Ian Smith is the Founder and Artistic Director of the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival. Ian has been the driving force behind the Festival’s growth and indeed it is fair to say that 25 years on, he is still deeply involved in all aspects of the Festival and the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company. Serious illness throughout most of 2017 did give Ian pause for thought but after fighting back with a vengeance he is still not ready to give up his daily participation in all things G&S just yet! We talked to Ian yesterday about his thoughts on the past 25 years and where he thinks the Festival and Gilbert & Sullivan are heading in the coming decades.
Ian, we are delighted that you are looking fit and well again after the horrible time you had with ill health last year. You are certainly twice the man you were at the Festival in 2017! Are you feeling back to your normal self?
I think it would be fair to say that I have had 12 months longer than anyone expected. I am back up to fighting weight and I’m very much “taking life as it comes.”
The International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival celebrates 25 years this August. Did you think in 1994 that you would be writing the programme for its 25th birthday and just how does that make you feel?
Very proud. I remember standing on the steps of the Opera House with Jim Newby, our founding Musical Director, back in 1994 and looking at the grey and white-haired visitors. We said then that the Festival would probably end up a one-year wonder. How fantastic to see how it has grown and the happiness and pleasure that virtually every performance or fringe event gives to our enthusiastic audiences.
Can you remember when you first discovered your passion for Gilbert & Sullivan?
I think a lot of “love” for Gilbert and Sullivan is hereditary. I got mine from my mother who sang all the main soprano roles and as she grew older the Katisha type parts. When her church society was presenting Pirates and they needed a Major General she told them – Ian will do it! And I did. And that was the start of my G&S adventure.
Your favourite G&S Opera?
I love Princess Ida. I’m really more a Gilbert man than Sullivan, but I think the music in Ida is thrilling. I also enjoy The Sorcerer – done well. And that of course is the secret of successful Gilbert and Sullivan. It has to be done well. You need intelligent actors who can also sing. You also need an intelligent director who can interpret the subtlety of Gilbert’s dialogue.
And your favourite role?
I used to ask John Reed the same question and his answer was “whatever costume has been laid out for me for that evening’s performance!” I really love Ko-Ko but I have great affection for Bunthorne and the Lord Chancellor and Gama. I have also enjoyed playing Despard and would love to have been asked to have a go at Daly.
You have performed, directed, set up G&S societies, founded a Festival and watched hours and hours of performances over the years. What do you like most?
Nearly 50 years ago I had a difference of opinion with a prominent Yorkshire society whose amateur, volunteer, administrators had never been on stage – not even to sweep it! But they always knew best. Today that Society is no more.
To get the best out of any amateur society or Festival in you need outstanding administration – people who are open to the opinions of actors or you need actors who become the administrators. I have indeed been extremely fortunate to have an involvement in virtually every aspect. My biggest regret is that 30 years ago I was blown up in a terrorist attack in Paris which has left me virtually stone deaf in my left ear and curtailed my passion for performing. Today whenever I sing I have to be sure that whoever I am singing with always stands on my right-hand side or I have no idea of what’s going on!
What do you think the next 25 years holds for the future of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Festival? Is there a future?
I’m sure there are many people who think I am a fuddy-duddy traditionalist. That is not true. English National Opera might be flying their fairies in 2018. I flew the Lord Chancellor in 1976! I am a firm believer that you don’t need to fix something that isn’t broken. That is the case with G&S. Timing. Reaction. Intelligent delivery of dialogue and you will have people reacting just as positively today as they did 100 years ago. I will be looking at this and the future of Gilbert & Sullivan in much more detail in one of my presentations in the Magic of Gilbert and Sullivan programme at this year’s Festival.
I was so fortunate to work with the very best of the original D’Oyly Carte – Leslie Rands, Leonard Osborn, Mary Sansom and of course John Reed. Having seen them on stage and then to be working with them was amazing. Of course, it was a tragedy when the D’Oyly Carte closed. Today most of their stars who went on to direct the amateurs are no longer with us. The new company fizzled out like a damp squib and I am afraid the legacy is slowly disappearing as are those who hold its key. Sometimes the actors themselves are their own worst enemy. They don’t want to let go and make way for the new younger “stars” of the future. That is a significant danger.
I really hope the Festival will be around for its 50th celebration. Its format will no doubt change but so long as it is true to the basic and best intention and values of Gilbert there is no reason why visitors should not be trooping to Harrogate or wherever the Festival is located in 2043. (Gosh – I will be a hundred and four!)
If you had to name five highlights in this year’s Festival what would they be?
An impossible question to answer. I hope it will all be good. Highlights? Everything that the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company presents. Haddon Hall. It is so flattering to the Festival that outstanding groups are travelling from Canada and the USA with full-scale productions. I hope our “Magic of Gilbert and Sullivan” events will draw an audience. We really have some fascinating and interesting speakers and topics and we have some great morning fringe speakers.
UNIFest – the Festival’s competition for universities and the Festival Youth Production are very important to you. Do you have any words of wisdom for performers in 2018?
I think one of the real successes of the Festival has been UNIFest. This year we have nine British universities, the Youth Ensemble from Opera North and our own Festival Youth Production, all bringing a full-scale production to our matinee programme in the Harrogate Theatre. That is nearly 500 young people who have caught the “Gilbert and Sullivan bug.” Some of the groups have told me their visit to the Festival is the highlight of their social year.
That is flattering, exciting and perhaps a little frightening. We must not let them down. It is they, not we, who will who will carry the legacy forward. And it is the members of our Charity – the Friends of the G&S Festival – who make all this possible. Your contribution and the few donations we receive collectively cover the costs – but we need more. Each group needs encouragement. We need more funding to be able to help each of them with their costs – and to perhaps attract even more universities not only from Britain to come and perform.
Many people dismiss Gilbert & Sullivan as lightweight, inane operas. What would you say to in retaliation?
I can only give a fairly biased answer. I think the majority of critics do not know what they are talking about. They go to opera, and perhaps enjoy the music but often do not have a clue what is going on. It’s in French or German or Italian. But it is the thing to do! I went to see Opera North’s Trial by Jury. The theatre was packed with a generally non-G&S audience. They loved it. If only they dare venture out of their comfort zone and come to Harrogate and see our national company I believe they would love it even more. One of the exciting elements of Harrogate has been the number of people who have come up to me at the end of the performance to say they had never seen Gilbert and Sullivan before – but they would be back. That’s why the standard has to be high. The very best delivery of Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s hugely complimentary music. Isn’t it interesting that 100 years after his death more and more scholars are now re-appraising Sullivan’s music and becoming more and more complimentary.
You have just returned from one of our Theatrical Adventures up the Danube on a specially chartered cruise. This is a completely new direction for the company that is really taking off. What do you think is so special about them?
They are great. It is surprising how many people have said in recent years “please do something more than the Festival.” We’re trying. I hate talking about money but it is a fact that we get no public funding and the only way we survive is by our own initiatives. If we can make a financial success of the cruises then surplus goes back into the Festival to help cover the very significant costs. People travelling with us tell us that our Theatrical Adventures are just a joy. They love the holiday. The boats. The food. The company. And they find our musical entertainment outstanding. As one cruise finishes many are already looking forward to the next
Any thoughts of retirement any time soon?
Last year when I was in hospital immediately before the Festival I set myself three targets. One – to go to the Festival. Two – to do some if not all of the evening curtain speeches. Three – to publish two books before the next Festival. I achieved one and two. I am struggling with three and I guess I can’t think of retiring until I at least have my two books – “The Echoes of our Festival” – and “Life’s a Pudding Full of Plums!” on the shelves.
Any message for visitors to this year’s Festival?
Welcome! Tell your friends. Bring them along. Become a “Friend” of our charity which supports all our youth initiatives. Try one of our cruises – you will love it! And if you are only coming to Harrogate for a couple of days keep the next two days free because I have a feeling you will want to stay on!
Make yourself known to my family – Janet, Neil, Oliver, Charles – and I hear there’s even a possibility that my other son Henry will be coming back from China specially for a part of the Festival. Remember we can’t do it without you. With more of you, just imagine what we could achieve!