Norwich panto favourite Richard Gauntlett on his love of Gilbert & Sullivan

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of The Pirates of Penzance. Photo: Submitted

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of The Pirates of Penzance. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

Norwich panto writer and regular Dame Richard Gauntlett has another theatrical love, the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan. As he returns to the Theatre Royal to star in three of their most famous shows, he tells us more.

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of The Mikado. Photo: Submitted

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of The Mikado. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

The words and music of Gilbert & Sullivan remain hugely popular. While trends and tastes may change, the mix of wonderful language, satirical themes and great songs still prove popular.

On a mission to tour the works of the celebrated Victorian-era theatrical partnership, and open them up to new generations, the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company return to the region next week and amongst the cast once again will be Norwich panto legend Richard Gauntlett.

The return to Norwich Theatre Royal as part of the company's 2017 tour is the latest chapter of their story which began with the setting up of a Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton in 1994 to ensure the name and genre of their work survived following the closure of The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company which had previously won worldwide acclaim for staging their work.

Over the next four years, the festival evolved and the National Gilbert and Sullivan Company was set up. Two decades later, it is going from strength to strength and preparing to stop off with a triple-bill of their most famous works; The Mikado (Sept 14, 7.30pm), swashbuckling romp Pirates of Penzance (Sept 15, 7.30pm), and nautical comic opera HMS Pinafore (Sept 16, 2.30pm/7.30pm).


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National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of The Mikado. Photo: Submitted

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of The Mikado. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

How did you get involved with the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company?

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I got involved about 10 years ago because they needed a comic baritone. There are parts in Gilbert & Sullivan that were written a variety artist and not necessarily a singer. They knew that I had done one of the parts before, so I got involved and I've been with them ever since. Every summer I rejoin them and play the parts in each opera that were written for a non-singer.

Did you have a long standing love of Gilbert & Sullivan?

Yes I was brought up with them. My father was a massive fan and did all the operas as an amateur singer and we always used to go and see the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company [a professional light opera company that staged Gilbert & Sullivan's operas] who had been performing right from the beginning, from the Gilbert & Sullivan days.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2L_wW06bBhg

What was it that appeals to you about their operas?

They are forerunner of English musical. They are some of the first book, musical and operettas that were ever written. They are all satirical of the day as well, talking about parliament and Kings and Queens, and society in general, the rich people versus the poor people. Also Gilbert was fantastic in that he mixed in a bit of magic as well with fairies and things like that. They are classic tales, told in a very timeless way.

On this tour you will be performing perhaps their most three works…

Richard Gauntlett (right) in National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of HMS Pinafore. P

Richard Gauntlett (right) in National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of HMS Pinafore. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

We are probably doing the three most popular with HMS Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. These are pieces that have been done again and again over the years and been re-worked. I know that there was a very famous Broadway musical based on Pirates of Penzance that didn't change much at all. The Mikado has been done my pretty much everyone, including by Ken Russell and people like that. But they remain very popular and people who come to see them are always amazed by just how many tunes they recognise and didn't know came from The Mikado.

Is it fun to switch between roles?

You certainly don't get bored as we are essentially doing three different productions in rep. It's often a case of walking into the dressing room, seeing which costume has been put out and on you go. It's very exciting to be involved with, particularly in the style that we are doing them, with full orchestra and chorus and fantastic costumes and sets. They are very rarely done in this form. They are traditional but with a bit of modern jazz creeping in and, of course, I cannot help adding some fun bits in particularly when we are in Norwich. Its great fun and we will have a laugh.

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of HMS Pinafore. Photo: Submitted

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of HMS Pinafore. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

Tell us about the characters you are playing…

I'll be playing Major General Stanley in Pirates of Penzance, Ko-Ko in The Mikado and The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore who is another old git. He is head of the navy but he has never actually been to sea. He is actually based on a real person, William Henry Smith of the newsagent fame, who actually was leader of the navy [he rose to position of First Lord of the Admiralty] despite having never having set sail. So again it is satire of the day really.

Gilbert & Sullivan Opera has many long-standing fans but are you also trying to appeal to younger audiences?

That is the idea. We're really the first company to tour repertory Gilbert & Sullivan productions since the D'Oyly Carte's demise. It's about pleasing the old fans but trying to get new fans too. We try to encourage younger people to come because if they do they'll actually find that they are entertained. I know that Gilbert & Sullivan sounds quite old fashioned but it has much to say to our times as well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25Bwvp3K7yw

People in our region will know you best from writing and starring in the Norwich Theatre Royal panto. Is there a crossover between pantomime and Gilbert & Sullivan?

Oh definitely. There are huge elements of pantomime in it but those come from variety. Both panto and comic operetta came from variety and music hall and roles in both were always carried out by variety performers. If people come to see us they will definitely see elements of my panto dame personas on stage. It's me; I can't help it. People who love panto will love this.

You will be back again this year writing and starring as the Dame in Sleeping Beauty. How is it progressing?

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of The Pirates of Penzance. Photo: Submitted

National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company production of The Pirates of Penzance. Photo: Submitted - Credit: Archant

It's all progressing really well. I'll be up all next week and we'll be having production meetings and sorting out this year's special effects. I can't wait.

• The National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company are at Norwich Theatre Royal from September 14-16, £35-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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