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Beacon Blog: A once and future Pinafore

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2010 - Opera Theatre of St. Louis was barely five years old when I made my supernumerarical debut on its stage in 1981. I was costumed entirely in black, the better to be invisible, in an exotically wonderful opera called "An Actor's Revenge." Minoru Miki, a distinguished contemporary Japanese composer, wrote the opera with a libretto by my celebrated friend, the late Colin Graham, O.B.E.

The opera was so wonderfully exotic that many of us in the cast thought it would lay an exotically monumental egg, and that, accompanied by the plucked-string sounds of the koto, the show would send audience members pushing and shoving to escape the opera house at intermission and stampede in Western fashion on home.

Lo and behold: Once again the sophistication and openness to the new of St. Louisans were dramatically and quite unfairly underestimated by us naysayers. The audiences were transfixed by "An Actor's Revenge," and, as then-general director Richard Gaddes (who'd had the moxie and foresight to bring the show to the Loretto-Hilton stage) said to anyone who came close to him, "My dear. We have a hit on our hands."

Being back stage, hanging out with singers and orchestra musicians and stage hands and box office ladies and the then tiny Opera Theatre staff, served to inspire in me a desire for more bright lights than performing in "Actor's Revenge" afforded. So, without burning too terribly many bridges, I quit my job at the afternoon paper and headed southwest from 12th Street to Webster Groves. My tenure with the company was brief -- I lasted only a year -- but besides being a romp it was a learning time for me, a moment in which I was able to develop skills I have put to good use since.

I was anointed development director of Opera Theatre by Gaddes, why I do not know. When I joined the staff, I had a rather serious development-department disability, that is, a paralyzing inability to ask anyone for any money at all. Eventually I learned. Gaddes, who is one of the champion fundraisers of the entire history of money, passed on this wisdom: "If you ask, and someone says 'No' to you," he told me, "you will not die. You go on, and after a decent interval you can always go back and ask for more."

Nevertheless, during that success-free mendicant phase, I found other things to do while working for Gaddes. One of the very best of them was to help produce Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore" at Washington University's Edison Theatre. I was sidekick to Mark Tiarks, who was the company's artistic administrator in those days. Susan Schmidt Whiddington, who lives in London now, was hired to do PR. Watched closely by Gaddes, we were a great team, if I say so myself.

And we had such fun. The cast was brilliant, peopled with marvelous young singers, including my 12-year-old son, James, for whom Graham created the role of Midshipmite.

The show went up on an icy evening at Christmastime, 1981, and in spite of the weather, the house filled up, and that condition prevailed through the run of the production. We had yet another hit on our hands.

There is a huge contingent of Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados all over the world, and a particularly strong chapter is based in St. Louis. Many, many, many of its membership turned out, along with "their sisters and their cousins, whom they reckon up by dozens, and their aunts" as one particularly rousing chorus goes in "Pinafore."

A big part of the magic of working for youthful, ambitious organizations such as Opera Theatre and the Beacon is the opportunity to try on many hats, including the bicorn of the Monarch of the Sea, and to drink that stimulating liquor called Risk. Now -- in a development office spin of Dame Fortune's wheel -- we have summoned Pinafore out of dry dock, and are at this moment working on our own production of a concert version of Pinafore, setting sail at the Sheldon Concert Hall at 7 p.m. on Jan. 1, New Years Day, 2011. The show is to be preceded by a festive reception in the Sheldon galleries, and is to be followed by a gala dinner. 

The fundamental idea, sad to say and sorry, is not artistic, but to raise money for the Beacon. Arching over that is the opportunity to do something audacious, to bring the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan to you with a cast of artists the likes of which the musical world has never seen before. For me, it is a chance to ring the curtain up again on a beloved operetta and to present it in a hall that ranks as one of the most acoustically perfect in the world. So in addition to this show being something no one has ever seen before, it is to be a Pinafore like no one has ever heard before, Knock On Wood.

We hope you'll come out to drink a toast and to join us in the concert hall for our production. My artistic and show-biz mentor Richard Gaddes is coming in for the occasion to help us to make certain we have another hit on our hands. If you cannot join him and us, would you please hum a few bars of Sir Arthur Sullivan's captivating music for us, and say "hip, hip hooray" to cheer on our "Pinafore" as she sets sail?

When the time comes for us to say happy new year to you, we must all hope with all our hearts that the seas our metaphorical Pinafore plies will be more placid in the coming year, and that a fresh calendar will see good fortune smile on the Beacon and on all who navigate the shoals and the narrows of 2011.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.