Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

Philadelphia Diary, 1996

Day Eight: Saturday, July 27

Gillian Knight

The grand dame of G&S contraltos, Gillian Knight, who is still youthful and beautiful, gave a fascinating interview. She joined the D'Oyly Carte in 1959, at the tender age of twenty-five, and she considers herself very lucky to have gotten the job. Ann Drummond-Grant, the incumbent contralto, was ill at the time but was expected to return. Knight was hired only as an emergency understudy, but when Drummond-Grant didn't come back, the job was Knight's for good.

She recorded several roles with D'Oyly Carte, and she cringes when she hears these recordings today (notwithstanding that I, for one, consider them quite good). Her recording of Pinafore was actually made before she even performed the opera on stage. She cites Katisha and Lady Jane as two of her favorite roles, Buttercup less so. She remained with D'Oyly Carte until 1965, when her daughter was born.

Since then, she has gone on to a successful Grand Opera career, though mostly in comprimario roles. Her trip to Philadelphia, in fact, came between runs of La Traviata and Die Walküre. Her signature role is Carmen, which she has sung all over Europe. Her first chance at the part came through a lucky break, when Tatiana Troyanos took ill during a run at Covent Garden. Has career has included a lot of Wagner and Richard Strauss.

She says that she can sing the G&S roles on auto-pilot nowadays, but everyone agrees that she is the best "retired" D'Oyly Carte performer at the Festival. (Indeed, New D'Oyly Carte still uses her.) In her master class, she emphasized many of the same things her colleagues did-making every word tell, infusing each phrase with variety and meaning, treating the text seriously.

Iolanthe, Festival Production

My notes on this production are a bit sketchy. The show was a masterful job by director Barbara Heroux-filling the stage with only six chorus fairies (to ten chorus peers, whose number was finalized only a couple of days before the show).

It was a magical, Hans Christian Andersen Iolanthe, with a magic castle seen in the distance, and lighting changes whenever fairies entered. They had a magical power to make themselves invisible (i.e., to Strephon), to put others to sleep (the Lord Chancellor), and to make people move about (Private Willis).

We saw a very romantic Strephon and Phyllis, with more kissing on stage than one usually sees. The production also drew height humor between Willis and the Fairy Queen. The Lord Chancellor was very agile, which was all the more surprising considering his ample girth.

The peers dressed in coordinated red and blue outfits; overall, it was an excellent example of the use of color on stage, though March of the Peers was a bit boring. One of the peers lost his coronet during the Act I finale. Fairy Kay Byler made a quick recovery, picking up the errant head-piece and wearing it herself (clearly in mockery of the peers).


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