For an evening of vocal hilarity, a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera is hard to beat. Just reading plot summaries of the Victorian Englishmen’s collaborations can induce snorts of laughter. In The Pirates of Penzance (1879), for instance, the main love interest, Frederic, discovers he has been apprenticed to a group of genial pirates for his first 21 years because his nursemaid, Ruth, was hard of hearing. When Frederic’s father issued instructions for the boy’s career, Ruth admits, she misheard ship’s “pilot” as “pirate.”
Actually, it’s not very funny until you hear those absurd plot twists by Gilbert sung in verse to Sullivan’s irresistibly hummable tunes. And you can do just that when Bill Metcalfe’s Oriana Singers perform a concert version of Pirates as the second of five concerts in Mel Kaplan’s Vermont Summer Music Festival this year.
The collaboration between Metcalfe and Kaplan has long outlasted that of Gilbert and Sullivan, who broke with each other after a mere two decades. Seven Days recently met up with these two fixtures of Vermont’s classical music scene at Kaplan’s third-floor office on College Street, where the musician — Kaplan plays oboe — runs his business representing other musicians.
“We met in 1972,” Kaplan recalls — the year he founded the now-defunct Vermont Mozart Festival. “Bill came to me at my Charlotte farmhouse and said, ‘Can we do something during the summers?’” Kaplan was playing in the still-vibrant New York Chamber Soloists orchestra he founded in 1957 — yes, 56 years ago — and Metcalfe, a historian who taught at the University of Vermont, had just been made head of the music department.
Metcalfe says he has a different memory of the birth of the Mozart Festival, which would last for 37 years. “It was Mel’s idea,” he insists, shaking his head. “I followed up by going to your barn.”
Despite such disagreements, the relationship has endured 41 years. Metcalfe conducted numerous Mozart Fest performances of all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular operettas — including three renditions of this summer’s version of Pirates — as well as choral repertoire staples. His wife, Elizabeth Metcalfe, who plays harpsichord and piano, is also a member of the New York Chamber Soloists.
A more recent collaboration in which Kaplan engaged didn’t take as well. After the Mozart Fest failed through mismanagement of funds and rained-out concerts, Kaplan started the Vermont Summer Music Festival last year as a smaller-scale, indoor replacement. At the time, Michael Dabroski, violinist and founder of the chamber group Burlington Ensemble, was launching his Summer Serenades series. The two agreed to coordinate scheduling and jointly advertise their festivals, as well as a planned cycle of six concerts over two years of all of Beethoven’s string quartets.
That collaboration has not lasted; the two men cite different reasons. Kaplan says he will continue the Beethoven Cycle despite significant losses.
When asked how it’s possible to persist in offering quality programming without at least breaking even, Kaplan credits “a few generous individuals” in the area, while Metcalfe jokes, “We’ll all end up in debtors’ prison.”
Fortunately for Vermont audiences, Metcalfe and Kaplan carry on. In addition to performing Pirates next Monday, the Oriana Singers will close the Vermont Summer Music Fest’s final concert with Mozart’s Requiem in D minor. The concerts allow Metcalfe to present the meticulously honed performances — particularly of those quirky Englishmen — for which he and his chorus are known.
Metcalfe’s fondness for their creations dates to his childhood.
“My family was not exactly Gilbert-and-Sullivan-mad,” he says, chuckling, but they nearly qualified — especially his English-born father and Toronto-born mother. “If they got the family together, after they’d eaten, they would repair to the basement and start singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs.”
Kaplan and Metcalfe are excited about the festival’s other events, as well. Kaplan extols the fourth concert’s New Orford String Quartet, whose violinists occupy the first chairs in the Montréal and Toronto symphonies; the Canadian quartet will play works by Beethoven, Brahms and Québecois composer Jacques Hétu.
Metcalfe plugs the opening concert, titled “Viva Vivaldi.” “You think you know The Four Seasons; then suddenly [guest violinist Emily Popham Gillins] plays 10 bars of it, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard.”
For pure levity, though, Pirates will carry the festival.
Oriana Singers perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Pirates of Penzance" on Monday, July 15, 7:30 p.m., at the McCarthy Arts Center, St. Michael’s College in Colchester. $25. flynntix.org
The Vermont Summer Music Festival presents five concerts from Sunday, July 14, through Sunday, July 21, in various venues around Chittenden County. $25 for individual concerts, or $105 for festival pass. vermontsummermusicfestival.com