Godalming Operatic Society have been singing the tunes for 90 years
PUBLISHED: 07:58 10 August 2015 | UPDATED: 15:57 10 August 2015
One of the country's leading performers of Gilbert and Sullivan, Godalming Operatic Society is celebrating 90 years of staging these oh-so-British works. Surrey Life's Viv Micklefield goes behind the curtains to find out more
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2015
To the uninitiated, it’s a tempting assumption that a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is a bit like Marmite. You either love it or you just don’t get it. However, this does a great disservice to arguably the nation’s greatest musical double-act, whose topsy-turvy world has been enchanting audiences since Victorian times, as well as to the hundreds of thousands of self-proclaimed Savoyards – among these the members of Godalming Operatic Society (GOS).
Formed in 1924, with a performance of The Yeoman of the Guard following the next year, this largely amateur troupe is a bit of a rarity, having been set up with the sole purpose of performing the entire back catalogue of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy Operas. It’s a mark of GOS’s achievement that despite skipping the war years, all, bar one, of the 14 works written between 1871 and 1896 has so far been staged. And they’re justifiably recognised as a leading Gilbert and Sullivan society.
A landmark year
“We’re on a real high at the moment,” says soprano and chorus member Christine Howard, as she explains how this year’s performance of The Mikado played to packed audiences. “The response was overwhelming and it was such fun to be a part of.” Indeed, having first raised the curtain on this tale of mistaken identities in 1930, the GOS’s 10th rendition left comments like ‘better than the West End’ ringing in her ears. “It surprises a lot of people that we produce something so good,” continues Christine. “But, on average, there are 50 to 60 cast in each production, including professionally trained soloists. And, in addition, we use a 22-piece fully professional orchestra.”
Even a passing glance at the lavish sets and costumes reveals the attention to detail, which means that a fully-staged opera each February costs somewhere in the region of £30,000. Any suggestion of this being a somewhat elitist pastime though is immediately dispelled by Christine’s own experience on joining, back in 2005.
“It was actually my teenage daughter, already singing with the GOS, who dragged me along,” she says. “I was terrified as I hadn’t sung since schooldays and never any of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. Finding out that others also learnt by ear, I felt at home very early on. And now it’s totally addictive!”
With no formal auditions required for the chorus and plenty of opportunities to take on backstage roles, it’s certainly a very inclusive group – though that’s not to say the quality is in any way compromised. On the contrary, the decades have seen several successful full-time careers forged in the performing arts.
Interestingly though, with members coming from all walks of life, there are currently more men than women. This certainly paid-off, however, for Utopia Limited; the rarely performed political satire has plenty of male roles, and Christine’s background in local government meant “this one was right up my street too”.
With such a broad comedic repertoire to call upon and so much of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, be it punning one-liners or humour blended with pathos, still striking a chord, there’s usually something for everyone. Although, as Christine admits: “There are a lot of jokes about the class system in the lyrics that, sometimes, need explaining to the younger members.”
Whether they are 16 or 80-years-old, however, the close-knit atmosphere in rehearsals and on-stage means the society attracts members of all ages. In fact, the GOS even has its very own ‘von Trapps’ with no less than three generations of one family currently members.
Friends in high places
Also underpinning the group’s success is undoubtedly the relationship enjoyed with another of Godalming’s most established institutions, Charterhouse School. Robin Wells, its former head of music, became GOS’s sixth musical director 45 years ago following in the footsteps of his predecessors at the school. And, as well as his personal commitment, the tradition continues of involving pupils past and present within the society. “Robin gives a huge amount of additional time for free,” says Christine. “He’s such a brilliant musician and brings out the best in everybody.”
There’s proof of this in the regular invitations to perform at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, now held in Harrogate. Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance have both been staged outside of Surrey. And 2014’s sumptuous wardrobe for Princess Ida certainly caught the judge’s eye, scooping the prize for Best Costume.
Continuing to set the standard, next year’s GOS production sees The Grand Duke marching into Godalming Borough Hall (February 16-20) and the Leatherhead Theatre (February 25-27). Meanwhile, to mark the 90th birthday celebrations, the society recently indulged its love of all things Gilbert and Sullivan by singing songs from every Savoy opera during a special concert held in June. According to Christine: “We had to put on an extra matinee performance because the tickets sold out so fast, and the future for Godalming Operatic Society really couldn’t be brighter.” Here’s to the next 90 years!
• Want to sing along? Godalming Operatic Society is always happy to welcome new members; for more details, call 01483 505897 or visit their website at godalmingoperatic.org.uk
Surrey’s famous links to Gilbert & Sullivan
• Sir Arthur Sullivan once owned a house in Camberley. Sadly, all that remains of the place today is a commemorative plaque. In fact, the site on the A30 is now home to a drive-thru fast food outlet.
• Elsie Spain, who was best-known for her soprano performances with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company between 1908 and 1910, was born in Reigate.
• Richard D’Oyly Carte, the Simon Cowell of Victorian entertainment and owner of the Savoy Theatre, bought Folly Eyot, a small island in the River Thames near Weybridge, around 1890. The country house he built there is now Grade II listed and remains privately owned.
Find your local amateur operatic group…
• Banstead and Nork Amateur Operatic Society: banaos.org.uk
• Bookham Light Operatic Society: bookhamlightoperatic.co.uk
• Dorking Dramatic and Operatic Society: ddos.org.uk
• Epsom Light Opera Company: eloc.org.uk
• ESOSOC, Reigate and Redhill: esosoc.org.uk
• Epsom Light Opera Company: eloc.org.uk
• Farnham Amateur Operatic Society: faos.org.uk
• Leatherhead Operatic Society: leatherheadoperaticsociety.co.uk
• Opera South, Haslemere: operasouth.co.uk
• Oxted Operatic Society: barntheatreoxted.co.uk
• Riverside Opera, Kingston upon Thames: riversideopera.co.uk
• The Savoy Singers, Camberley: savoysingers.org.uk
• Surrey Opera, Croydon: surreyopera.org
• Walton & Weybridge Amateur Operatic Society: wwaos.org.uk
• Woking Amateur Operatic Society: waos.info