Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Massachusetts Institute of Technology
November 20-21, 1986

by Sarah Cole

Needless to say, it was great fun, and if a good time was not had by all, it's their own fault. Just about everybody who is anybody in G&S studies in Continental America was there, plus three imported stars, and it was all so exciting! But it's always best to start at the beginning, as they say. The symposium was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, November 20-21, plus a couple of added attractions the 22d, which I'll speak of soon.

On the 19th, I left O'Hare Airport on one of Delta's planes bound for Logan International in Boston. It was a delightful, trouble-free flight, I had no trouble claiming my luggage, I got on the right airport limo the first try (a major accomplishment for me), the people I was going to stay with found me at the dropoff point, and all was well. I stayed with the Colson Family of Natick. From the D'Oyly Carte posters on the walls, to the "NEGASS" vanity license plate on their New England Society Staff Car, to the Grims Dyke ivy growing up their house, visitors know they are among G&S devotees. Dr. Colson is one of the founders of the New England Society (and presently editor of their delightful newsletter The Trumpet Bray) and he and his family are used to have a houseful of G&S enthusiasts. It was like a poker game: they really had a winning full house. Besides me, they had Victor Golding, a leader in amateur G&S performance in the are of Middlesex (England!), and later they picked up Charlee Hutton from California, who follows what goes on with the Lamplighters Company out that way. In the meantime, the Colsons collected us first two visitors, "wined" and dined us, and sent us off to bed. The next day was going to be a big one!

We all fell out of bed at the crack of dawn and rushed over to MIT before all the parking places were taken, and began a 'conferencing. Oh, it was so inspiring! A number of the really high-powered, big name speakers started things off: Arthur Jacobs, the author of the definitive biography of Arthur Sullivan discussed how musically written Gilbert's libretti were. Leon Berman gave his psychoanalysis of Gilbert; then after a break and a musical interlude, our own Dr. Jane Stedman had the audience in stitches with her description of Gilbert's own reviews of the theatre performances of the day. And then we broke for lunch--as if anyone could eat after the heady atmosphere of that first session.

Before long, the second session began and Dr. Colson told us about the troubles he had compiling the first real concordance to the G&S Operas, then our own Ralph MacPhail, Jr., discussed the roots of Gilbert's (very funny) play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," and David Hollister talked about his work in putting new music to one of Gilbert's other very funny plays "A Sensation Novel," with a comparison of the various composers who had done the same thing. Afterward, we were treated to a banquet and a--well, not a dance, but the next best thing: a night at the theater. It was too much happiness in any case.

First, the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble gave us a rendition of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" (for those unfamiliar with the work, it's about how the two of them use a five-act tragedy by Hamlet's father (that was so bad he banned its performance on pain of death) to get the ultra-theatrical Hamlet out of the way so Rosencrantz and Ophelia can take up with each other. It is really worth reading! And then the Royal Victorian Opera Company performed "A Sensation Novel." It is another must-read--one of Gilbert's earlier plays about characters in the three-volume penny-dreadfuls that were so frowned on (and so popular) in the 1860's. The characters are all being forced against their own will to do what the Author wants, and in the end they all rebel against him and make him end the story to THEIR satisfaction. Both the play itself and the performance were delightful! After our evening at the theatre ended, we all drove back to Natick. The stronger souls stayed up and traded G&S stories, but I had had enough for one day and went to bed.

The next day, we started the same routine, and got to MIT plenty early. More of those high-powered speakers followed! First Dr. Steven Ledbetter compared American light opera to its G&S routes, then I talked about the songs the Gorman's Philadelphia Church Choir had interpolated into their 1879 version of H.M.S. Pinafore. It went fine once the soloists showed up (but that's another story). After a break, Linda Troost discussed Gilbert's use of burlesque, and Jonathan Strong traced the early sources of Gilbert's themes. But again, Lunch interrupted.

Afterward, Susan Laity gave her views of Gilbert's double heroines in his serious plays, Shoshana Knapp discussed Gilbert's repetition of other's themes and his own, and Charles Berney--the conference's main organizer--convinced us (me, at least) that Ruthven Murgatroyd is a Byronic hero. Then Lynn Watson read a paper by Wandalie Henshaw about how she thought "Engaged" reflected Gilbert's world view, and how the theater group at her university and she went about staging it. Then our F.S. Wilson talked about the other composers who wrote for Gilbert, and why their work was not as acceptable to the public as Sullivan's. He also announced that the Pierpont Morgan Library is going to try to bring out a six-volume set of Gilbert's complete works . . . . Afterward, Colin Prestige, one of the members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Co.'s board of directors, talked about the contribution the Company made to English theatre and the possibility of its revival . . . . By then, there was barely time to fit in a quick Panel Discussion featuring the major G&S scholars in the country: Jane Stedman, Ralph MacPhail, Jr., Jonathan Strong, Frederic Wilson, and James Ellis. Each only had time to state their view of Gilbert's place on the world stage.

Then we had to rush off again. NEGASS was sponsoring a dinner at a well-known seafood restaurant, and then we had to rush back to MIT for a theatrical first. One of NEGASS's members had collected her talented friends and gave a rare staging of Gilbert's parody of Bellini's opera "Norma," called "The Pretty Druidess." The work is pretty funny, though the allusions are pretty obscure, and it helps to have a familiarity with the original opera. But it was nice just the same. After the performance, we all sang a rousing chorus of "They are Englishmen" and bid farewell to each other because the conference as such was over. But for the rest of us diehards, we had another day of G&S revelry.

Again, we whipped home--the really strong hearts stayed up to talk G&S--and the next morning we went back to MIT for a brunch sponsored by Tracy Costumes of Boston, where several costumes they had acquired during the Christie's auction of the D'Oyly Carte's effects were displayed. Those of us who were not exhausted from the past two days came out for the lovely spread (and the lovelier costumes) and the chance to exchange more G&S insights and information. Afterward, some of us went off to tour the Tracy warehouse, and some toured Boston (I went through Dr. Colson's collection of G&S recordings--you can see where my interests lie!). In the evening, we went of to see a production (my first) of Princess Ida, which had, to date, the best singing I've heard in a G&S opera. Afterward, I went to bed, they stayed up and talked, and thus closed the last day of the W.S. Gilbert Sesquicentennial Celebration.

As an epilogue, I packed up my bags as soon as possible--my room was on loan from the Colson's daughter, and I didn't want to keep her inconvenienced any longer than I had to. Not long after breakfast, Dr. Colson took me back to Logan, and United Airlines took me back to Chicago. It was a wonderful conference, and happily, the sketchy descriptions I've given about the papers will be filled out for those interested. The papers are, last I heard, going to be printed and those of us who couldn't come to the symposium (or those of us who want to see what we heard) needn't miss out on the mountain air of those empyrean heights. In the end, a good time will be had by all whether they were there or not.

[Later in the same edition of the newsletter Sarah Cole started a new series on "Our Worst Experiences with G&S" with the following story.]

Except for the time I was stranded in Chicago after missing the last train home after a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore, or the time I was interviewed by a young man who thought G&S were a New Wave group, or the time I showed a friend the latest Iolanthe record I had and the only thing that impressed her about the album was how big the picture on the cover made John Reed's nose look, this is my worst experience with G&S. In any event, it is the most recent. Anyway, this story teaches us to always to prepared, and to always check up on nagging doubts--there might be something to them.

I presented my maiden paper at the W.S. Gilbert Sesquicentennial Symposium, and while no one threw a boot at MY head (as someone is supposed to have done to Gilbert after his maiden brief), I had the next "best" thing happen. I gave my interpolations in the Philadelphia Church Choir's production of H.M.S. Pinafore, which was the most entertaining section of a much longer paper. I have NEVER had a presentation based on that paper go well, so I should have been expecting what happened to happen. When my paper topic was accepted in July, I had asked for a couple of soloists to sing the Church choir's two interpolations, and the man in charge said he'd get them for me. Since I had suspected something dreadful would happen, I prepared for all the possible problems I could think of: I stashed an extra copy of the paper in my luggage, I brought two sets of the slides that go with it, I packed plenty of handouts about the two songs, I bought extra copies of the music. I was ready. But! When I received the final speaker schedule in October, I had doubts. I was to speak at 9:00 on Friday morning, and the couple who were to be my singers were scheduled to give a musical interlude at 9:30. I suddenly had the awful feeling that it hadn't occurred to someone that, when I said I would need singers for my paper, I would need them for when I was actually GIVING my paper. But I thought, "This is a big-time conference. Things like this don't happen at big-time conferences. The singers must be doing something unconnected with my paper." So I didn't call to make sure my fears were unfounded (You know what's coming).

At 8:45, on the day I was to present the paper, I found I should have phoned first. The soloists really weren't expected to be there until 9:30. If I was going to give that paper at 9:00, I'd have to do it without them, and Dr. Ledbetter, who was to follow me, hadn't arrived yet either, so we couldn't trade places. Here WAS a how-do-do! So! The conference leader ran around trying to call the soloists, I ran around (mainly because I was so annoyed with myself for failing to prepare for this calamity) looking for someone else to sing the songs or play the accompaniments. I had visions of having to sing them myself-- catastrophe appalling! I found out later the tunes I knew weren't the ones the composers had written!). I did appreciate the sympathy I got from Dr. Stedman, Dr. Colson, and Dr. McElroy, and it was especially kind of F.W. Wilson to almost play the accompaniments, but just in the nick of time, the conference leader spotted Dr. Ledbetter in the audience, and he said he would go first (and save the day). By the time he was finished, both singers had arrived, and in the end the paper went off without a hitch. As I've told people since, the paper went find once the soloists showed up.

Somebody once said the best thing to do when things to wrong is to learn something from them. I learned two things: 1. That most people studying G&S make up for the chivalry sadly lacking in our land, and 2. In order to be really prepared for all emergencies when one gives a singing paper, one has to be able to sing one's songs myself!

This article appeared in Issue 10 (February 1987) of Precious Nonsense, the newsletter of the Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Posted by permission of Sarah Cole, Society Secretary/Archivist. For information on Society membership write to: The Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society, c/o Miss Sarah Cole, 613 W. State St., North Aurora, IL 60542-1538.

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