by Amy Lilly
Since hearing a trio of emerging artists from the Green Mountain Opera Festival sing Mozart’s “Soave sia il vento” (from Così fan tutte) last month at Burlington’s Cathedral of St. Paul, I've had a hard time recalling why any music not by Mozart is worth listening to. Is there a more moving, restrained, perfectly balanced, purely beautiful piece in music history? I’d wonder, trolling YouTube for yet another version of the farewell song.
OK, so maybe I got a little carried away. Fortunately, longtime Burlington classical-scene fixtures Bill Metcalfe and Mel Kaplan were able to knock me out of my Mozart reverie two nights ago with some rousing Gilbert and Sullivan, at a Vermont Summer Music Festival concert performance of H.M.S. Pinafore.
Here is music that is fun, uncomplicated and eminently hummable. Fans are more likely to look up the songs’ witty lyrics on the Internet than compare videos of artistic interpretations. In fact, I wish Metcalfe, the conductor, had included a program insert with the lyrics of at least some of the light opera’s many famous songs; the singing was good but the words not always clear, and they should be in something so irreverently titled. (Essentially: Her Majesty’s Ship the Girl’s Flouncy Apron.)
The performance at St. Michael’s College drew a near-capacity audience. This bodes well for the last event of the weeklong VSMF, a concert with Metcalfe’s Oriana Singers of choral music by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Delius and Haydn on Sunday.
Metcalfe and Kaplan have been friends for four decades and have been collaborating on annual Gilbert and Sullivan productions for about as long. Perhaps that accounted for the atmosphere of familiarity between the audience and the singers, with regulars in both groups. Appreciative laughter, for example, greeted the entry of David Neiweem, the charismatic University of Vermont director of choirs, who clearly enjoyed singing the strictly polite ship’s captain. (“Though ‘Bother it!’ I may occasionally say, I never swear the big, big ‘D’,” the character sings in his most famous song.)
From his onstage perch, Metcalfe conducted both a chamber group of mostly New York-based professional musicians represented by Mel Kaplan, Inc. (and Kaplan himself on oboe) and Metcalfe’s community chorus. The two were positioned side by side on the stage.
The male chorus members, as the ship’s sailors, wore matching striped blue-and-gray T-shirts that looked straight out of Old Navy. Soloists had basic costume touches and sang from scores they carried to music stands in front of the chorus’ risers. The soloists included the captain’s superior Sir Joseph (Larry Rudiger), Buttercup (Linda Radtke), Dick Deadeye (Vincent Pelletier) and the two star-crossed lovers: Ralph the common sailor (Adam Hall), and Josephine the captain’s daughter (Sarah Cullins).
Hall and Cullins were the vocal stars, too, with the tenor a pleasant surprise and the soprano somewhere in the stratosphere above everyone. Cullins’ performance confirmed how lucky Vermont is that the Burlington-born singer decided to move back home after 10 years in Colombia, where she won the national voice competition and founded a voice department at Central University in Bogota.
Staging, by Rudiger, was minimal but included self-referential gags such as Ralph struggling to turn the pages of his score while two sailors try to drag him to the ship’s dungeon on Sir Joseph’s command.
That didn’t quite do it for audience members Manny, 11, and his 13-year-old brother Obie, of Oakland, Calif., who had come with their parents Joe Kahne and Tamar Dorfman. The family had flown in for a 90th birthday celebration for Kahne’s father, a Gilbert and Sullivan fan whose idea it was to attend the performance.
“We thought it was going to be a play,” said Obie. “But it’s fine,” he added politely.
I had cornered the family at intermission in search of the evening’s few youngsters, because Gilbert and Sullivan is a good gateway drug for children to actual opera. That’s how I was introduced, in any case: My father gave me a record of Gilbert and Sullivan highlights and I've been a fan ever since. Chorus member Bill Harwood of Burlington, a regular in Oriana productions since 2007, said he started the same way. “My dad had recordings of … highlights. When I was in the first grade I sang them to myself on the playground at Adams School.”
Kahne, an education professor, explained that he grew up hearing some Gilbert and Sullivan because of his father, but the family rarely plays music at home.
When asked what kind of music he listens to, Manny mentioned One Republic and Imagine Dragons. “Like, pop – like, not like this,” he concluded, gesturing toward the theater with a smile.
Back inside, my seat neighbor Emily Vatis, of Charlotte, said her grandfather had introduced her to the Englishmen’s light operas. A teacher at a junior boarding school for boys in Massachusetts, the grandfather had directed his students in Gilbert and Sullivan productions every year until Vatis was 9. She came to Pinafore to support two friends in the chorus, Barb and Jim Ouimette of Ferrisburgh.
“It’s music that sticks with you,” Vatis comments.
Catch the last Vermont Summer Music Festival event, “An English Spring,” with the Oriana Singers, on Sunday, July 20, 4 p.m., at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Burlington.