Arts & Life

British Invasion – June 2011

Written by Rich Wiley | Jun 9, 2011 3:19 PM

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan wrote 14 English comic operas between 1871 and 1896. With hits like The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and The Mikado, they are the most prolific, successful creative team in music history, and their works are still the most performed musicals today.

The original International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, founded by the Smith family of Halifax, England, is now in its 18th year and is presented for three weeks in the town of Buxton, England. Every year the town welcomes thousands of fans who invade Buxton for the best of Gilbert & Sullivan.

How did an event surrounding a performing arts genre so utterly British end up in one of the most iconic of American destinations – Gettysburg? Quite simply, the British operas of Gilbert & Sullivan are an important part of the American performing arts landscape, too.

In 1878, HMS Pinafore became Gilbert & Sullivan’s first international hit. American amateur performing groups began to pirate Pinafore, presenting it nationwide. Pinafore was pirated more often than, well, Pirates. Before World War II, before the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Lowe, there was little musical theatrical material in English for community or church amateur theater groups to perform. The Gilbert & Sullivan canon of 13 works was the mainstay for most of these American groups throughout the first half of the last century.

In 2008, my family rediscovered our love of Gilbert & Sullivan when our daughter, Elizabeth, participated in a production of Pirates at York Little Theatre. Elizabeth would become a third generation of Gilbert & Sullivan performers – my mother was the first and I was the second.

In 2009, with this renewed interest, we decided to make a stop at the original Gilbert & Sullivan Festival during a family vacation in England. There we met the Smith family, led by Ian Smith, the 71-year-old patriarch and Festival artistic director.

The Smith family can be likened to a cast of Gilbert & Sullivan characters. Like me, Ian is a second-generation “patter man,” following in the spotlight of his mum. The festival is the family’s side business. In his other role, Ian is a tireless, globetrotting European Union business consultant often in Brussels one week, Prague the next and then in Malaysia. I’m half his age, but he tires me out.

Ian’s eldest son, Neil, was also brought up on stage and assumed the “patter parts” as his father grew older – parts like the “very model of a modern major-general,” Major-General Stanley from The Pirates of Penzance, or the list-wielding Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko, from The Mikado. Ian has three young sons, and 15-year-old Henry has now assumed “patter-man” status, portraying The Sorcerer, John Wellington Wells and Reginald Bunthorne from Patience.

Ian decided it was time to invade America and establish a beachhead of Gilbert & Sullivan enthusiasm again. In the fall of 2009, he flew to America, and he and I set out to find the perfect location for the new festival set to debut in June 2010. The festival had to be on the East Coast, and Pennsylvania was the central location. In fact, Philadelphia has the largest concentration of Gilbert & Sullivan performing groups in the country – six out of 60.

We took a serious look at Gettysburg, knowing the destination’s power to attract tourists. Its historic and beautifully restored Majestic Theater was the perfect size and setting for Gilbert & Sullivan.

And then, a sign from a higher power sealed the deal. While touring the Majestic’s orchestra pit, the Gettysburg College orchestra practicing on the stage above serendipitously played a Gilbert & Sullivan medley….

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