to the most agile of tongues. Accompanist Schwartz urged Small, "May I please hear the quotation marks?" and with a quick breath before each of the quotations, the "Major General" was able to make the words pop and give life to the verse.
A must-see concert
The Savoyard singers are fairly experienced G&S performers, of course, so there is no danger of Americanizing these works in performance. If anything, the rehearsal promised a concert of 42 G&S favorites performed in two acts with all their challenges met and their humor intact. The Savoyards will be in concert costume: long dresses for the ladies and tuxedos for the men. Direction and choreography are by British performer and director Roberta Morrell, a long-time D'Oyly Carte Opera Company principal, who directs G&S productions and teaches on both sides of the Atlantic. Morrell will also act as hostess for the afternoon. This is a must-see concert for G&S fans as well as those with only a passing acquaintance with the sparkling music and lyrics that have delighted audiences for over a century.
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito