DURING this year’s six-night run of HMS Pinafore, Lucy Smith, the administrator of Melrose Amateur Operatic Society, issued an ominous warning.
Before curtain-up at the Corn Exchange each evening during its March run, Mrs Smith said that unless there was an influx of performers, the audience, might be witnessing the end of an artistic tradition in the town stretching back nearly 80 years.
In particular, the three little maids from school who sing the much-loved song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado are looking for recruits nearer to their own age.
As well as having to cover annually increasing production costs, many operatic and choral societies face the even bigger challenge of finding singers.
Melrose, according to Geoff Evans, falls into the latter category and Mrs Smith’s earnest plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
Mr Evans joined the society, which produces only G&S operettas, in 1990 and, ever since, he has submitted previews and reviews of the shows for local newspapers, including TheSouthern.
“At a time when everything appears to be in short supply, Melrose Opera has hit on a new variation of that theme – a shortage of singers,” said Mr Evans this week.
“When Lucy appealed to the audience for folk to come forward to avoid the dreaded possibility of the society’s demise, perhaps everyone thought someone else would emerge from the ranks, but sadly this has not happened.”
Since its first production in 1935, the Melrose company has stuck rigidly to the works of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan who together wrote 14 comic operettas which were wildly popular in their own time.
These pieces, including The Pirates of the Penzance and The Mikado, were the forerunners of the modern musical: a genre which, Mr Evans feels, they have more in common with than grand opera. They have offered a rotating choice of annual shows in Melrose.
But Mr Evans believes the fact the operettas were written in late Victorian times has created a perception that they are an anachronism with no relevance to modern society and this has adversely impacted on performer recruitment, particularly among the young.
He told us: “In fact, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are as fresh and sparkling today as when they were written,.
“Gilbert may have chosen specific aspects of Victorian society for his satire, but the wit of his libretto is as relevant now as it has ever been.
“In Pinafore, Sir Joseph Porter sings: ‘I always voted at my party’s call/And I never thought of thinking for myself at all’, but these lines could as easily belong to most modern politicians.
“And the songs pop up in many modern settings, from The Muppet Show to The Simpsons. Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline took the lead roles when The Pirates of Penzance wowed Broadway in the 1980s.
“Yet when I mention Gilbert and Sullivan, folk either say it’s too highbrow or, and this is usually from youngsters, it’s too old fashioned and fuddy duddy.
“If they went along to a rehearsal or two, they would find it’s just the opposite, being irreverent and still with something to say that is worth hearing.”
Mr Evans believed the society was unlikely to extend its repertoire beyond G&S, but the texts were not set in stone and had been successfully and hilariously adapted by current producer Colin Smith in recent productions to make them more relevant to the modern day.
“To those who feel shy about going on stage, I would say once they have experienced the camaraderie of the company and, of course, the applause from the audience, they will really enjoy it and possibly become hooked for life.”
Crunch time for the society will come at auditions for next year’s show, The Yeomen of the Guard.
The first audition, for principal roles, will take place on Monday, June 11, and others, for cameos and chorus, will follow.
“It seems inconceivable thatsuch a situation could develop in such a musically aware area as the Borders,” said Mr Evans. “Yet no leading singer hailing from the region has taken the lead tenor role at Melrose in living memory. Surely the Borders can do better that that.
“It isn’t only principals that are needed and chorus members are also of vital importance. Ideally the producer and musical director would like to see seven or eight new singers of any age, but preferably in the 20-26 range, coming forward. They would be welcomed with open arms.”
Mr Evans said there was a misconception that newcomers must pass a strict sight reading test to be accepted.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he told us. “Auditions are informal and set up merely to check the applicant isn’t tone deaf and can hold a tune.”
To save the society and find out more about the upcoming auditions, contact Lucy Smith on 01835 822425 (email email@example.com).