Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Try we lifelong we will never straighten out life's tangled skein

People occasionally ask me why I like Gilbert and Sullivan.  It's not the sort of thing you generally expect a twenty-something woman to spend much of her free time involved in.  In fact, it's quite amusing to see how it throws out the tailored adverts you get on Facebook or gmail.  The internet thinks I'm quite a lot older than I actually am.  Anyway, having started a new job a few months ago, I've had to think about answering this several times lately, and this is my attempt to answer it.

Of course, first of all there's the material itself.  Some of the 'canon' (as we geeks describe the surviving 12 full length operas, plus the dramatic cantata Trial by Jury, and Thespis, of which only the libretto (script) survives).  Some of it has weathered the last century better than others, but much is still funny and surprisingly relevant (for example Iolanthe's description of the perils of a 'Liberal-Conservative' government and the various descriptions of politicians concerned more for their own good than that of the country). In my opinion G and S's best shows are the ones where the music complements the words, and the words suit the music- The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and The Mikado are probably the best examples of this.  That doesn't mean I don't like the less well-known shows, though- often they're the more interesting, if harder to pull off in performance- for example, Utopia Ltd is a little-recognised satire of 19th century Imperialism.

The first G and S I saw was The Pirates of Penzance.  I was ten, and it was, I thought, my dad's last-ditch attempt at interesting me in music.  He was an enthusiastic music lover, and had been somewhat disappointed that earlier attempts at taking me to concerts had ended (as far as I can remember, anyway) by having to leave early because there were no toilets.  Well, I was 8.  So he was very happy when I appeared to enjoy this spectacle of singing and dancing and giggling at comedy policemen.  Probably this initial love was because there was something to look at as well as listen to, and as a rather visual child the colours and movements appealed to me.  It was also because there were words- I was somewhat old-fashioned, as many children who read a lot are, and this was something I understood.  I think he was a bit less happy when I insisted on dragging them back to see the same local amateur group's (excellent) performances every year till I left for uni, at which point I started dragging they up to York to see me performing myself.

Dad had started trying to teach me piano from about the age I could first reach the keys.  I had lessons, but gave up after spending what felt like months practising the same Grade 1 pieces with no noticeable improvement.  I assumed that I was no just good, that I hadn't practised enough.  Only a few weeks ago I found out that at the time I'd actually been having hand-eye co-ordination problems and that I shouldn't blame myself.  This wasn't helped by teachers refusing to let me join the primary school choir, and being thrown out of clarinet lessons after one term (during most of which the teacher was off sick).  By the time I was 12, I'd conclusively demonstrated that I was no good at music.

Or so I thought.  I had a few singing lessons, and enjoyed them, but never did any exams- I didn't even know you could do exams for singing.  I can't remember why I stopped.  Singing happened at church, and at Guides, but that was it until I went to uni and saw posters advertising for cast for The Gondoliers.  I spent too long staring at the stall at freshers' fair, thinking 'I could never do that, but I want to' and someone spotted me and made me sign up.  I spent the whole of the first term assuming that sooner or later someone would have a quiet word and ask me to leave, but it never happened.  The buzz I got from that first show was amazing, but it was that attitude, that everyone had something to contribute, that I really liked.  It's an attitude I've argued for in more than one group over the years, both musically and in wider life.  

So perhaps that's why I like Gilbert and Sullivan.  Because it's so often done by amateurs, for fun (professional performances are often lacklustre by comparison).  Because I have made some wonderful friends through it (hello, you're probably one of them!).  Because it gave me confidence.  Because it showed me that I could do something musical.  Because it opened up a wider musical world to me, one that I now felt I could be part of.

This post is scheduled to go out ten years to the hour from the first performance of The Gondoliers, my first show with the University of York Gilbert and Sullivan Society.  It's the day of my father's funeral, and with a couple of other family members I will be singing a piece of music at the service.  I couldn't have done that without Gilbert and Sullivan.  (Here's a cute photo.)

Oddly enough I'm also rehearsing for another production of The Gondoliers at the moment, this time as minor soloist, secretary and sort-of director as well as chorus.  Come and see us!

The title is a quote from The Gondoliers- one I'm rather fond of.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Ten years

Ten years. It didn't seen that long. When she had arrived on the windy early October day- windy seemed to have been the prevailing weather, that autumn- after the long journey that had begun early that morning, up threw A17, the A1, the A64, roads she would come to know like the back of her hand over the next few years, long before she drove them herself.
The ducks quacked and the wind blew as she and her mother found their way to the porters lodge and queued for her room keys. Then in coloured jeans and a striped blue jacket she followed an older student up to her room.  With mounting excitement she opened the door.  A room of her own. 
 Later, after her mother had left and she had evaded all the people trying to sell her over-priced tickets to a freshers' event, she made herself a cup of tea in the tiny kitchen down the corridor, sat down and closed the door.  She looked around; the bed with its' brand-new covers, the desk, the wide windowsill with the plant she had brought from home, the sink in a cupboard.  She looked out of the window, over the roof of the covered walkway, down to the lake and the geese.   Her room, that she paid for, where she could do what she wanted.  Freedom. She was looking forward to this.

 And so, ten years later, she thought back to the nervously excited eighteen-year-old who had arrived that day, and smiled.  There had been bad times- she had been lonely, had been hurt badly by people she cared about, had been disappointed and made to feel a failure- but there had been good times too, and that was what she thought about.  Spending freshers' week feeling part of the crowd for the first time in her life- even if she spent the evenings in her room listening to G&S & sewing, it was because she wanted to- The Gondoliers, her first show, making friends with people who didn't think she was weird and unlovely, making friends with people her own age who shared her faith for almost the first time, the first time she was picked to run a student society and she realised people actually thought she was good at something!  And that was just the first year.

Now, ten years since she had arrived in York as a first year history student she knew that she had never regretted that choice for a moment.  She still loved this city.

Here's to another ten years (maybe)!

Saturday, 8 December 2012


Hello again, it's been a while since there was any activity here.  But Facebook's events system is so complicated these days I thought I'd use this as a way of inviting you all to something.

On Sunday 16th December my church (St Michael le Belfrey) is holding it's annual carol service in York Minster.  It's always a great service, with carols (congregational and choral) and performances by Riding Lights theatre company.  It's also free.  So if you'd like to come to a carol service in the minster, this is your opportunity.  Oh, and did I mention I'm in the choir?

The service starts at 7pm, with doors opening at 6.30pm but I'd recommend getting there before that as there's usually a queue and the place gets quite full (there are usually screens so you can see what's going on at the front).  It's also chilly, so wrap up warm.

It would be lovely if you could come.  Let me know if you want any more info.

And if you're interested, here's a couple of old posts on Christmasy themes:
The darker side of carols