DURHAM — Brandon Mitchell met Gilbert and Sullivan’s work for the first time Sunday afternoon. And he liked it.
“It’s a little different from the music I normally do,” he said. “But I am enjoying myself.”
Mitchell had come over from Wake Forest along with his girlfriend, Audrey Lindross, her sister, Rachel, and their parents, Laura and Michael Finan, for a sing-along with the Durham Savoyards – a 50-year-old community theater group that has staged a Gilbert and Sullivan musical every year since 1963.
Victorian composers William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan worked together on 14 light, fantastic operas between the 1870s and 1890s. Works such as “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado” continue to enjoy a lively following as performed by enthusiasts called Savoyards, after London’s Savoy Theatre, where the composers’ works were often staged.
“It’s really fascinating to think this sort of ritual has occurred year after year after year for 50 years,” said Steve Dobbins, a former Durham Savoyards president and 13-year troupe veteran.
About 70 singers spent Sunday afternoon in a basement theater at the Durham Arts Council, singing through “The Sorcerer,” an 1877 collaboration by Gilbert and Sullivan that the Savoyards picked for their 2014 production. Perhaps 10 were, like Mitchell, first-timers with the Durham group; others had been coming back since the early 1980s, if not longer.
“There’s always this blend of people who’ve been here for decades and people who are first-timers,” Dobbins said. “And it’s great; it’s a passing of the torch, sort of. It’s very touching, when you think about it.”
“There’s the art of it,” said Pat Roos, a Savoyard since 2001. “But there’s also the company. A lot of our friends are in this. I’d say over half the company has been on the board at some point. … People help with sets – spend hours and hours getting things done. It’s a really important social mix.”
The sing-through is done each fall as sort of a curtain opener to let the Triangle’s singing public get familiar with what may be an old chestnut, like “H.M.S. Pinafore,” or a Gilbert and Sullivan work not as well-known, like next year’s show, “The Sorcerer.” It’s a lead-in to the mid-December auditions, but it’s also just for fun, said stage director Derrick Ivey, who is collaborating with music director Alan Riley Jones on their 12th Savoyards production.
“You may sing any part, in any octave,” Jones told the assembled singers. “Tenors, you may sing bass. Basses, you may sing (the female lead) if you want to. Whatever. Anything and everything. … Here we go.” And 70 voices rose with the lyrics –
“Ring forth, ye bells, with clarion sound,
“Forget your knells, for joys abound. … ”
– and carried on through an increasingly topsy-turvy satire of British Victorianism.
A friendly group
Dobbins said he got into the group as a fill-in for a chorus singer who dropped out nine days before “H.M.S. Pinafore” opened in 2002.
“I liked it, so I stuck around. And I’m glad I did,” he said.
Savoyards are supportive of each other – just for the sake of being friendly, said Cathy Lambe, whose first Savoyards show was “Utopia, Limited” in 1981.
“Everybody wants you to do OK. They’re not picking and backbiting and stuff like that,” Lambe said. The leads may get the spotlight, but the directors always give the chorus a chance to shine, she added.
Laura Finan, from Wake Forest, said she had done three Gilbert and Sullivan shows with a Long Island group, and has attended three Savoyards productions since moving south. Sunday, though, was the family’s first sing-through with the group.
“I love it,” Finan said at intermission. “I don’t know about the rest of the family.”
But she pointed out that her husband had moved from the family females.
“My husband’s going to go and sing with the men, so I think he’s … showing interest,” she said, and she was considering if it would be too long a commute if she got a part in the show.
Mitchell had gone to sing with some of the old-timers, too.
“I’m picking it up,” he said. “Once I can keep up with the lyrics, I can get into them.”