Gilbert & Sullivan Austin appeals to all ages with Gothic ghost story

With more than 40 years of history behind it, Gilbert & Sullivan Austin is one of Austin’s long-running performing groups. This summer the company aims to show it’s still going strong with “Ruddigore: or, the Witch’s Curse,” a supernatural opera that was the 10th collaboration by Victorian-era theatrical partners W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

We spoke with Gilbert & Sullivan Austin’s artistic director, Ralph MacPhail Jr. — who has directed for the company for the past 17 years — to learn more about the show and about keeping these classic comic operas fresh for today’s audiences. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Performing arts groups so often struggle in Austin. How are you able to succeed in such a competitive environment?

Gilbert & Sullivan Austin is blessed with sturdy theatrical works that have delighted audiences for over a century, and we have been able to expand our audience well beyond the G&S fan base. I think that the reasons are many, including a stronger talent pool auditioning for our company, leading to stronger productions; subtitling all performances to help with intelligibility — especially with Gilbert’s renowned patter sections; children’s matinees that have brought families to our shows; and we’ve managed to keep our ticket prices low for all.

Does focusing specifically on one body of work help G&S Austin stand out as a performance group? Does it ever feel like a limitation?

I think we do stand out because of our mission to present traditional productions of these timeless works — and it never feels like a limitation to me, but then I live and breathe Savoy opera!

There are 14 Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas, and of those the standard repertory is the 13 for which the music survives. We present one of “the big three” (“H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado”) every third year, in rotation. They always sell well. That leaves room for the other shows to be performed in between. Since we present but one production per year, we don’t cycle through the material quickly; we last produced “Ruddigore” in 2007. We have found in recent years that our audiences have been building for the lesser-known operas, and I like to think that’s because our audience is trusting us and willing to take a chance on a G&S show with which they are not familiar.

For the past five years, we have also been offering midseason productions with limited runs, typically long one-act comic operas by Gilbert & Sullivan or Sullivan working with other librettists. And our Musicales, typically themed concerts, are offered to the public free of charge.

What should audiences know about “Ruddigore”?

It was written following the success of “The Mikado” when both men were at the height of their powers. Call it a ghost story combined with Gothic romance, all told with Gilbert’s irresistible topsy-turvy humor and Sullivan’s wonderful music. It’s been one of my favorites since I saw the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company present it at the National Theatre in Washington in 1966.

Gilbert & Sullivan operas are G-rated works in an R-rated world. They’re suitable for all ages and can be enjoyed by all ages. Their stories and satirical thrust are timeless. The tunes are irresistible.

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