Members of the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of...

Members of the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island perform the play “ Very Truly Yours” at the East Meadow United Methodist Church in East Meadow. Credit: Linda Rosier

On a recent March evening, men in red capes stomped, women waved imaginary fairy wands and a guy in a suit jumped over a shepherd’s staff in the Chatterton School auditorium in Merrick.

They were rehearsing for the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island’s upcoming production of “Iolanthe,” a tale of ageless fairies, bumbling politicians and romantic misunderstandings.

Written by one of the world’s most successful theater duos, 19th-century playwright William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, the opera is a comedy. But in recent years, the company’s story has read more like a tragedy, as members have tried to recover from Superstorm Sandy and the pandemic while trying to dazzle audiences and make enough money to stay afloat.

Members sing during a recent rehearsal.

Members sing during a recent rehearsal. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

In its real-life Act 1, the company — which marks its 70th anniversary this year — was dealt a blow when the October 2012 storm destroyed decades-old sets and costumes. Then, it was forced to cancel in-person shows for two years during the pandemic, which started in 2020.

But in Act 2, their luck is taking a turn for the better, with a four-figure donation helping fund “Iolanthe,” its most expensive production in years at an estimated $20,000. And it will be the first play since Sandy to have new, custom sets and costumes.

After 12 years of struggling, members are hopeful for the future of the company.

“We wouldn’t have been around for 70 years if there wasn’t a sustained desire by people to see us and to pay money to hear us do what we do,” said Gayden Wren, 62, of Steinway, Queens, director of “Iolanthe” and a longtime company member who’s authored books on Gilbert and Sullivan. “It’s funny, human stories, it’s clever lyrics and it’s beautiful music. Those things never go out of style.”

AFTER SANDY

When treasurer Jordan Breslow waded into the company’s Baldwin storage unit with other company members weeks after Sandy, the first thing to hit him was the moldy smell.

“Everybody was just looking, going, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do with all this stuff?’ ” the Bellmore advertising manager, 57, recalled.

He estimates a little more than half of the company’s assets was salvaged — including the captain’s wheel for the opera “H.M.S. Pinafore” — but many costumes, cloth backdrops, props and sets had to be thrown out.

The flood ruined both of the sets for “Iolanthe,” considered by several company members to be among the most magical of their Gilbert and Sullivan backdrops. Act I featured the fairies’ forest, where Iolanthe, banished for marrying a mortal, was called back to be forgiven. Act II showcased London’s British Parliament building, the Big Ben clock tower and a guard booth, the scene for the fairies’ meeting with the mortal leaders.

In the ensuing years, members recalled, some of their plays went on with minimal to no props and cardboard backdrops with line-drawn scenery.

Then when the pandemic lockdowns began, it was a showstopper. For the first time since its start in 1954, the company did not put on a live production in 2020 and 2021.

But current and past members came together online in 2021 to perform Wren’s 1997 play, “Very Truly Yours, Gilbert and Sullivan,” about the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan, featuring excerpts from their letters and songs from their operas.

Each performer videotaped their parts, and Wren’s wife, Sara Elliott Holliday, assembled the footage so they appeared to be singing together or responding to each other.

It garnered thousands of views, including a public viewing in Houston and a viewing party in Switzerland, Wren said.

“We took a big hit during the pandemic . . . but that was nowhere near as big a hit for us as Hurricane Sandy,” Wren said. “It’s to the credit of the board at that time that we have in fact kept going.”

The company’s main revenue source is ticket sales from its annual production in June, supplemented by performances at smaller venues such as libraries.

As its seven-member board maps out annual productions four years ahead, it must make calculated decisions on which opera to put on. Are new supplies needed? How much will the play cost? Should they hold off on an expensive production until they have more funds?

Full recovery for the company isn’t expected until 2050 — nearly 40 years after Sandy wreaked its havoc — as flood-damaged replacements are ordered play by play.

“It’s all about how we can scrimp and save,” Breslow said. “We’re always worried every year because we’re basically starting from scratch.” 

‘A HISTORY AND A PASSION’

Despite the setbacks, there was a stroke of luck that’s become company lore.

Back in 2002, a relative of a cast member was passing a garage sale when she saw two familiar-looking stage mockups in a shoebox.

One was the company’s “Iolanthe” Act II set of London. The other mockup was from “H.M.S. Pinafore.”

“She spent a dollar on the shoebox, and she gave it to her relative,” Wren recounted. “It’s almost like somebody was looking out for us.”

A mockup of the company's "Iolanthe" set.

A mockup of the company's "Iolanthe" set. Credit: Linda Rosier

These paper models were safe in Wren’s home when Sandy hit. In the past few months, the “Iolanthe” mockup has inspired set designer Joe Kenny in Riverhead, who is recreating it for the company’s upcoming production while New York City designer Lauren Carmen fashions the costumes.

“What is so cool about ‘Iolanthe’ is they’re going from this rich vibrant forest into what was modern contemporary London, with hard lines, red, the busyness of the streets,” Kenny said.

In his three-car garage, Kenny has been building flexibility into his pine sets. For example, the Parliament building with Big Ben will be at least 16 feet wide, but it can be adjusted to about 8 feet for smaller venues. The sets must be easily dismantled by performers and folded up to fit in cars.

For the fairies’ forest, the trees will have some dimension, perhaps with green cheesecloth for leaves, Kenny said.

“What hit me was there’s a history and a passion behind what they’re doing,” he said about the company. “I feel honored to be part of that. I appreciate the opportunity to breathe new life into a historical company.”

Set designer Joe Kenny builds a forest for the upcoming...

Set designer Joe Kenny builds a forest for the upcoming production of "Iolanthe." Credit: Randee Daddona

23-PIECE ORCHESTRA

The Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island is unlike many other community theater groups in a number of ways, according to several members.

The 501c(3) nonprofit has no permanent home, instead renting out space for its annual productions. And most unusual, the company hires a 23-piece full orchestra for its shows.

The approximately 100 performers and crew are a mix of unpaid amateurs and professionals, including Thomas Z. Shepard, a 12-time Grammy-winning Broadway producer who has served as piano accompanist and music director.

Many are diehard fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, known for their jokes about the political system and their insight into parent-child relationships.

“It’s the same stuff we’re dealing with, just a different culture,” said board president Chris Jurak, 55, of Brightwaters, a physical therapist who joined the company in 2016.  

The company’s board has been holding strategy sessions each quarter to set up systems to improve operations and to build a pipeline of opera lovers. Recruiting younger cast members has been a major part of the company’s playbook, including forming relationships with high school and college music departments and mounting productions aimed at children, such as “A Gilbert and Sullivan Christmas Carol.”

“I think we are more organized and forward looking now . . . in terms of how we plan for current and future productions, how we utilize social media and how we are attracting a larger number of younger and more talented, trained professional singers,” Jurak said.

FATHER-DAUGHTER PLAYERS

Oyster Bay seventh grader Hanna Roth, who’s playing a 17-year-old fairy in “Iolanthe,” convinced her father last year to join the company.

At the March rehearsal, she chuckled over how she’s like a parent guiding him.

Ron Roth, 59, agreed, recounting a moment last year when he stood next to his 11-year-old daughter on a dark stage in front of an audience, seconds before the lights went up.

“Are you OK?,” she whispered. “You’re going to be just fine.”

And, no matter what obstacles are put in their way, members believe the same could be said of their company.

“Scenery and costumes, they’re important stuff, but the heart of the company is the people,” said Wren. “We can, and have in fact done, shows with no scenery at all, with everybody in street clothes, standing on an empty stage — and they’ve been good shows.”

The Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island will perform “Iolanthe” this June. Tickets are $25-$35. For more information, call 516-619-7415 or visit gaslocoli.org.

GILBERT AND SULLIVAN IN POP CULTURE

You may think you haven’t heard the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, two British guys from the 19th century, but their operas are woven into the fabric of popular culture. Here are some examples:  

  • The saying “Let the punishment fit the crime” was popularized by a song in the opera “The Mikado.”  
  • In the sitcom “Family Guy,” the fast-paced, tongue-twisting song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” is sung by comedian and producer Seth MacFarlane, a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan. The song is from “The Pirates of Penzance”: “I am the very model of a modern Major-General. I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral. I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical.”  
  • “Grand Poobah” is often used as a mocking title for a self-important person or in jest to someone with power. It comes from the overbearing character Pooh-bah in “The Mikado.” It’s also the title for the head of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes in the “Flintstones” cartoons.  
  • In the 1998 movie “Star Trek: Insurrection,” Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and Worf sing ”A British Tar” from the opera “H.M.S. Pinafore” to distract a malfunctioning Data while they chase his shuttle and attempt to board it: “. . . his bosom should heave and his heart should glow, and his fist be ever ready for a knock-down blow"  
  • Former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, another Gilbert and Sullivan fan, added four yellow stripes to each arm of his black judicial robe in a nod to the costume worn by the Lord Chancellor during a performance he saw of “Iolanthe.”

 — Ellen Yan

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