The beauty of an Arthur Sullivan score never fades. A W.S. Gilbert satire of human nature only gets better with time. With these two principles kept resolutely in mind (and tongues firmly in cheek), the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players have returned in all their glory for their first ever summer season at City Center, June 6-15. Notify your sisters and cousins, whom you reckon up by dozens, and your aunts. The preeminent G&S company in America performs, as only they can, the "big three"‹H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado‹as well as The Gondoliers, one of Gilbert & Sullivan's most uproarious and vocally melodic works, set in Venice and the mythical kingdom of Barataria.
Here is the core of the collective genius of Gilbert & Sullivan: the salty humor and inspired banter of Pinafore; the delicious black comedy and immortal tunes of Mikado; the fine coloratura arias and swashbuckling romance of Pirates; and the rollicking Venetian boatmen and mock pageantry of Gondoliers, a not-to-be-missed G&S operetta of the first rank.
The Gondoliers was the last light opera on which Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated harmoniously. While it has long outlived the direct object of its satire, the rise of republicanism in Victorian England, its oddly egalitarian and dysfunctional monarchy of Barataria will live forever. A musically complex and satisfying work, it was also comically fabulous‹presaging the cracked kingdom of Freedonia in Duck Soup. (The celebrated, cultivated, underrated Duke of Plaza-Toro can be viewed as a precursor to Rufus T. Firefly‹Groucho Marx being a huge fan of G&S).
There is something for everyone in this summer season, a comic-opera repertory charged with contemporary energy while retaining traditional respect for the shows themselves. Every NYGASP light opera is a living, breathing work, continuously updated by a veteran corps of performers, some of whom have been perfecting their roles, adding little bits to their costumes, little touches to their makeup, and new variations to their onstage shtick, for decades. The rapid-fire dialogue and patter songs are constantly tweaked and updated. For example, a reference to "Custom House" (the British equivalent of the U.S. Coast Guard) in Pirates might simply be changed to "Homeland Security"; or the shipboard dungeon telephone joke in Pinafore, first produced in 1878, shortly after Alexander Graham Bell's invention, could be changed to "no cellular phone communicates with his cell," adding a pun as well as an update.
Each season brings new entries to Ko-Ko's infamous "list" of persons we'd like to see beheaded in The Mikado, or a diabolical, tongue-twisting variation on the Mikado's ways to "let the punishment fit the crime." David Wannen, who plays the title role in that opera, adds a riff to recent performances:
The major league slugger who swings and misses each time he comes to bat,
He's made to dwell in a dungeon cell, where he eats till he gets fat.
And there he faces extravagant pitching,
In a wobbly batter's box.
We know we hate 'im
So we gleefully trade 'im,
To those babbling Boston Red Sox.
Text updating may not be for purists‹or for members of the Red Sox Nation‹but NYGASP's founder and creative director Albert Bergeret sees his mission as more than presenting musical masterworks as museum pieces. He sees his company as a preserver‹not a preservative.
"The originals are loaded with arcane references that have no meaning to contemporary audiences," Mr. Bergeret says. "When it's possible, we love to add a little twist, a topical reference. The goal is always to illuminate the pieces and make them accessible."
In its nearly four decades, NYGASP has emerged as the leading national professional company performing these works. The company makes its annual appearance in June at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA, where a loyal and exuberant audience of more than 5,000 attends performances. NYGASP will tour 30 other venues this year, including an engagement later this month with the Missouri Symphony Orchestra for The Pirates of Penzance, a West Coast swing, and a trip to Toronto. In recent years, the company has been featured at the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England.
Mr. Bergeret believes there is no better way to introduce classical music to young people than comic opera, and the company has long been involved in youth outreach programs. Recently NYGASP has conducted workshops where G&S professionals work side by side with students at schools in Tenafly, NJ, and Syosset, NY. The company does extensive family overtures, pre-show, during every matinee at City Center, when Mr. Bergeret sings, cracks jokes, explains the topsy-turvy of the plot, and takes questions from the audience. (For more information and upcoming dates go to nygasp.org.)
"It's accessible and wonderful for children," Mr. Bergeret says. "We frequently see three generations in the audience. We are very proud of that."
Woody Hochswender, a former reporter for The New York Times, sings with and serves on the board of the Light Opera Company of Salisbury (CT).