Lamplighter Kids Take On G&S Scenes

Mark MacNamara on June 26, 2014
Lamplighters Summer West (2010)
Photo by Gabe Sakakeeny

This coming Saturday, June 28, at 2 p.m., in the main auditorium at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Summer Music West, in collaboration with the Lamplighters Music Theater, presents Scenes from Gilbert and Sullivan. Tickets are $10 at the door; no advanced sales. For children who haven’t seen G&S productions, this is a terrific introduction. We highly recommend.

This is the first in a series of annual Summer Music West productions that accompany a half-dozen music camps. Others are focused on chamber music, composition intensive, and musicianship. The Gilbert and Sullivan camp, with a tuition of $790, began on June 16, running four hours a day, five days a week. Ages 10 to 18. Auditions are held in April.

“We took everybody this year,” says resident music director Baker Peeples. “A few years ago we had to turn away as many as 20.”

Students come primarily from the Bay Area, but also from across the country. This year there are 37 students — 8 boys, 29 girls — mostly in their middle teens, along with two 10-year-olds. Nearly two-thirds are repeats. Some have acting experience, others not. Most can read music, but not all.

Lamplighters Summer Music West (2010)
Photos by Laura Reynolds

Peeples, who has been with the Lamplighters since 1975 and a conductor since 1986, notes that G&S provides a great entry to music theater and classical music in general. “It’s accessible and totally relevant. That’s what’s extraordinary, so many of the themes in these operas are resonant today — whether you’re talking about politics or cults or morality in general.”

And he adds, “The children who come really seem to enjoy it. They like the patter and the fast-talking. It makes kids feel clever. I remember we had a 12-year-old girl some years ago from California who used to say about why she liked the program, ‘I need to be with my people.’”

Peeples stresses the point that this is “precision music and text. There’s no ad-libbing, no improvisation with the dialogue. We insist on that absolutely. And after all, Gilbert’s words are always better than whatever you can come up with.”

“The camp has been very enriching musically and personally,” Michelle Tang told us the other day. She’s a 16-year-old junior at Palo Alto High School who was new to the Lamplighters. “The teachers are really enthusiastic and some have been doing this for a very long time but they’re still full of humor and interest in the children. For me, being with these people, was like joining a community I had never known. They were just so brilliant and kind, and they really take care of you.”

Summer Music West in 2013

Tang, had no experience on stage before this summer, but has been taking voice lessons for more than a year. “This is different from other camps. I feel like I have a lot of freedom. In a lot of the scenes they expect you to come up with your own gestures, and so you can use your own personality and character, which is really great.”

Peeples admits that Gilbert may have gone over the top from time to time in the way he satirized certain people, including older women. The character of Ruth, the 47-year-old Falstaffian nursemaid in Pirates of Penzance, comes to mind. “But the real quality of these operas is their innocence. There’s absolutely nothing salacious. Martyn Green (a famous patter comedian in the 20th century) used to say that Gilbert and Sullivan was the one entertainment you could take your grandmother to without being embarrassed.”