Gilbert and Sullivan celebrate 70 in style

A scene from the 1955 production of The Mikado by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

The year was 1947 and a group of Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts who finally managed to book the City Hall for a performance gathered together and pulled on their red and black handmade garments, in preparation to perform their first formal opera called Yeomen of the Guard.

Unbeknown to them at the time was the gravity and impact their work would have on their Cape Town audience, but their mastery of the play originally written by the British duo Gilbert and Sullivan had their audience enthralled, including Helen Houghton, a then 14-year-old audience member who would become intrinsically linked to the group.

“Seventy years later and she is still around in our audience. She used to sing and act as well, she is a real classy dame,” said Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) Society member, Waldo Buckle.

On May 6, G&S held their gala concert to celebrate 70 years and performed the same show.

“Some of our costumes are 50 and 60 years old and every time we had a show, the actor’s name would be written on the costume and to see all those names written on them is astounding,” said Mr Buckle.

The group, which originally only performed operas, has grown considerably since the 1940s and also performs musicals to fund their organisation.

As the group grew and more members joined in, they moved from the City Hall to the Labia Theatre, the Hofmeyr Theatre and eventually settling at the Artscape.

“We don’t get funding and we cover our cost through ticket sales, which says something about the quality of our productions and fact that we have been going for the past 70 years. We perform an opera every three years. We’re very lucky if we break even with an opera, but the musicals fund the organisation,”

The society has also been awarded the Molteno Gold Medal by the Cape 300 Foundation for their services in entertaining people.

According to Mr Buckle, many words in the English dictionary are also credit to opera writers Gilbert and Sullivan who created new words in their works, which have become part of the English language, such as “topsy-turvy”.

Mr Buckle said legend has it that Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan were introduced to one another by Richard D’Oyly Carte who thought the two would work well together in writing operas, so they created Thespis which was their first opera.

However, they became known for their comic operas performed in the Savoy Theatre and eventually both had ownership in the Savoy Theatre.

But it was a quarrel over the carpeting in the venue that ended the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan.

Despite their irrefutable differences, members of the G&S still keep their work alive. The members are currently practicing for their 102nd show, The Wizard of Oz, which will be performed in honour of their 70th anniversary.

“We do it for the fun of it, we love theatre and opera and that’s what keeps us going,” said Mr Buckle.

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