Milborne Port Opera - a brief history
1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994 | 1995 |1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999
2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009
2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017
About the company
In 1989 the residents of Milborne Port were asked to produce an entertainment at the recently opened new Village Hall in aid of charity. Several items were suggested but eventually it was decided to put on a semi-staged production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury. Appropriately Trial by Jury is the first major work on which Arthur Sullivan, then 33 years of age and W.S.Gilbert, 6 years his senior, collaborated. They had worked together in 1871 on Thespis or the Gods Grow Old for which we have the libretto but virtually no original music so Trial by Jury is, their first joint effort that we can appreciate. Described as a Dramatic Cantata it opened at the Royalty Theatre on Lady Day 1875 and contains all the elements of the later collaborations but is much more succinct, running for only 45 minutes in one Act without spoken dialogue. There is the gentle mocking of Institutions, in this case Gilbert's profession, the law, the central chorus, which had, until then, been used as wallpaper by most operatic writers and the juxtaposition of rollicking patter song and tender romantic aria.
Trial by Jury was duly performed in the Hall just before Easter 1990 and was such a success that those who took part decided to form a Group to continue the following year. There was no intention to restrict the Group to the works of Gilbert & Sullivan. However the works that came from that great partnership are so suited to amateur societies that it was almost inevitable that most of the operas we have staged since have been by Gilbert & Sullivan.
1991 saw a production of HMS Pinafore, G&S's third collaboration and typical in character and style of all their subsequent work. You have the patter song of Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, which pokes fun at the way in which a politician, who has never been to sea can be the Head of the Navy whilst Josephine has some dramatic coloratura singing which demonstrates the contrasting styles of music that Sullivan was able to produce throughout the Savoy Operas The whole is interspersed with wonderful choruses and Gilbert's witty dialogue.
At this point there was no stage in the Village Hall and the work was performed on the flat floor in front of the kitchen on the north side of the Hall. The scenery consisted of some well placed props but no backdrop and the costumes were put together by members of the cast so the cost was minimal and well covered by the sale of tickets to an appreciative audience.
Iolanthe in 1992 was again semi staged using our own costumes. By now the Group was well established and being ably led by the husband and wife team of Peter and Linda Mumford. Peter who worked for Plessey in Templecombe had taken up the post of musical director and conductor whilst Linda, a school teacher, as well as playing the demanding role of Fairy Queen, directed the action. Hugh Griffiths, another Plessey employee was persuaded to provide piano accompaniment, a task he ably undertook until 2003 when he decided to take a rest. The peerless David MacTier joined the group and sang many bass-baritone roles until he retired from the stage in 2003. Iolanthe is my favourite Gilbert & Sullivan opera and I have been fortunate enough to direct it for the Group both in 1999 and 2013. It has the most wonderful Act I Finale, for me the greatest ever written by anybody: 14 different melodies, combined with wonderfully witty words, build in quick succession to create a tension that is only relieved by the ridiculous but loveable march with the fairies singing a different set of words to the peers, typical of the hallmark double chorus that appears in many of the operas.
1993 saw a change of direction, not in the style of opera but in the position of the stage. For the first time a portable stage was borrowed from Sherborne Prep School and erected on the west wall of the Hall. For the first time the Group used a painted backdrop supplied as it has been ever since, by our talented designer Trevor John who holds down a day job in something to do with computers and who was also working, as many of the cast at the time, for Plessey. This backdrop consisted of 5 8x4 sheets of hardboard, painted on both sides which were simply turned around in the interval to give the Second Act scene. It was such a successful idea that we still use these flats and they reappear, much patched and repaired, each year. The chosen opera was the Pirates of Penzance which we resurrected ten years later. Pirates saw the arrival of Andrew Armstrong, in those days a Welsh tenor who has now blossomed into a majestic baritone and graced most of our productions since.
In 1994 we were asked by the Village Hall Committee to put on another fund raiser in the summer, so following our Spring production of Patience, staged in much the same way as Pirates the year before, we again put on Trial by Jury together with a Trilogy of Alan Ayckbourn plays. The staging was minimal and the Direction was by a different team trying, as far as possible to use cast members who had not played principal roles in Patience.
Moving on to 1995 and the Gondoliers, we started to get more adventurous with our staging, using blocks to raise areas of the stage and having a moving Gondola to bring the Ducal party ashore and a similarly moving ship to transport the putative Kings to Barataria.
In 1996 I took the plunge and agreed to direct the Mikado, the most popular of Gilbert & Sullivan's operas. During 1995 we heard that the Old Digby Hall in Sherborne was being refurbished and they agreed that we could remove their old stage at no cost to us provided it was done in time for the builders to start work on the renovation. We spent many hours sawing and hammering and took away 3 large sections and several smaller sections of stage which we put to good use, in conjunction with our borrowed stage from the Prep School, to more or less double the area we had previously and introduce several changes of level. For the first time we built flats from 3 x 1 timber and cardboard supplied generously free by South West packaging in Gillingham and we had a truly recognisable theatre stage with 3 entrances either side accessed by steps which also came from the Digby Hall and which we still use. The set was beautifully painted by Trevor John and many costumes were borrowed from Shaftesbury Arts Centre who had staged the Mikado a couple of years before. We borrowed lights from various sources, manned from the start until 2005 by Tony Thorp, husband of one of our original performers, and achieved a resounding success.
1997 saw a return to direction by Linda and Peter Mumford, this time of Ruddigore. The stage from the Digby Hall gave us 3 levels and provided one of the most dramatic moments of all G&S's when the portraits of the ancestors come to life in the Second Act. Trevor and his daughter Ruth who has now completed her studies as a designer painted portraits of 3 cast members on one side of 3 revolving flats. When the moment of transformation came the Hall was blacked out, (we had previously blocked all the windows with cardboard), a strobe was flashed into the audience, temporarily blinding them to what was happening on stage, and the 3 actors stepped through the revolve which turned to show only the background of the portrait with the actors standing in front of it. The lights came up and, to a satisfyingly audible gasp from the audience, the show went on. For the first time we hired costumes from Bath Theatrical Costumiers and have done so many times since.
One of the more extraordinary aspects of Milborne Port Opera is that until 2001 there was no fixed stage. We had to build the complete set, paint it, perform the opera and remove the set entirely between 1pm on Easter Sunday and midnight the following Saturday, ready for the Christian Fellowship to worship the following day. This is a huge undertaking and demands absolute commitment by half a dozen or so people, assisted by those who still have to do a normal days work.
By now we had a very well established team and we decided in 1998 to put on the most difficult and operatic of all G&S's, The Yeomen of the Guard. It was a difficult production and it remains my least favourite G&S's opera even though it has some fine tunes and moments of real drama.
Nevertheless there was considerable enthusiasm to continue and the following year 1999 Peter and Linda Mumford took a well earned rest and Geoff Allan, who had previously played several leading roles, took over the baton and I resumed Direction of a return to Iolanthe. We now had a stage that could provide special effects and incorporated a trap door in the rear section through which Iolanthe rose by means of a series of weights and pulleys (again from the Digby Hall). It was most effective in giving the impression that she was rising from the bottom of a stream but back stage rumbled and squeaked so much that we were sure the drama would be ruined: however from the audience the sound was minimal and the show was much enjoyed. I think I must be one of the most fortunate Directors. Iolanthe requires 2 leading ladies who look to be 17 years old. To play the part of Phyllis we had 18 year old Jessie Copper, daughter of one of our original performers. She had never before played a leading role but her voice and acting ability developed so well during rehearsals that she became the star of the show. To play Iolanthe we had Vikki Pye, then about 23, but who still looks about 17. Not many amateur companies can be so blessed. We also found a new patter man, John Forrest, who had been in the chorus of the Yeoman of the Guard but brought his considerable acting talent to the part of the Lord Chancellor and last took to the stage in 2011. He remains an active and generous Patron of MPO.
In 2000 which is the centenary of Sullivan's death I was again entrusted with the Direction and we decided to stage the Sorcerer. As this is a short opera, being the 2nd collaboration of Gilbert & Sullivan we decided to incorporate the Zoo which was a short piece written in 1875 by Sullivan with words by Rowe. The story of the Sorcerer is based around a landed family, the Pointdextres, and happens in the grounds of their house. The story of the Zoo involves a romance between a noble Lord, disguised as a commoner who tries to win the hand of the lady in charge of the refreshment stall at London Zoo. I took this plot and welded the Zoo onto the Sorcerer as a 3rd Act, with a poetic link composed by Linda Mumford and myself, which transposed the action to a 1960's Safari Park.
The rest followed naturally, with little adaptation. Geoff Allan who conducted the Sorcerer while Peter Mumford was in the chorus, took a leading role in the Zoo while Peter Mumford took over the baton. Several Sorcerer chorus members took the leading roles in the Zoo whilst the Sorcerer principals joined the chorus dressed in all sorts of 60's fashion.
During rehearsals I heard that South Somerset District Council had a set of stage lights that they would hire to Groups such as ourselves for a very modest fee and this improved the lighting enormously, although, ironically, much of the action of the Sorcerer takes place at night. We continued to hire these until we acquired our own LED lanterns and they were a Godsend.
We had long debated whether or not we were only a Gilbert & Sullivan Society and in 2001 we decided, under the joint Direction of Sue Wales and Naomi Thorp, who had been performers right from the start, and with Peter Mumford back as Musical Director to make Pink Champagne our next production. This is an adaptation of Strauss's Die Fledermaus suitable for amateur performers. During the previous year the Village Hall had been refurbished and extended with Lottery funding to provide a fixed stage at the opposite end of the Hall to where we had been accustomed to perform. We extended the stage area using our venerable stage sections from the Digby Hall and copious amounts of scaffolding and were, at last, able to build a set enclosed by a proscenium arch ensuring that the backstage areas were completely out of audience view. The set incorporated some ingenious folding flats that came across the full width of the acting area to provide a set within a set, again beautifully painted by Trevor John. It was the first appearance of Olwen Kieser, who had previously performed with distinction in the Shaftesbury Light Opera Group, who played the part of Rosalinda. Her powerful voice and excellent acting ability enhanced our performances until 2005 when she left the area.
In 2002 Candice Marcus who had been co-director in the second performance of Trial by Jury stood down as a performer to direct Princess Ida, again under the baton of Geoff Allan who, for the first time in our history introduced an orchestra to take the pressure off Hugh Griffiths who had previously provided only piano accompaniment. Princess Ida is an oddity in the G&S genre. It is, unusually, based upon another work Tennyson's epic poem, The Princess and Gilbert kept the dialogue as blank verse. It also stretches to 3 Acts, unique in G&S.
For some years we had been aware that the audience, who were seated on chairs on the flat floor of the Hall, had an obstructed view of the stage and we decided to investigate the provision of tiered seating. After looking at all the possibilities we purchased a quantity of stage sections which can be arranged at varying heights so that the audience now has a less obstructed view of proceedings. We were also able to finally consign our Digby Hall stage sections to the scrap heap, using some of the new stage sections to thrust the stage into the Hall.
In 2003 Candice Marcus again agreed to Direct and we returned to The Pirates of Penzance, a great favourite with performers and audience alike. With our new stage and seating set-up, we were able to produce a sparkling performance, to full houses, under the baton of Geoff Allan who also wrote and adapted some new music to incorporate some of the numbers that were originally cut by Gilbert & Sullivan after the initial run in 1879.
2004 saw us depart again from Gilbert & Sullivan to stage The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar. I returned to direct but, for the first time, employed Naomi Booth (also our web-mistress and responsible for this wonderful website) as choreographer and Assistant Director. Her imaginative dances were enthusiastically performed by an excellent cast, beautifully costumed by Bath Theatrical Costumiers. A newcomer to the Group, John Turner, acted as Musical Director and, with the aid of a 12 piece orchestra, produced a beautiful sound.
In 2005 the Group once again asked me to produce a show and with Peter Mumford returning as Musical Director and a slightly expanded orchestra, we decided to attempt one of the least known G&S operas, The Grand Duke. Naomi Booth produced some wonderful stage direction and she and Trevor John painted a magical set. Although the audiences were somewhat thinner than for the better known operas it was both a critical and a financial success and means that now only Utopia Ltd from the G&S repertoire remains unstaged by MPO.
After 3 years of Directing and singing in the chorus I had a hankering to be back on stage singing a principal part and handed the Producer's role to Geoff Allan. Caroline D'Cruz, who acted as rehearsal accompanist and played in the orchestra for the Grand Duke, agreed to direct the music and Naomi Booth and Trevor John once again, brought their manifold talents to the stage and set. The Gondoliers 2006 was very different show from the one we did in front of minimal scenery and lights in 1995. A 14 piece orchestra and a proper stage and lights allowed Geoff to produce a wonderful spectacle and the audiences were bigger than ever allowing us to put a bit of money in the bank to ensure that we could afford our next, highly speculative, project. The Gondoliers is notable also for being the only MPO production that has resulted in a real wedding. Katharine Boyd and Lloyd Davies who have both since performed several starring roles met in rehearsal and married in 2007.
When, in 2004, I put forward the proposal that we perform The Grand Duke, I little thought that it would spawn an entirely new work by a tyro composer. Neil Edwards, who had joined MPO the previous year was one of the cast and, like many others before him, including the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, felt that The Grand Duke lacked quality to the extent that he would try to do better with a work of his own. From October 2004 I, and other members of the company, started receiving emails relating to an entirely new work. To start with the music was pedestrian but the libretto showed considerable promise; not entirely surprising given that Neil has no formal musical training but a well developed sense of humour. Because we were all working hard to ensure that the Grand Duke was a success nothing much happened until the middle of 2005, when Neil pieced together the words and music, demonstrating a number of extremely catchy tunes coupled with witty words which showed great promise. Anxious to see the effect of the dialogue on a younger generation I showed it to my son who fell about laughing.
In May 2006 the full company took the democratic decision that we would perform The Lost Continent, in 2007 if it was ready, or in 2008 if more time was needed. By July real progress had been made with Neil taking a crash course in music theory from Caroline D'Cruz, which resulted in more harmonious and easier to sing music. We put this to the test with a sing-through of what was available and the production team decided that The Lost Continent was far enough advanced to perform in 2007. The Show was staged to much critical acclaim in April 2006 and we all hope that it will not be the only time that it is performed. It is full of good original tunes and very amusing dialogue and if there are any societies who would like a break from Gilbert & Sullivan but still enjoy the part singing that is generally lacking in modern musicals, details can be obtained from firstname.lastname@example.org
So having taken a year off from our staple fare we decided to return to Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore for performance in March 2008. Neil Edwards took over the Direction, ably assisted, once again by Naomi Booth and I took on the role of Producer with Musical Director Caroline D'Cruz mustering an excellent sound from a small but talented orchestra. Because Easter fell so early we found ourselves short of rehearsal time but managed to put together a creditable set of performances. We used the same device to revivify the portraits as we had used in our first production at the other end of the Hall and it was, once again, most effective.
2009 saw a return to The Mikado, Produced and Directed by Geoff Allan with assistance from the ever-reliable Naomi Booth and, for the first time some choreography by Allison Edwards who took a break from performing on stage to playing the oboe in the orchestra. Musical Direction was once again in the hands of Caroline D'Cruz with an able orchestra. The set was stunningly Japanese, influenced by paintings and artifacts from the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and, for the 19th year, realized by Trevor John and his able team. We were extremely fortunate to find Martin Lancaster, an experienced lighting director, living in Milborne Port who has brought our lighting smack up to date with LED lanterns controlled by computer as well as ingeniously rigging more luminaries in front of the thrust stage. The show incorporated martial arts movement to great effect and the overture was accompanied by a demonstration of karate by a nearby club. It may sound strange in this, ironically, very English opera but it worked and was appreciated by large audiences. We received a NODA award for our efforts.
2010 saw another world premiere: Murder at Shakerley House again devised by Neil Edwards who produced the Lost Continent in 2006. This time he took the music of composers who were extremely successful in their day but who have become somewhat forgotten, and inter-wove his own story and words. The music is mainly by Lionel Monckton but there are snippets of other composers of the period before the Great War and several original pieces by Neil himself. A 12 piece orchestra, conducted from the keyboard by Caroline D'Cruz, produced a well-balanced sound for a tuneful comedy which delighted audiences and sent them home humming half-familiar tunes. As with the Lost Continent, if there are any societies who would like a break from Gilbert & Sullivan but still enjoy the part singing that is generally lacking in modern musicals, details can be obtained from email@example.com.
2011 was a year which, for the first time, there was significant disagreement, amongst members, as to what show would be staged. After a certain amount of acrimony it was decided to re-stage HMS Pinafore, last performed 20 years previously. Candice Marcus with the very able assistance of Stage Director Naomi Booth and a stunning set designed by Trevor John, which won the David Beach award from the Somerset Fellowship of Drama, produced a wonderfully colourful and patriotic spectacle which coincided on Friday 29th April with the Royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. We gained a new patter-man in the ample shape of Mark Blackham and despite leading lady Jessie Copper sustaining an eye injury and, at the same time, losing her voice, with understudy Ruth Shipley singing from the wings, and Fred McLoughlin having to drop out of his role as Dick Deadeye on Saturday night, in the end it was a great success and strained friendships were eased.
With a reasonable bank balance we decided in 2012 on another speculative venture. Jessie Copper, who first appeared in the MPO chorus in Ruddigore in 1997 and went on to her first of several starring roles as Phyllis in Iolanthe in 1999, put forward a proposal to Produce Follow that Girl by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds. This was a shot in the dark. The show ran in the West End for a respectable 211 performances in 1960, introducing a then unknown Susan Hampshire as the heroine Victoria. Since then it has not been revived professionally and seldom played by amateurs. This meant we had no yardsticks by which to measure our Production, in many ways a good thing. Jessie and Trevor between them devised and realized a complex set with a dozen different scenes made possible on our small stage with no fly gallery, with the use of a full width stage curtain and roller cloths and some very energetic scene shifters. One of the most successful effects was Victoria's jump from Battersea Bridge, formed by cast members and fairy lights, to be borne away on her umbrella, assisted by 2 burly stage hands. The music was once again in the capable hands of Caroline D'Cruz with a 12 piece band. Somerset Fellowship of Drama nominated us for 3 awards but we were not successful in any category.
2013 saw a return to Iolanthe. I agreed to Produce and Direct the show with Trevor and Naomi and, wanting a different slant on the one I had used in 1999 decided to introduce the inside of the Chamber of the House of Lords so that we could demonstrate the antagonism between the fairies and the peers more clearly. This was a huge undertaking realized, for the first time at MPO, by a gauze which transformed the opening pastoral scene to the Peers' Chamber. We had no way to know if this would work until we set up the stage on Good Friday and Easter Saturday: in the event we found that the gauze was too short and we had great difficulty in achieving the desired effect. After heroic work by Annie Bailward to lengthen the gauze and the sudden realization that we could use the fixed stage curtains in the Hall for the first time since the stage was built in 2001, were we able, on the morning of the Dress Rehearsal to achieve something close to the desired effect. I'm not sure that we ever quite succeeded but it came close enough in the four performances to please our audience. Given that 2 of our principals had to drop out through injury, this was quite the most difficult show to bring to performance in which I have been involved but, helped by colourful costumes made especially for the production by Glad Rags of Semley, we were rewarded by an overwhelmingly positive reaction from our audiences. A 10 piece orchestra was conducted by MPO founder member, Peter Mumford who had presided over the music in the 1992 production and played the part of a Peer in the 1999 production. Incidentally only 5 of the original founder members of MPO in 1990 are now active in the Society.
In March 2014 we were well rewarded for our production of Iolanthe by 3 nominations for David Beach awards from the Somerset Fellowship of Drama, winning the categories of Best Chorus and the Challenge Trophy for the way in which we transform the Village Hall into a theatre. By then we were close to performing the only extant G&S operetta which we had not staged, Utopia Ltd. Geoff Allan returned as Producer and much of the libretto and some of the music was re-written by Geoff, Linda Mumford and Neil Edwards to tidy up loose ends and plot shortcomings. Caroline D'Cruz once again led an excellent and now well-established 12 piece orchestra and the colourful sets, based upon South Sea islands, were once again designed and painted by Trevor John and Naomi Booth. Richard Gaunt, who first appeared in Mikado in 2009 and had been lurking, mainly, at the back of the chorus since, stepped up to the demanding role of King Paramount, whilst Alison Stevens, who had joined MPO as a chorus member for Iolanthe, took on the lead role of Princess Zara, and her strong soprano voice, blending well with long-time member James Craw as her love interest, was much enjoyed by appreciative audiences from 23rd-26th April 2014.
Neil Edwards had, once again, been busy writing a new work which was scrutinized by the Company at workshops in 2014 and it was agreed that we would stage this in 2015. The world premiere of Spring Fate or The Joys of Spying, with music by Ivan Carryll, scored and adapted by Neil Edwards, was performed from 8th to 11th April 2015. Neil's arcane plot was enhanced by witty words and melodious music and he was awarded the David Beach Challenge Trophy for his outstanding achievement.
2016. A very welcome return by Linda Mumford, recently retired from teaching, to direct a re-run of The Sorcerer, last staged at the other end of the Hall in 2000, resulted in a highly imaginative and colourful production that brought the action forward to Easter 1958. This was the first year that we used an on-line booking facility provided by The Little Box Office and it was a resounding success: the show was sold out on three of the four nights with 75% sold on Wednesday. This was helped by heavy publicity on social media and some very clever pre-production video trails by Richard Gaunt which were shared widely on Facebook and Twitter and published on Youtube. As a result the show showed a significant financial surplus for the first time for several years and we were able to make several charitable donations. Candice Marcus, who last directed HMS Pinafore in 2011, put her name forward to direct MPO in 2017. Two possibilities were mooted, Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach, a musical romp with similarities to the works of G&S, or Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. Members of the Company were asked to comment upon the choices before the decision was taken to stage Into the Woods in April 2017. Although the show has now become a staple of amateur music theatre, this marks a huge change in the style of MPO. Gone are the large chorus numbers and familiar melodies: in their place are huge production challenges that will be equally enjoyable to surmount and there will, I am sure, be plenty of Sondheim fans to fill the seats, as well as some new performers.
Milborne Port Opera remains strictly amateur in spirit but has now become highly professional in delivery by talented actors, singers and producers, aged between 17 and 70. MPO is run on strictly democratic lines: we elect a Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer at an Annual General Meeting shortly after the annual show, and there is a small Board of Management. The Chairman normally sounds out potential Producers who are invited to make a presentation to the AGM of what show they would like to stage the following spring. In the unusual event that there is more than one candidate those present are invited to vote on their preference and the successful Producer puts together a management team to ensure that everything happens on time. It then falls to the Producer and his or her chosen Musical Director to audition and cast the show which is done after some initial sing-throughs in early September. All rehearsals now take place in the Village School Hall between 8 and 10pm every Thursday until the date of the show, with a short break over Christmas.
We actively encourage young people to take part, nowadays because of legislation surrounding school-age children on stage, from the age of 16 but we have had younger performers and backstage workers. Many of these have been children of cast members but we have been successful in attracting others from local schools. Inevitably, given our location, many of our young recruits move away to university and jobs further afield but some return and re-join. It is certain that without such new blood the Society will, eventually, fail, so we continue to search for young members. At the same time, are happy to welcome anybody, of any age, who can sing in tune and show a rudimentary acting ability, whether or not they have previously been on stage or can read music. It is easy to teach people who are enthusiastic and some of our best performers still have difficulty in reading a score!
Shows are financed from year to year by receipts from the audience and after a small reserve is set aside any profits go to charity. Sadly the little nest egg that was supplied by the demutualization of Alliance and Leicester Building Society largely disappeared with the problems experienced by the banks in 2008 but by prudent management and not a little luck, we have made a profit in most years and with the sad deaths over the years of three of our performers, cancer and leukaemia charities are high on our list of beneficiaries.
We are deeply indebted to the Committee of management of Milborne Port Village Hall and the residents of Milborne Port, various members of which give up their weekly activity, for allowing us the use of the Village Hall for one week each year. Without their support and understanding we would not be able to continue to bring music, fun and laughter to our audiences.