Just what does it take to bring a university group to the Festival to perform for the very first time? We caught up with Josip Martinčić from Royal Holloway University of London to find out why they are doing it and how they are getting along with their preparations. Could they be first time winners?
Hello Josip. You have been the driving force behind your university’s entry into the UNIFest competition this year. Please tell us a little about yourself and what you are studying at Royal Holloway.
Hello. First of all, I just wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone involved in the running of the Festival for their support in this endeavour. Without this, my ideas and this project would never have come to fruition.
Born and raised in Croatia, I came to the UK on a full 100% academic scholarship from HMC to New Hall School, a private catholic boarding school, to do my A-levels. Having been heavily involved in the arts in years 12 and 13 I knew what I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life. I have just finished my undergraduate studies in English and Drama, graduating with 1st class honours, but, more importantly, I have dedicated my time at Royal Holloway to the performing arts societies, be it on stage, behind the scenes or on committee. I’m going on to do an MA by research in Victorian theatre critics, looking at, amongst other things, the critical reception of Savoy operas.
I had this crazy idea to come and visit the festival last year to get a chance to experience the supportive atmosphere and see the National Company perform some of my favourite G&S operettas. I contacted the organisers in advance, to potentially get a chance to speak to them about us bringing a show. It was a blessing that I got to speak to Ian Smith, who not only answered all of my questions but he also opened my eyes at how incredible this opportunity is and I knew then and there that we had to come this year. Luckily, I have had full support from everyone in the society which has made this such an enriching and positive experience.
The Savoy Opera Society at Royal Holloway was established in 1966 and is one of the oldest student societies on campus. Is it a popular society and how many productions do you put on each year?
Yes, we are the oldest society on campus to have a continuous existence and one of the founders was the wonderful soprano Dame Felicity Lott! The society was founded shortly after men were allowed to attend the university and it was a fantastic way to socialise and interact. When founded, it had full support from the principal, head of music and the whole music department and the cast of a show usually included a chorus of around 30 and a massive orchestra. It has been calculated that in those days nearly 10% of the whole university body was involved with putting on a show.
These days, we are one of several performing arts societies on campus and we are proud to present opportunities to experience Gilbert & Sullivan through at least one G&S show a year and several concerts and events. The biggest struggle we face is probably the small number of male performers, something all societies are struggling with currently on our predominantly female campus, but we have had incredibly successful several years of consistently strong and well received shows, which has built our reputation and our own confidence to the point that we can come to the Festival!
You are bringing a performance of The Gondoliers to Harrogate Theatre on Saturday 11th August at 2.30pm. This is quite an ambitious project for a first time! Can you tell us a little about how you are planning the production? Are there any surprises in store for the audience?
This show is so dear to my heart. It is rich, complex, musically stunning and there are so many strong characters and opportunities for individuals to shine. I am very fortunate to be playing Giuseppe alongside a company of incredible performers. It is directed by Alice McKeever, who is a Harrogate local and is so excited to bring this show home. Her decision was to set this show in the 1950s, inspired greatly by the illustrations in the Italian magazine Grand Hotel. The vision of the world as seen by the Italian housewives in that post-war society is so interesting; it is larger than life and empowering, which lends itself to this show so perfectly. So, hopefully, the aesthetic choices made will have an impact on the audience, especially in the way they view the female characters and their power.
When did you get to know about Gilbert & Sullivan Josip? And how many of their operas have you seen?
I only found out about this duo when I started university three years ago, which seems to me so bizarre right now, as G&S has become such an important part of my life. I was fortunate enough to be elected into the Savoy Opera Society committee for all three years of my studies, first as a 1st year representative, then secretary and lastly this year as treasurer. I was a member of police chorus in our hugely successful production of Pirates of Penzance, I co-directed and choreographed Iolanthe as a traditional show but with a twist (all the characters except for the Lord Chancellor and Strephon were played by women), and most recently I played Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore.
Last year, at the 24th International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, I saw the National G&S Opera Company do HMS Pinafore and The Mikado, which I was very fond of as Matt Siveter, a member of the company who played The Mikado, is an alumnus of Royal Holloway and an old member of the society. I also attended the Pot-luck sing-along of Patience, where Bunthorne was played by another old member and my dear friend George Priestley. I have seen The Mikado, Pirates and Iolanthe at the ENO. But my goal is to see them all live.
Tell how you are planning the logistics of bringing your show to Harrogate. Will you be driving up with all the costumes and props and how long will you be staying in Harrogate? Will you get the opportunity to see some of the shows in the Royal Hall and Harrogate Theatre?
We are getting a coach from outside our University all the way to Harrogate and back, which we will load with our costumes and props. We are staying for two nights, arriving on Friday, the day before our show, and leaving on Sunday afternoon. We are performing a cabaret on Friday evening in the Utopia pavilion, on Saturday after our show we are seeing the National G&S Opera Company perform Ruddigore and singing along as a chorus to the pot-luck Pirates afterwards. Finally, we are seeing the Sunday matinee of Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer by the National Company in the Royal Hall. This will truly be a rich and exciting G&S experience, hopefully inspiring some of our newest members to continue and keep the tradition and passion going!
You are also taking part in the Festival’s four-day symposium, The Magic of Gilbert & Sullivan (17-20 August) when you will present a paper, “The why and wherefore of G&S at University – the appeal, the opportunities and the experience”. Can you give us a little taste of your presentation and how you will be tackling the subject?
When I got asked to do this, I was (and still am) thrilled beyond words. To be able to sit amongst people who share my passion and talk about my experience is truly a dream come true. The thing I feel I can discuss in great detail is my personal experience of G&S at university. I have decided to break the whole topic down into the three areas listed above and, by first giving a brief overview and then analysing the sections, I feel like I can express why G&S is so integral as a co-curricular activity to the university experience.
Being involved brings so much confidence to an individual; to be given an opportunity to try something new and outside of one’s comfort zone and to be supported by all members in such an endeavour is a life-changing experience. That confidence in the new field is backed up by the overwhelming number of skills gained by being involved, which are also transferable and make one highly employable. Ultimately, the social aspect is what truly makes it all worth it. The efforts put into running a society are all paid for by the feeling of closeness, friendship and family with these talented and caring individuals.
Looking forward to expanding on my experience in the talk and I hope to see many people there!
Do you think there is still a future for Gilbert & Sullivan in universities in 2018 or do you feel students are more interested in the Broadway-type of musical?
Musical Theatre is such an overwhelming phenomena, it’s true. It can at times feel like it is an overpowering force that we are fighting against. However, we cannot compare ourselves to another group because that will get us nowhere. Though we are niche, the interest is there. And it is a very rewarding feeling when someone comes in knowing the operas and being passionate about them, or when you are able to show to another individual how much joy G&S has brought to our lives. It makes one feel like it is all absolutely worth it.
On the other hand, it can be seen as a blessing in disguise. Though this might seem a pessimistic sentiment, I think it’s better that there isn’t an incredible amount of pressure on us to produce exceptionally crafted well-known musicals, as then you are facing an expectation which is impossible to meet. We were branded by the official magazine of the Students’ Union as the friendliest society on campus, and that’s the reputation that brings people in. The attitude of give it a go, have fun, enjoy yourselves and leave with a better awareness and appreciation of G&S is the best advertisement we could ask for and it is the main focus on us as a Society.
And what do you think of your chances of winning the UNIFest championship? Could it be first time lucky?
Because we have never competed before, we are going in without a sense of pressure and expectations, which means we will focus on presenting the best possible show. The musical direction and choreography have been at an exceptionally high level, but we recognise that there are other strong University societies who have been going to the festival for years and know the winning formula. We will see how it goes, learn from the experience and, if we don’t win this year, we will come back next year even more ready to take the title!
We are looking forward to meeting you all in Harrogate soon Josip and thank you for your time.
Thank you so much for talking to me!