Community G&S Troupe In Seattle Celebrates At 60

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The fans for the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's 2014 production of 'The Mikado' were painted by company members.
The fans for the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s 2014 production of ‘The Mikado’ were painted by volunteers.
By Philippa Kiraly

SEATTLE – In the lobby of a retired elementary school, women are rehearsing for Gilbert & Sullivan’s popular comic opera The Mikado. Not just singing, they are practicing how to move and use fans the way the show’s original creators envisioned the effect in 1885 London. More rehearsing is going on in a large space that also provides scene shop, costume storage, prop creation, and office area at the back of the old school. The show opens an 11-performance run at a downtown theater in mid-July.

Company producer Mike Storie was the umbrella carrier in 'Mikado' in 1994.
Current company producer Mike Storie, left, in ‘The Mikado’ in 1994.

These performances will mark the 60th anniversary production of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, one of the world’s longest established community-based G&S companies. Twice, in 1996 and 1999, the company competed at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England. “We won just about all the music awards,” says retired software developer Mike Storie, current company producer. “Best chorus ever, best male, best female, best supporting role. We’d come in third or fourth overall out of 20 or so companies. The Buxton stage is smaller than our theater, so we looked crowded, but who am I to tell any of our cast not to come?”

Seattle church choir director John Andrews and his wife Leslie founded the Parish Gilbert & Sullivan Society in 1954. Using the church choirs and his own piano accompaniment, the organization presented The Mikado in a high-school auditorium. With two performances and tickets priced at $1, they realized a profit of more than $900, and the company was on its way, incorporating in 1957 as the non-profit Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Inc. From the start, it was a labor of love. Many of those who joined early on remained until well into retirement, a habit and an avocation that continues to this day, with every profession imaginable represented.

Poster for the 60th anniversary production of 'The Mikado.'
Poster for the 60th anniversary production of ‘The Mikado.’

After Andrews’ death in 1961, Gordon Gutteridge took charge as artistic director. A chorus member since the ’50s who had progressed to leading roles, the retired British sergeant major brought discipline and a wider appreciation for all aspects of Gilbert & Sullivan.

“He was Mr. Everything for 38 years,” says Storie, “well into his 80s, when he retired.” Storie had been around since seeing a 1964 performance, joining the board in 1985 but always staying backstage, with one exception in 1994: “I was the umbrella carrier in Mikado, with instructions to upstage the Mikado himself.”

Gutteridge designed the sets for all 13 operas, built the models, pushed the board into adding an orchestra, saying they couldn’t grow without one, and firmly trained the entire cast to use British accents, for which he put out a cheat sheet with the correct pronunciation for such words as “chancellor = chAHn’sluh” (Iolanthe), “duke = dyOOke” (The Gondoliers), and “weather = weh’thuh” (The Pirates of Penzance).

Before Gutteridge’s retirement in 1996, productions remained the same year after year. “With time, some of the ideas became shopworn,” says Storie. Now, each production is looked at with a fresh eye, and while some of the basics remain the same, there are always improvements. “Pinafore has been the same ship, but each time it gets more detailed, more authentic. And we always add the topical allusions; people expect them.”

Nathan Rodda, another old-timer, began painting sets in the 1980s and in the late 1990s began to design them, while Gary Webberley, originally a Boeing engineer and master carpenter who joined the chorus in 1966, took on the building of them. Some technical effects have been brilliant, like the portraits in Ruddigore that morphed into live people in the 2011 production.

Librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan.
Making innocent merriment: W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

When Storie was umbrella carrier in Mikado, classically trained soprano Christine Goff was the ingénue lead, Yum Yum. She auditioned in 1991 for Utopia, Limited, got the lead, and sang many roles for years. A mortgage loan officer, Goff is now stage director, but this year will sing Katisha, an older court lady who doggedly pursues young Nanki-Poo.

All G&S operas have two distinctive voices – a dry baritone who can sing patter at great speed while articulating extremely clearly, and an older, robust mezzo or alto. It was the previous Katisha, Alyce Rogers, alto, who encouraged Goff to take on Katisha herself. “It’s a high mezzo,” Goff says, “and I had stopped singing because there aren’t any soprano roles in G&S for the older woman.”

The Seattle company is fortunate to have two of those patter-singing baritones. Dave Ross, the morning news anchor for KIRO-radio since 1978, has appeared in almost every opera since 1979, and another has come along, John Brookes.

Every November, Goff and Storie begin planning the next production. “I call it dream-casting,” says Goff. For Storie, it’s “free-wheeling, like do we do a nude Mikado on Mars?”

Bernie Kwiram, who took over as music director in 2001 as successor to Alan Lund’s 35 years, starts work each March, and casting in earnest begins. “It depends on the show, maybe 50-60 people audition,” says Goff. “A person has to have the whole package. They can’t come in with just a lovely voice. We have to imagine them in the role.” Young singers, older ones, even high-schoolers come to try out.

Company members as ghostly ancestors in 'Ruddigore' in 2011.
Company members as ghostly ancestors in ‘Ruddigore’ in 2011.

The current annual budget for the company is about $300,000, and it operates in the black. Only a few people are paid at all, including the musicians. “We call it an honorarium,” says Storie. But the quality of the productions does not reflect that amateur status: Props master Marv Brown, a clinical psychologist, bought 16 new plain white fans for the Japanese maidens in this year’s Mikado. He spray-painted them in delicate colors and turned them over to Webberley’s artist wife, Marilyn. She painted flowers on them in Japanese style, each one different, each exquisitely rendered. The audience won’t be able to see the detail except with binoculars.

She is not the only wife involved. For many, not only spouses but also children and grandchildren join in. Webberley’s grandson is in the chorus. Ross’s daughters have been in productions on and off since 1991. And members stick around year after year. Storie is now 75, and going strong, but his assistant, Kwir am’s wife, Kim Douglass, is gradually taking on his chores.

Ross sums up the atmosphere at the studio. “This company has a style very different from professional ones. We’re having fun. We love the material. Over the course of rehearsals, we become friends.”

Philippa Kiraly has been a freelance classical music critic since 1980. She wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal, then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise, and now for The Seattle Times, City Arts, and a blog, The Sun Break.