STEPHEN TURNBULL, SECRETARY OF THE SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN SOCIETY, UNIFEST ADJUDICATOR AND FAVOURITE FESTIVAL FRINGE SPEAKER, TALKS ABOUT UNIFEST, THE FESTIVAL AND HIS LOVE OF SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN.
Hello Stephen. We are delighted that you will be returning to adjudicate the UNIFest competition at the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Harrogate in August. This must be your fifth year as adjudicator. Do you still enjoy the role and have you seen many changes over the years?
Thank you for asking me back. Actually, it’s my seventh! I have to admit that, when Ian first asked me to adjudicate back in 2013, I had my doubts about whether I was the right person for the job. But I thought hard and decided to give it a go. And I’m so glad I did – it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done during my 40-plus years in the world of G&S. And yes – I still enjoy it enormously. I get to see young people exploring these wonderful operas, finding new insights, delighting their audiences and having fun.
The most significant change was the introduction of a dedicated UniFest Orchestra in 2014. Originally, societies had brought their own, which made for some interesting sounds (one used a tuba!) This change levelled the playing field: every society could count on the same reliable, professional ensemble to accompany them. That’s hugely reassuring for Musical Directors and singers. The changes of venue between the Harrogate Theatre and the Savoy/Utopia Theatre I don’t think have impacted adversely. All the societies in any given year have the same performing conditions.
How do you prepare for the job of adjudicator and do you worry about the effect any negative comments might have on a cast?
My main preparation is to make sure that I’m in a good frame of mind when I enter the theatre, and that I have at least two biros for note-taking (in case one of them gives up). I’m fortunate that I know all the shows well enough not to need to revise, and many of the competing societies do a bit of advance publicity, which is always interesting to see. The most important thing is that I take my seat with an open mind, and expecting to enjoy myself. If you go in with a mindset that is looking to criticise, you are not giving the company the chance to entertain you.
I write my reports immediately after the show as I think it’s important to codify my thoughts while they are fresh. I take a lot of notes and, as writing in the dark is a challenging thing to do, I want to decipher my scrawl without any delay. This is why I sometimes don’t make it in for the first act of the evening opera!
I want to ensure that my approach is even-handed across the whole UniFest, so once all the reports are written I re-read them very carefully to ensure consistency. I try very hard to make all my remarks as positive as possible. There haven’t been many occasions when I have had to make an adverse criticism, but when I have, I have striven to do it in a way that I hope was constructive and would enable the society concerned to take it on board and benefit from it.
It’s funny how a pattern can sometimes emerge across a year’s productions. Last year, for instance, there was a spate of really strong performances in secondary roles – Fiametta, Celia, Go-To, Hebe. A couple of years ago people were particularly creative in the costume department. And so on.
Do you feel the standard of the productions in UNIFest has improved during your time as adjudicator?
They have been pretty consistent and pretty high. I’ve adjudicated close to fifty shows in six years, most of which were very good and a handful, outstanding. When you consider the rapid turnover of members in a university society as opposed to a town society, where the same people might play the same parts for thirty years, this says a lot about the general health of university societies.
Societies coming to UniFest are up against a big problem. When they do a show during the long vacation, they may not be able to call on anything like their entire membership. It’s quite common for an opera to be presented with a cast of only about twenty, or the high teens. Last year’s winner had a cast of just twelve! I love seeing the creative ways directors and MDs overcome this challenge.
How important do you think UNIFest is for the future of Gilbert & Sullivan?
It’s playing a major role, and it’s helping to raise consciousness of G&S in universities. It is held in very high esteem by the competing societies, and its awards are greatly valued – making it even more important that I get my judgements right!
Not every member of a university G&S society is a serious G&S enthusiast, a member of the Inner Brotherhood if you like. But some are, and will go on to reinvigorate “adult” societies, or even form new societies of their own. Everyone will remember for the rest of their lives the fun and the sense of achievement they got from appearing on stage. And they will have formed possibly lifelong friendships while they were doing it.
With around 7 months to go to the start of the Festival what advice could you give to the competing societies best to prepare them for their performances in Harrogate?
Give of your best. Don’t worry if little things go wrong on the day – this is live theatre. Remember the audience want you to succeed. And always remember it’s about having fun!
During the Festival there are always discussions about how Gilbert & Sullivan should be performed and whether the director should stay “traditional” without bringing in any distractions or changing the way the operas are performed. What do you think about adapting and/or updating productions as often happens with the university productions? Do you have any strong views?
I don’t have a problem, as long as the original material is respected – which in my book doesn’t necessarily mean “followed to the letter”.
For instance, with the reduced orchestrations we use in UniFest, we are not hearing exactly what Sullivan wrote, but the reorchestrations are intelligently made and, whilst they may not precisely replicate his intentions, they respect them.
If significant textual rewrites are done, or a setting changed, or a gender reversed, these things need to have been properly thought through by the creative team. They should allow us to look at something very familiar in a way that adds something to our appreciation of it. Patience is a good example. I know some people believe that it is very specifically about aestheticsism and loses something if the period is changed. But it is really about pretentiousness, and that exists in all times – as some excellent UniFest Patiences have demonstrated. We all know, or know of, a Grosvenor, a Calverley, an Angela and – especially – a Bunthorne in our own lives.
You obviously love Gilbert & Sullivan and Sullivan in particular. Can you tell us a little about your Gilbert & Sullivan journey and when you discovered your passion for the operas?
I was singing Sullivan’s hymns in my church choir from the age of eight – though I had no idea at the time who he was. When I was eleven, I persuaded my dad to take me to see Iolanthe when my school put it on jointly with the nearby girls’ High School. I enjoyed it, but thought no more about it at the time. Then, five years later, my younger brother came home from school and told me he was going to be in a thing called The Pirates of Penzance. I looked at his score and thought it might be fun to dress up as a policeman, so I volunteered. At my first rehearsal the second number we worked on was ‘When the foeman bares his steel’ and that was it – I was hooked. I got actively involved with my university G&S Society (Hull – I’m delighted they are such regular and successful contributors to the UniFest), started collecting old G&S records, then in 1979 I became Secretary of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society.
Do you have a favourite funny G&S line/quote to share with us?
My favourite bit of Gilbert is from the Sentry’s song in Iolanthe:
“When in that house MPs divide
If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too
They’ve got to leave that brain outside
And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.”
A brilliantly outrageous rhyme, and a sentiment as much to the point today as when it was written. I also love his short story, A Christian Frame of Mind, about an evangelistic bishop who succeeds in totally dividing a previously happy African community and thus brings it to a Christian frame of mind. It’s recently been republished: https://almabooks.com/product/triumph-vice-stories/ And I cherish Sullivan’s very far-sighted comment when he recorded his voice for Thomas Edison in 1888, just two days after the première of The Yeomen of the Guard:
“I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiment. Astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record for ever.”
And your favourite piece of Sullivan’s music?
That’s a really difficult one! Remember the comment attributed to Martyn Green that your favourite G&S opera is the one you have seen the most recently? Currently, my head is full of The Light of the World and Haddon Hall, both of which occupied me a lot last year. What a joy the NGSOC’s revival of Haddon Hall was – one of many things we have to thank the Festival for.
When I had the chance to present my Desert Island Discs at the Festival in 2008, the piece I chose if I could keep only one record was ‘When the foeman’. Although I didn’t realise it at the time I first sang it, it was my Eureka! moment and changed the whole direction of my life. It is full of everything that is best about Sullivan: characterisation, humanity, wonderful melody, brilliant orchestration and joy – pure joy.
You have been Secretary of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society for many years. Can you tell us about the Society and how interested individuals can join?
We’ve been going since 1977, and I’ve been Secretary since 1979. We exist to make Sullivan and all his music better known and appreciated. We’ve found that the best way to do this it to promote top class recordings of his major works on big independent record labels: Hyperion, Chandos, Dutton Epoch. They get widely reviewed – usually positively; the CDs sell well, and they are often broadcast, too. This way we reach a large audience, who can hear the music performed to a high standard, as Sullivan intended it to be. They can then make an informed decision about whether they like it or not – something that was almost impossible until we started our work.
We also publish books and a thrice-yearly Magazine (which I edit) full of news, articles, reviews, photographs and, I hope, a little bit of humour. Our members range from professional musicians and academics through amateur performers to ordinary people of all ages and backgrounds who simply enjoy the music, and we try to provide something for all of them. We have a website – www.sullivansociety.org.uk – with lots of information, news, pictures, downloadable music, Magazine archives etc.
Dutton Epoch have released the new complete recording of Sullivan’s 1873 oratorio ‘The Light of the World’, sponsored by the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society. This recording is the latest in a series of works by Sullivan to be conducted by John Andrews with the BBC Concert Orchestra. This is a fantastic CD and we would thoroughly recommend it! What was the involvement of the Society in its production and what plans have you for future recording?
Thank you for the plug! It was a long drawn out project, but we’re delighted with the finished product. Some of us felt that The Light of the World might be too great a challenge because of its perceived religiosity, a quality which doesn’t sit well with 21st-century attitudes. But Martin Yates, our Chairman, realised that LOTW is a work of drama, dealing with the humanity of Christ and the people he comes into contact with. So that’s how we approached it. We were lucky to be working with a brilliant conductor, John Andrews, and a wonderful chorus-master, Gavin Carr, both of whom embraced the idea, and a crack team of operatic soloists who understood about drama and human emotion. The reviews have been astonishing, and the recording is encouraging many people to reassess just how great a composer Sullivan is.
View the promotional DVD here: https://vimeo.com/307522423/799ff6fa57
THANK YOU STEPHEN AND WE LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING YOU IN HARROGATE IN AUGUST.
Thank you, Janet. I’m hugely looking forward to it.
UNIFEST PERFORMANCES WILL TAKE PLACE IN THE UTOPIA THEATRE, HARROGATE (NEXT DOOR TO THE ROYAL HALL) AT 2.30 PM
All tickets are £15
Stephen Turnbull will be adjudicating all the UniFest productions at this year’s Festival. The Fringe programme can be found here. He will also be giving a morning talk on Monday 8th August at 10:30 on the background to the Pirates of Penzance and the Mikado (Tickets available here). On Wednesday 14th August he will introduce us the The Gondoliers and The Yeomen of the Guard at 10:30 (Tickets available here)
Ian Bradley will introduce us to and explore Sullivan’s Light of the World, the intriguing and important choral work into which Sullivan put his musical talents and his faith on Monday 12th August at 10:30 (Tickets available here)