The Austin Chronicle


December 1, 1995, Arts

rhyming, warbling, and chiming, they're coming. The Ralph Rackstraws, the Patiences, the Mabels, the Deadeye Dicks, the Kings of Barataria, the Nanki-Poos, and those very models of the modern Major-General, are coming to town. All the fanciful figures who trill and patter their way through the world's most popular comic operas are coming, each in multiple versions, like coveys of copies, cliques of clones, to sing -- literally -- the praises of their creators: W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

The characters of Gilbert & Sullivan's operas, as embodied by performers who have played them onstage and those who have played them only in their showers or their dreams, descend upon us this weekend to fan the flames of their mutual passion in Texas' first Gilbert & Sullivan convention. Devotees from Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and a few more far-flung municipalities will join local aficionados for three days of celebration of all things G & S. They'll discuss the 14 operas. They'll compete in a quiz. They'll talk funding and marketing. They'll contemplate a confederation of Gilbert & Sullivan societies.

And they'll sing. Members of Austin's society will sing various numbers in a seasonal revue. The Dallas company will sing Trial by Jury with a 30-member cast. Any conventioneer who cares to may sing a favorite piece in a Gilbert & Sullivan "open mike." And all of them will sing the score of The Pirates of Penzance. It's an attempt to bring fans of the team together and, in the words of Robert Mettlin, president of the Austin society, "to spread the good news about this unique and enjoyable form of theatre."

To some, the idea of a convention of Gilbert & Sullivan Societies in this day and age may seem an exercise in obsolescence. After all, the works reek of the time and place in which they were born: late Victorian England, with all its Empirical puffery, its rigid behavior, and high-tone romanticism. Do Americans today really have the -- pardon the pun -- patience for Penzantian Pirates and Pinafores? At a time when we cough up $37 million in one weekend for an Ace Ventura movie, the witty ditties and sly spoofery of these 19th-century musicals couldn't seem more outdated. And yet... And yet....

And yet, there are presently some 200 Gilbert & Sullivan Societies in the U.S. Of the three in Texas, the Houston society has been in existence for almost 40 years and the Austin group for 20. And it seems you can't truly kill a Gilbert & Sullivan Society. When the Dallas society died -- zoop! -- another sprouted in its place. Mettlin sees that as the case nationwide. "Some go and some new ones start up," he says, "but there are always about 200 in the country."

Contrary to the cultural conventional wisdom, interest in Gilbert & Sullivan seems on the rise. Attending the convention this weekend will be individuals from San Antonio who are interested in founding a society there. A roundtable discussion is being held to provide the San Antonians with advice in getting their group off the ground.

Mettlin offers the Austin Society as further proof that a troupe focusing on Gilbert & Sullivan can prosper in the Nineties. "We're bigger now than ever before," asserts Mettlin, citing a current paid membership of 50 people and an audience for their productions in the thousands. "Our productions have become bigger, better performed. We have a budget that's four or five times as much as we used to have. We use a 15-piece orchestra. We have an office, and we put it to full use. We give scholarships. We have a lot more money in the bank than we used to."

I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,

I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes,

Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,

And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

This reported robustness of the local G & S Society doesn't mean that the group is without challenges. It continues to wrestle with the level of quality in its productions. Mettlin offers: "We're not perfect. We're still looking to improve certain production values. I felt that in our last show, we had really beautiful costumes. I liked the choreography a lot. We had a very good cast. But in terms of everything hitting on all eight cylinders? I don't know. I really think that having more rehearsals goes a long way toward making a great show. But then you get into the problem of it being community theatre. You can only ask so much time of people."

As pressing as the issue of who'll be onstage in future G & S productions is the issue of who'll be in the audience. Many of today's fans were introduced to the operas in a time when productions were more numerous and enjoyed a higher profile. In the last 20 years, the only major effort to bring G & S to young audiences was Joseph Papp's pop production of The Pirates of Penzance with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. "There are a lot of people who really like Gilbert & Sullivan," says Mettlin. "Quite frankly, a lot of them are older people, though I'll leave it to you to decide what `older' is. A lot of these people grew up with Gilbert & Sullivan. We're trying to find out, in this age of instant gratification, if there is still a possibility for young people to appreciate this form of popular music. In Pirates, the hero Frederick sings to the young ladies:

Oh, is there not one maiden here whose homely face and bad complexion

Have caused all hope to disappear of ever winning man's affection?

Now, I think that's really funny. But would a 12-year-old, a 20-year-old today appreciate that? I don't know. We have to find that out."

And they're doing that, via a new outreach effort inaugurated this month. "We have a quartet: Amy Baker, Frank Delvy, Janette Jones, Garret Maddux, with Bob Wall on piano, and we're taking them into Brooke Elementary to sing to the students. It's one of our missions: to educate young people in this form of popular, quality music. Now we're really getting into it."

The Austin Society is far from alone in grappling with the issue of audience development. It is an issue which affects every G & S company, and it provides one more reason why an organization and a regular meeting of Gondoliers and Yeomen of the Guard would be a good thing. "There are certain issues that are pertinent to our particular kind of organization: how Gilbert & Sullivan is viewed by the populace at large; how to appeal to younger people; is it necessary to appeal to younger people? It would be useful to know what the other organizations are doing. But it would be useful for other purposes, too: to rent costumes or sets or personnel from each other. A confederation of Gilbert & Sullivan Societies, I think, is a very useful thing to have."

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform

And tell you every detail of Caractacus' uniform;

In short, in matters, vegetable, animal, and mineral,

I am the very model of the modern Major-General.

As to what will happen when these G & S devotees share their passion with the next generation, my guess is they will make new fans of Gilbert & Sullivan. The kids may not understand all the references or get all the jokes, but they will find The Mikado and The Sorcerer and the rest to be as much an antidote to the times as Ace Ventura. Because the shows are fun. When they've finished praising the intricacies of Sullivan's music and the savvy satirical jabs of Gilbert's words, those who revere G & S offer the same basic reason for their devotion: The shows are fun. As Mettlin puts it: "I like music. I like singing, dancing, comedy. Everybody joins hands and they all skip off to fairyland and get married or whatever. I like happy musicals."

So how can they not endure? n

Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.