Culture | The greatest hits of the 1880s

McGill’s Savoy Society present comedic opera The Yeomen of the Guard

One happy marriage, two reluctant engagements, and one broken heart – this is the premise of Gilbert and Sullivan’s eleventh operatic collaboration The Yeomen of the Guard and the McGill Savoy Society’s upcoming 2009 production. For those who had the opportunity to see last year’s The Mikado, this may be familiar territory. Less Savoy-savvy readers may, on the other hand, already be fraught with confusion.

Exhibit A: yours truly. I initially thought that Gilbert and Sullivan were the names of two old men running an accounting firm, and couldn’t even pronounce the word “Yeomen” (pronounced “yo-men,” as opposed to the attempted “yee-o-man,” “yow-man,” “yah-men,” or “yay-man”). Consider my mistakes your gain – I did my homework, and now I can fill you in.

The McGill Savoy Society is a non-profit vintage musical theatre group that is now celebrating its 45th year at McGill. It is dedicated to the works of Sir William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan – a librettist (one who writes the text for an opera) and a composer, respectively. Together, Gilbert and Sullivan created 14 comic operas which came to be known as the Savoy Operas. The Society puts together one or two high-profile productions every year, one of which is always a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and another which usually consists of a smaller ensemble.

This year’s piece, The Yeomen of the Guard, is considered to be the most emotionally charged operetta of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. It takes place in sixteenth century England, where the young soldier, gentleman, and scientist Colonel Fairfax is sentenced to execution on a false accusation of sorcery by his cousin who wishes to inherit his estate. Colonel Fairfax aims to marry a maiden – any maiden – within the hour before his death, so as to prevent his fortune from going to his cousin. This request is fulfilled with the help of supporting characters and a successful escape plan. In this piece, not all endings are happy and sacrifices must be made to maintain order and peace.

In comparison to other theatre groups at McGill whose productions err toward the contemporary, one wonders what makes this operetta appealing to a younger audience demographic. “Regarding the text, many of the jokes are timeless in their brilliant satire, and there is a long-standing tradition for the stage director to update some of Gilbert’s politically and socially charged jokes,” says Alexandra Fol, Yeomen’s musical director. “In terms of the music, its appeal has lasted almost 400 years and shows no sign of retreat.” She offers the existence of Montreal’s three Gilbert and Sullivan societies as evidence.

The McGill Savoy Society is a part of the growing and thriving theatre community at McGill. Being a part of this small community, however, does not come without its conflicts. Recruitment, in particular, has always been a problem within the Society. “[We are] chronically understaffed and short on performers,” says Fol. “Working in an amateur production can be very rewarding, but there is constant stress that there won’t be enough performers or rooms to rehearse in,” Fol states. Indeed, the shortage of rehearsal rooms available to student groups was voiced as a major concern at the beginning of the academic year. As a result, the advocacy group McGill’s Student Theatre Artists, Groups, and Executives was formed to represent the University’s theatre community.

However, the show must go on, and the production of The Yeomen of the Guard will successfully continue Savoy’s 45-year tradition. In last year’s Gazette review of The Mikado, the Society was called “A laboratory for an ongoing social experiment, a connecting point between academia and the city at large, [and] a social club with a fun-filled annual project that showcases worthy, rising young talent….” From this glowing review, it’s clear that McGill and the rest of Montreal can continue to expect great things from this society.

The Yeomen of the Guard will be performed in February from the 12- 14, and the 19-21 at Moyse Hall. The McGill Savoy Society is currently looking for more performers for the Yeomen Chorus ensemble. Please visit mcgillsavoy.ca for more information.


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