Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



3.5.1 Sheffield and Barrington
3.5.2 Owen Brannigan
3.5.3 Richard Watson

3.5.1 Sheffield and Barrington

David Duffey wrote: In passing, I think Leo Sheffield, for all his reputation, sounds quite unsuitable as Sergeant, Michael Walters commiserated: I feel very sorry for you. Leo Sheffield is just about the quaintest and most enjoyable Sergeant (as he is in all his other recorded roles) that I've ever heard. So there!!! David Duffey replied: Michael, Michael, Michael, Michael and I always thought you a person of discrimination and taste! Seriously, though, Sheffield did have a very light voice for the 'heavy' roles. And Michael Walters: Yes, indeed. So did Rutland Barrington!!! Michael Walters added: Further to my last posting, and also seriously, the similarity of tone and approach of Sheffield and Barrington, has always convinced me (and I said this when I first wrote on Barrington's voice in the SAVOYARD about 17 years ago), that I am convinced Barrington was the model on which Sheffield formed his style. The two appeared at one of the Savoy Repertory Seasons 1906-9 (I forget which without looking it up) and Sheffield would have had ample opportunity to study Barrington. I discussed the question of the "lightness" of Sheffield's voice with George Baker back in 1972 when I visited him, and he said it must have been an illusion of the gramophone recording. Sheffield, he said, did not have a light voice. He was, however, extremely nervous in the recording studios, there are several testimonies to this effect, including Winifred Lawson and George Baker.

Bruce Miller observed: This is another of those examples of D'Oyly Carte "tradition" actually being in opposition to the original productions. Rutland Barrington, who created the role and continued to play it throughout Gilbert's association with the D'Oyly Carte productions, was a light baritone (who probably should have been a tenor). So Sheffield was probably closer to Barrington's vocal characteristics than most of the others who succeeded him. David Craven replied: I understand this, but I guess I am confused. To me the place in the voice where the role sits essentially compels the casting of a real bass, or at a minimum, a bass-baritone with a low extension. I am capable of singing much of the operatic baritone literature, but the role of the Sarge is simply out of my range. Sure I can make sounds on the bottom notes, but they have no cut, no power and no carry.... and based on the (alleged) historic sound of Barrington's voice, I have trouble believing that his voice could have carried.... (Shrug) Bruce Miller replied to this: You are of course referring to those low g pick-ups in "When the foeman bares his steel." It does take some technique to learn how to project these notes adequately (the trick is, actually, to relax on them in a certain way, rather than to force them). David Craven replied: Actually I was referring to the low E on the line "we charge you yield in queen Victoria's name" and the low f at the end of a policeman's lot. The low e, in particular, is "the" note which defines the role for me. It is the money note. It happens at the most significant moment of drama in the whole piece. And in my view it needs to have some power. Sure, one could "cheat" and take it up, but then I would consider that to be cheating (much the same way that optional, but standard high notes in Operatic literature are really not optional...) I guess it all depends on how you decide to focus the part. All the technique in the world is not going to give me a real low e. I understand all about relaxing into these notes, but low e's and f's are really not within the expected compass (or even anticipated compass) of any operatic baritone.

Bruce Miller: In both of these instances, the Sergeant does not sing by himself; my scores are not handy, but if he is has these notes at all, he's singing with the chorus. Larry Byler: Actually, the first Eb (it's flatted, BTW) "is" sung by the Sergeant alone (at the end of "we charge you Queen Victoria's name". "But" it is the Eb below middle C, not the low one. The low Eb is, as Bruce says, sung with the policemen's chorus (if at all). Bruce Miller: He's not supposed to be heard over them, and I very much doubt that Barrington (or for that matter, many other Sergeants of Police) even bother to attempt them. Larry Byler: As a former policeman who struggled for that low Eb, I would agree with this.

Bruce Miller: These particular low notes define the chorus of policemen, not the Sergeant at least in my opinion. However, if they define the Sergeant of Police for you, fine. We'll agree to disagree. I would have thought you'd have mentioned "Our obvious course is now to hide", which does go a little low but again, not out of the question for a baritone. (Larry Byler: That's the second A below middle C.) Bruce Miller: You will observe that the solos specifically assigned alone to the Sergeant don't have anything like these subterranean notes, but the policemen have a lot of them (such as at the end of the chant, just prior to "When a felon's not engaged in his employment." Larry Byler: The Schirmer score gives the policemen the first E below middle C for all of the chants except the very last ("It is"), which is the low (second) E.

Bruce Miller continued: But these are not the most important notes in the Sergeant's role by any means (not what we would call, in the parlance, role-defining or "money notes"); it is helpful to be able sing them strongly but it is perfectly acceptable to just touch them, as I suspect Barrington did. I've also heard light baritones leave them out entirely and use, as pick-ups, the pitch immediately afterward (in the first instance, for example, the notes would be e-e-e rather than g-g-e). David Craven observed: And if I went to a performance where this was done, I would be VERY disappointed with the casting decisions by the music director. Sullivan did not write e-e-e, he wrote g-g-e and if you can't sing the role don't do it....and it is the only role that I have ever turned down in a G&S production (Although I had played it a few years earlier) and I turned it down in large part because I did not feel that I could do justice to the above cited line. I hope someday to do Pirates again, but as Samuel, the Pirate King or the Major General... not the Sarge.

Bruce Miller continued: Most of the Sergeant's role, in fact all of it with the exceptions of these pick-ups, is perfectly within a high baritone compass; and in fact "any" baritone should have the low g in his range, anyway. David Craven replied: Uh... okay. All of my reference books on the subject define all of the following baritone types as NOT needing a low g (French bariton, Martin: German bass-bariton, spielbariton, heldenbariton, hoher bariton, kavaliebariton: Italian baritono cantante, bariton brillante and verdi baritone) The only one that requires a low g is the French class basse-taille. Within the bass class, certainly. But, certainly ranges and voice types are subject to a great deal of interpretation. Do I need a low g? (shrug) Maybe. I sure haven't needed a bass sized low g in my baritone roles. Do I have a low g? Well, I won't get hired for it, but it can heard. Biff Florescu observed: Regarding any baritone having a low g that's just simply poppycock Many baritones have that note, but there are many famous, wonderful artists without it, i.e. Leonard Warren, Thomas Allen, Thomas Hampson, Piero Cappucilli, and Sherrill Milnes to mention a few.

Bruce Miller continued: This has always struck me as somewhat odd, by the way, because in all other Barrington parts I can't recall similar writing. Usually Sullivan doesn't write for him any lower than c below middle c. David Craven observed: And that is certainly the range that the "Barrington Parts" normally lie in.. a very easy, very relaxing (from a vocal side) set of roles.

Bruce Miller continued: If we take Barrington at his word, that he was written out of Pirates until he made a special plea to Gilbert, it is quite possible that Sullivan had already written the "Foeman" number assuming someone else would play the part. If this hypothesis is correct, Barrington would have had to finesse his way around the lowest notes, and Sullivan evidently found it acceptable enough not to have to rewrite it. David Craven: Yes, it may have been acceptable, but if this hypothesis is true, then would it not make sense to cast the role as originally envisioned, not as originally performed. For if we were to stick to original performances, wouldn't we need to cast a tenor who could not sing as Frederic?

Bruce Miller: As to Barrington's "alleged" vocal qualities, we do have at least one documented recording (would there were more!), contemporary written reports, and the evidence of the music Sullivan wrote for him of which, I repeat, Foemen is something of an exception. It is interesting that as Barrington continued to work under Sullivan, the musical demands became less demanding at the high and low ends of the range, and even seemed to center more on a low tenor than high baritone tessitura. It is also accepted that Barrington's musicianship and vocal abilities improved as time went on.

Biff Florescu tried to seal this can of worms: I am constantly amazed how people in discussions of G and S obsess about what is "correct" based on D'Oyly Carte tradition....even with vocal characteristics If I'm directing a show, I am going to cast it based on what the score says, and what production I am doing......The Sergeant does indeed have a low extension but some "high baritones" are capable of low e's etc. Tony Azito in the Papp certainly wasn't an operatic bass, but I happened to like what he did with the role.....We just closed Pirates, and my Sergeant was a true bass, who carried it off beautifully. I find discussions of historical performers interesting, but they certainly have no bearing on my casting. But Bruce Miller replied: This sounds a little defensive, and for what it's worth I hasten to clarify at least where my thoughts are coming from. The interrelationships among characters are as important as any other factor in making up the combination of ingredients we call G & S (or for that matter, any other piece of music theater). Sullivan was quite sensitive as to voice types he used for principal characters, and it certainly is helpful, when directing a production, to know what "he" specified (as opposed, for example, to certain "traditional" castings of which he did not approve, if for no other reason than he had died).

Of course there are many reasons why a director might decide to go against these types, and certainly many of them are perfectly legitimate - even wanting to cast the role "traditionally" as opposed to what the authors did in their own time. The Strephon example is an extreme one but it is a good one; G & S cast him as a bass, and evidently this held true for some years; but the 20th century tradition is, usually, to cast him as a light baritone or even a tenor. But it's one thing to cast against type knowingly, and another to do so in ignorance. And it is yet another situation to wilfully ignore the author's intent, as though it had no bearing at all upon a director's thinking. And Biff Florescu replied: Bruce: Disagreement does not equal defensive: My point was purely that a director can cast a show perfectly well without knowing what the original author had in mind: in fact, one usually HAS to do this. But, in the case of Strephon, all knowing that he was originally a bass tells me is that that does not agree with what's in the score, and I wouldn't cast a bass because of character, vocal color and range. Again, I find the historical aspects of casting interesting but not prescriptive.

Bruce Miller added this footnote: On going home last night I did some reading and was reminded that Barrington was "not" among the troupe which went to America for the Pirates premiere; that the part was played in New York by Mr. F. Clifton. So, it would seem appropriate to mention here that David's and Biff's take on the Sgt. of Police were, in retrospect, on target. (That'll teach me to make an assumption before checking it out.) This does not negate, however, the fact that Barrington did assume the role when it came home to London, and became closely identified with it for the rest of his career. This opens up some rather interesting questions. [See section 3.5.6 below.]

3.5.2 Owen Brannigan

David Duffey continued his original thread: and I have a personal dislike of Owen Brannigan's voice on that recording (Puffing Billy we used to call him) although I expect to be outvoted on that. In fact Brannigan was well past his best when he recorded Pirates. He can be heard to better advantage on some of his Britten recordings. Biff Florescu replied: I am a big fan of Brannigan's voice particularly as the Sergeant. David Duffey added: I also believe I am slightly resentful on behalf of George Cook that Brannigan was chosen for Sergeant on that recording. Having said that, Brannigan is not at his best, in fact a good ten years past it. His very best work, I think, was with Earnest Lush and the BBC men's chorus on a long-gone radio programme called "Friday Night is Music Night". On this he did the occasional G&S, but most memorably folk and student songs with amazingly irreverent, almost scatological, accompaniments by Lush in a thousand different sharps and flats with good old Puffing Billy chuffing along the track right on schedule. Derrick McClure wrote: To me, Owen Brannigan in the Sargent recording is the IDEAL Sergeant - and George Baker just about the ideal Major-General.

3.5.3 Richard Watson

David Stone remarked: Richard Watson in 1950 was, on the other hand, the ideal Sergeant (IMHO).


Page created 28 April 1998