Gilbert and Sullivan’s popularity has waxed and waned, but Sarah Freeman meets Ian Smith who is determined to save their works for the nation.
Ian Smith has been performing Gilbert and Sullivan for as long as he can remember. So much so, he rarely gets through a day without humming The Mikado’s Three Little Maids From School or the Major General’s song from The Pirates of Penzance. If pushed he could probably perform every single one of their works without hesitation, backwards.
He is in short a bit of a missionary when it comes to the light opera double act and a man whose determination to keep their spirit – and work – alive has long been a full time job.
“I do it because I love it and because I think it’s important,” he says of the annual International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival which opens today in Harrogate. “The operas are brilliantly witty, the music is wonderful and what we do over two weeks is a great introduction to their work.”
The festival, which attracts companies from across the world, is now in its 24th year, but Ian admits it has not been easy to keep the event going. Originally based in Buxton, in 2013 the council announced it was going to increase the cost of hiring various venues and Ian and the rest of the company had to quickly find a new home.
“That was a difficult time. We loved Buxton and we thought we gave back as much as we took, more in fact, but the council obviously didn’t agree,” he says. “The figures just didn’t stack up. With what they wanted to charge the festival just wouldn’t have been viable.”
The festival had, however, established a loyal audience in Buxton and Ian is honest enough to admit that many of them didn’t immediately follow them to Yorkshire.
“When we approached Harrogate they absolutely understood what we were doing and the value we could bring to the town, but that first year wasn’t easy. We lost £250,000, but we knew it would take time to build an audience and this has never been a short-term project.”
Three years on, the audience has built and this year’s programme is as impressive as ever. The National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, which Ian also founded, will be barely off stage, with performances of HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, Princess Ida, and The Pirates of Penzance. There will be a host of international companies bringing their take on a very British institution to Harrogate alongside a number of university companies and Ian is also determined to get young people involved.
“Each year we have a youth production which involves a free week of tuition and rehearsals. It’s a fabulous experience and along with our Bus Pass Opera which is designed for performers over 60 it really does demonstrate that Gilbert and Sullivan really is for everyone.”
While Ian isn’t afraid of a little experimentation, at heart he admits he is very much a traditionalist when it comes to the staging of Gilbert and Sullivan. As a result, the festival is a purist’s dream.
“There was one production I saw where they came on with stilts. It was a total disaster. The reason why Gilbert and Sullivan has survived is because done right it is a real family occasion. It has all the right ingredients, there really is no need to mess about with it.”
International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, Harrogate, to August 20. 01423 323252, gsfestivals.org.