By Stephen Wilson

Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney.

The Kardashians are well known, not for anything they have done but more for their state of being.

It’s the perfect contemporary comparison used to explain some aspects of the English pre-Raphaelite movement that are panned and satirized on stage during the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera Patience.

That opera is the focus of the evening lecture in Tony Cummings’ music class. Students seeing parallels to the Kardashians helps make the 1881 opera feel almost modern.

Tony Cummings wears his mask and looks behind him to smile

Tony Cummings

The professor of music and chair of the Italian studies program has benefited from an amazing opportunity this spring as the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) have served as guest instructors.

The group performed H.M.S. Pinafore in October as part of the performance series at Williams Center for the Arts. NYGASP is serving as the 2021-2022 Alan and Wendy Pesky Artists in Residence at the College. Established in 1986, the Pesky endowment has brought notable musicians to perform and teach in residency at Lafayette.

David Wannen, executive director and bass vocalist of NYGASP, stands at the front of a small classroom in the music department and leads the lecture. Sitting at the table are NYGASP performers, Lafayette students, and community members.

David Wannen smiles at front of classroom while discussing opera

David Wannen, executive director and bass vocalist of NYGASP

The company is in its 47th year of operation and is viewed as America’s preeminent professional Gilbert and Sullivan repertory ensemble. Since its founding, the company has presented over 2,500 performances throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and has 13 complete Gilbert and Sullivan operas in its repertory.

Tonight, Patience is the story, like many Gilbert and Sullivan shows, about love and marriage. In this case, women are pining after a Victorian aesthete named Bunthorne who carries a flower, dresses romantically, and recites poetry. He does little but attracts much attention, similar to a Kardashian. He seems to disdain attention he receives and much of the air he puts on to attract it. Still women pine, but sadly, Bunthorne desires a milkmaid, a woman well below his station in life, who has no interest in him.

The lecture is divided into discussion and performance—the company and students discuss the opera and Victorian England, and then the students act out scenes. 

“This course exemplifies the kind of very special learning experiences our Lafayette students can have,” says Cummings. “It embodies the essence of that intimate, personalized style of instruction our students can enjoy here. Students get to meet, learn from, and watch these gifted and very accomplished New York professionals up close and personal.”

Performance is a key part of the course. While the students aren’t singing, NYGASP is. Lecture one week is followed by performance the next. 

On performance night, a number of NYGASP ensemble members join the fun. Since they are following the chronology of Gilbert and Sullivan shows, the class moves from Patience to Iolanthe.

This show opens with a fairy queen, a contralto, welcoming Iolanthe back from banishment. That fairy’s crime was marrying a mortal. 

The performer sings a snippet from the show and discusses plot, character, and motivation. Wannen introduces moments to listen for, like ways the songs skewer everything, politicians, high society, lawyers, marriage … on and on it goes. Nothing is safe.

The evening moves from scene to scene as cast members perform, Wannen narrates, and the room reacts. Video clips in the backdrop help illustrate scenery and costumes.

Among the guests one week is NYGASP board chair James Lessersohn, who claims to have been the only kid in 1960s New Jersey to know what a constabulary was, thanks to his father’s love of Gilbert and Sullivan. He is in the room because he is eager to see how education can become a new avenue for the nonprofit beyond its success in performance and development.

He, like others in the room, seems delighted. It could be the lyrics, the music, the talent, the conversation, the laughter, or the love of Gilbert and Sullivan, but it is probably all of the above. 

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  1. Susan S Lee says:

    Oops, typo, it’s our 120th! Shows are in May and June.

  2. Susan Sheehan Lee '80 says:

    Too much happiness! As a Lafayette grad and a member of America’s preeiminent amateur Gilbert & Sullivan company, The Savoy Company of Philadelphia, I love to see this collaboration. Savoy is celebrating our 150th anniversary this year and can testify that the music and lyrics are timeless. Come see Ruddigore this spring at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Philadelphia or at Longwood Gardens.

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