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Singing Gilbert & Sullivan

07/23/08 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Mares is an author as well as a retired teacher and legislator. He is also sometimes a singer. And one of those times happens to be tonight. 

(MARES) Fifty years ago this summer I sang Gilbert and Sullivan for the first time - their enchanting satire on Japan, The Mikado.  Tonight I will sing The Pirates of Penzance with the Oriana Singers in the Vermont Mozart Festival.
      
To sing Gilbert and Sullivan, it helps to know something of British history - but it's not necessary.  The Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, like The Mikado, Pirates, H.M.S. Pinafore, were the Oklahoma, Damn Yankees and Camelot of the day, full of wonderful lyrics and enduring songs.  But their preposterously topsy-turvy plots were also rife with wickedly sharp satire of British society, arts and especially politics.  For staid Victorian audiences 120 years ago, they wrote the equivalent of The Daily Show.
     
Music critic Mike Sleigh observed that Sir William Gilbert, the librettist, would take an utterly 'illogical' premise and follow it to its 'logical' end with a genius for fusing opposites to blend the surreal with the real - and the caricature with the natural.  Then it would all end happily.  The boy got the girl; the shrewish woman and the pompous man were united; and no one died. 
  
In his satire, Gilbert took few prisoners. He went after political appointees: "Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, and you'll all be rulers of the Queen's navee."
   
To carry out capital punishment, he created The Lord High Executioner, who "...can't cut off another's head until he's cut his own off."
  
He skewered fat men: "I see no objection to stoutness, in moderation..." and aging beauties: "She may very well pass for 43, in the dusk with a light behind her."
     
With lines worthy of Lake Woebegon he nailed all of those who are desperate to keep up with the Joneses:     
    "When everyone is sombodee
    Then no one's anybody." 

The only thing better than watching a Gilbert and Sullivan is singing it.  The Oriana Singers are mostly amateur lovers of music, leavened with a few professionals.
   
Oriana's creator and conductor is retired UVM professor Bill Metcalfe, a man of many talents and interests.  During his 40 years of teaching Bill chaired three different departments - history, music and Canadian Studies.  A lifelong G & S devotee, he was conducting their operettas before he left high school, and he has memorized most of the music.  He and his wife Elizabeth, a professional pianist and our accompanist, are the twin engines of our group.
    
Bill says, "You know, the conductor doesn't do much except stand up and block the view of audience members who want to see their friends in the choir."  Bu that's not true.  He sweeps us along in his exacting enthusiasm, his Gilbert-like wit, and even a falsetto voice when he has to correct a soprano's wrong notes - or sub for a soloist. 
    
As a result, many of us in the group might paraphrase a line spoken by the Pirate King this way: "I don't think much of our professionalism, but, as contrasted with respectability, it's comparatively honest."
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