Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston launches ‘HMS Pinafore’ for its 70th anniversary

A Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston production of ‘HMS Pinafore’ from 2013

Photo: Steve Feinberg

The oldest opera company in town might not be what you think it is. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, beating the Houston Grand Opera by three years. Not only does the occasion coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, but this month’s production of “HMS Pinafore” marks the 40th and final season of longtime GSSH director Alistair Donkin.

“It’s all about magic numbers,” he says. “I arrived on their 30th anniversary as a guest soloist and then have returned every year since. It’s a nice round ending, if you will.

The ostensibly satirical and relentlessly melodious operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan left a lasting mark on pop culture. As well as having profoundly influenced 20th-century musical theater – Rodgers and Hammerstein in particular – the duo have preserved in amber a remarkably enduring (and Yank-friendly) image of Britishness. A quick Google reveals recent G&S productions from El Paso to Baltimore.

“I think it’s partly because you Americans are really Anglophiles,” Donkin offers. “Considering that you parted ways with us at some point, there are huge numbers of royalists in America, and anything British is considered to be of good quality. Once you get that [idea] planted in America, it continues.

‘HMS Pinafore’

When: 7:23 p.m., July 30; 2:30 p.m. July 24 and 31

Where: Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St.

Details: $33.35-$56.35; 713-315-2400;

A solicitor (i.e. barrister) by trade, Donkin joined the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, keepers of the G&S flame through their management of the Savoy Theater in London, in 1979. As the family business grew folded three years later (it was revived in 1988), GSSH’s vice president asked D’Oyly Carte to recommend someone to appear as a learned judge in his production of “Trial By Jury”.

Society embraced Donkin, now 74, and he embraced it right away. He took on stage management in 1985 and recently helped GSSH negotiate the pandemic: 2020’s ‘Yeoman of the Guard’ passed auditions before being axed from COVID; Originally scheduled for last summer, “Pinafore” has been pushed back a year. This time around, auditioning the cast via Zoom was weird, because “people I’ve known for years, I’d love to get a handshake or a hug,” Donkin admits, “and of course, you can’t do it through Zoom.”

“I love the people and the quality of the singers and it’s all just above anything I can experience in the UK,” he continues. “They can be all-volunteer actors and a volunteer board of directors, [but] they work to professional standards. It is joy.

Besides the guardian of some priceless props – such as a wig for his role as “Pinafore”, First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter, which D’Oyly Carte gave him on his departure – Donkin is an invaluable source of Gilbert lore and Sullivan. Here, he explains how the duo sent a professional “Pinafore” company by boat to America to counter fake productions that might include appearances by Queen Victoria or the “Hallelujah” choir.

“As D’Oyly Carte’s ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty, it was greeted by boatloads of people from every other company in New York, all singing their version of ‘Pinafore’ on the D’boat. Oyly Carte,” says Donkin.

“What they didn’t know was that D’Oyly Carte and Gilbert and Sullivan had slipped the plot of ‘Pirates of Penzance‘ into their luggage,” he continues. “So all of a sudden they called a production of ‘Pirates of Penzance,’ which no one was expecting in New York, and that same night they staged a production in England to make sure that they got the copyright in both countries.”

In “Pinafore,” first produced in 1878, the rigid British class system results in several sailors and officers aboard the titular warship frustrated in love until they learn a valuable lesson; namely, “love levels all ranks”. Playing Sir Joseph is particularly fun because the character is “a typical silly politician in the true British style”, says Donkin. “I mean, he beats Boris Johnson every day.”

As retirement and her garden in the British countryside await her, Donkin admits saying goodbye to society will be an emotional ‘key’. Nicole Kenley-Miller, production manager and ad hoc director for UH’s Moores Opera Center, will take over as director, and Donkin is confident he’s leaving Gilbert and Sullivan’s legacy between good hands.

“I think she’s absolutely perfect,” he says, “and she’s going to take the company to new heights; and continue the tradition of excellence that they have.

Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.

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