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Celebrating 25 years of the very model of a modern opera festival

National G&S Opera Company’s HMS Pinafore. Photo: Charles Smith National G&S Opera Company’s HMS Pinafore. Photo: Charles Smith
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After the demise of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, Ian Smith feared Gilbert and Sullivan’s legacy might fade into obscurity, so he founded the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, which has grown to become fitting tribute to their work, as George Hall explains

This year marks the 25th anniversary of a unique festival devoted to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. It runs in Harrogate for three weeks during August, with a preliminary week in Buxton and a subsequent tour that runs until October.

The festival was created back in 1994 by Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado Ian Smith, then a businessman but now devoting himself to providing a focus for admirers of their work and to spreading the word ever more widely.

Smith caught the Gilbert and Sullivan bug as a teenager, first appearing in one of their operas with a local church group that was short of a Major-General for The Pirates of Penzance. He has gone on to appear many times in every one of the operas – except for The Grand Duke – and directed multiple productions.

Smith decided to start the festival at a time when he felt that Gilbert and Sullivan were being sidelined. Due to rising costs and the unwillingness of Arts Council England to fund it, the old D’Oyly Carte Opera Company – founded in the 1870s, and performing the Gilbert and Sullivan works ever since – closed in 1982. Amateur societies, he recognised, were not as prevalent as they had once been, while the works were no longer presented as frequently in schools. Wouldn’t it be nice, he felt, to set up a festival that might move things in the opposite direction?

Companies from all over the world perform operas such as Princess Ida at the festival. Photo: Charles Smith
Companies from all over the world perform operas such as Princess Ida at the festival. Photo: Charles Smith

As a much-travelled businessman in the US and elsewhere, he had contacts with numerous Gilbert and Sullivan societies across the Atlantic. “I wrote to 100 amateur groups in America and said: ‘If we did this, would you be interested in coming along with a show?’,” Smith recalls. “I had 30 replies, and in the first festival, which ran for two weeks in Buxton in 1994, four American groups came and performed.” Soon amateur companies were coming from all over and a professional element was introduced that has strengthened ever since.

The event continued in Buxton for 20 years before moving to Harrogate in 2014. “Although we took people with us, we’ve had to develop a new audience. We said it would take us five years and this is our fifth year. We’re doing okay – we’re covering our costs.”

Those unenthused about Gilbert and Sullivan insist that love of the works is a purely English phenomenon. Not so, if the performing groups visiting the festival are anything to go by. Smith says: “Apart from the UK, we’ve had groups from Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Canada, the United States, Belgium, Spain, Hungary, Estonia and Israel. We’re in discussions with one group in France and another in Russia, so we’re keeping our eyes open.”

National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company's Utopia, Limited. Photo: Charles Smith
National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s Utopia Limited. Photo: Charles Smith

Among Smith’s personal festival highlights, is the professional Tokyo Theatre Company performing a visually traditional staging of The Mikado in Japanese to a sell-out house in 2006. He also singles out a Spanish production of Ruddigore by the Egos Theatre of Madrid in 2012, “which was very dark – different from anything an English audience had ever seen, but remarkably well done”.

Meanwhile, the fully professional National G&S Opera Company launches several productions at each festival and now also tours them around the UK. “We’ve had the company for 20 years now,” Smith says. “Four years ago, we decided to tour – a whole new ballgame for us, and a major risk. So we wrote to theatres and a number said yes, and we had a fabulous time.”

After several weeks of rehearsal, the company opens in Buxton with five new shows this year – including the non-Gilbertian light opera Haddon Hall, written by Sullivan in 1892 in collaboration with librettist Sydney Grundy, and Iolanthe will be added in Harrogate. Once the festival is over at the end of August, the NGSOC sets off on a tour of seven theatres.

University production of Iolanthe. Photo: Charles Smith
University production of Iolanthe. Photo: Charles Smith

Over the years, other initiatives have proved successful. One is the youth company, which performs The Sorcerer on August 18. Smith says: “We’ve tried to be totally inclusive. The most important thing is to attract young people, so every year we do a youth production. Though we audition principals, it’s open to anybody from nine to 19 who wants to be in the chorus. They rehearse for one week with a professional conductor and director and they’ll do a matinee in Harrogate Theatre.” In addition, the Opera North Youth Company (ages 13-19) will perform an adaptation of Pirates.

Festival founder Ian Smith

While it is difficult to engage with schools in the middle of the summer holidays, Smith discovered that more than 40 universities have an active Gilbert and Sullivan Society. “So we established Unifest – a university festival within the main festival, with nine or 10 universities each coming with a full-scale production,” he says.

Smith has responded to demands from performers at the other end of the age range too with an over-60s group. “Again, we have people from Belgium, the US, South Africa, Australia, and all over the UK – a cult following,” he says. They’ll be performing The Yeomen of the Guard this year.

For the 2018 edition, a four-day event called The Magic of G&S, will involve speakers from all over the world, each with a specialist topic, and including a one-day academic symposium. The festival has clearly grown beyond all recognition.

Although he is on excellent form when we meet, Smith has been through serious health problems in recent years and is pondering the future of this unique family-run enterprise. “Uppermost in my wife’s and my own mind is that we are looking for potential dialogue with people who have a similar enthusiasm and who would like to see the festival survive for another 25 years,” he adds. “Now’s the time to be having that discussion.”

The 25th International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival runs in Harrogate from August 8 to 27. The National G&S Opera Company tours from August 28 to October 3

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from  The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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