Second sailor from the right Benjamin Recchie, AB’03, gives a strong salute during Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)

I sailed the ocean blue

Benjamin Recchie, AB’03, is the very model of a modern Gilbert and Sullivan Savoyaire.

Surely, thought I before auditioning for the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s 2012 production of The Gondoliers, the works of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan can only be of interest to Anglophiles, antiquarians, and amateur performers like me looking for something to perform in. Surely they’re curious flotsam from the 19th century preserved in amber, with once-topical Victorian-era jokes that require a glossary and denouements that often rely on implausible plot twists. There’s just no obvious reason why Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are so enduringly popular.

That’s what I thought.

By now, after appearing in three Gilbert and Sullivan productions, I know that the pair’s 14 canonical operettas (named the Savoy Operas for the London theater where most of them premiered) are a little like potato chips—if you like the first one, it’s hard to stop. Broadly speaking, the songs are sweet, funny, and tuneful; the plots are silly and light. Sullivan’s music is simple enough for an amateur to learn quickly but complex enough to reward the serious singer. Gilbert’s libretti are quotable and full of clever wordplay. And judging by the number of “Savoyaires” I’ve met, I’m far from alone.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company was founded in Hyde Park in 1960, just about the time the works entered the public domain. While the company is an independent entity, many of the founders and board members have been associated with the University, and the two institutions remain intertwined. Rehearsals are held in the Laboratory Schools’ cafeteria, performances in Mandel Hall, and accompaniment is provided by the University Chamber Orchestra. Net proceeds from the shows go to the Department of Music to support its performance programs.

Over the years, the shows have become less purely amateur. The casts I’ve been in have included a few students, some aspiring professional actors and singers trying to build their résumés, a few seasoned pros, and a corps of nonstudent amateurs to round it out. Many of my comrades in the most recent production, HMS Pinafore, had performed in Savoy Operas elsewhere; one had belonged to the Gilbert and Sullivan Society at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Another company stalwart, Robert Green, has appeared in every one of the company’s productions since 1963 and can carry on an entire conversation in quotes from Gilbert’s libretti.

I’m decidedly an amateur; I can sing the tenor line well, act passably, and dance when you put a gun to my head. This, plus Chicago’s general shortage of tenors, was enough to get me into The Gondoliers in 2012. The next year I rehearsed for The Pirates of Penzance but was sidelined just before opening by a medical issue. (Having to quit made me feel worse than my illness.) Each time I’ve dug in a little deeper. Last fall I sang in a one-off production of Trial by Jury at Unity Temple in Oak Park, and this year I was lucky enough to return for Pinafore, directed by company newcomer Charlie Marie McGrath. I was cast in her ensemble—I’ve always been the second gondolier/pirate/juryman/sailor from the right—but for Pinafore, I was also understudy for the role of Captain Corcoran.

We started in January, braving the polar vortex to travel to Lab to learn our music. Musical director Robert Whalen, also the director of the chamber orchestra, spent two weeks smoothing out our rough edges and reminding us to sing with British diction. (“A British tar is a soaring soul” becomes more like “a Pritish tah is a sohring sohwl.”) Next came the dancing. Our choreographer, Darren French, would say something like, “Now I want you to do this,” then gracefully jump, swing his arms, rotate 180 degrees, and land with his feet crossed. It’s impossible, I wanted to huff; I can do one of those things at a time, not all four! But looking around I saw everyone else doing it just fine. I drilled and drilled with the other actors, and my inability to remember steps I had learned just minutes ago almost drove me to tears.

At first we practiced three times a week, then four, then five. I cut back on all other social engagements. I saw my wife less and less—by the final week of rehearsals in mid-March, only 20 minutes a day over breakfast—and when I did, my absence meant that disagreements festered into full-blown arguments. By then the days blurred into each other. I awoke humming “We’re smart and sober men / And quite devoid of fear,” and fell asleep to “I grew so rich that I was sent / By a pocket borough into Parliament.”

Our dress rehearsal that Tuesday was shaky; I was ready for McGrath to lose her cool at long last, but she never did. (Whalen came close: “Diction!” he reminded us forcefully.) The stress bonded us together like soldiers in foxholes. We took group pictures backstage and spontaneously broke into a chorus from Pirates of Penzance in the men’s dressing room.

Wednesday’s dress rehearsal was better; Thursday’s better still. Our dancing was a little crisper each time; our interaction on stage a little less stiff. I kept missing my mark to bend forward in one scene, to the point where someone behind me (I’m not sure who) took to nudging me on the cue, and I eventually remembered on my own.

On Thursday night I had a terrifying realization: I had never learned Captain Corcoran’s blocking for the parts of the show when I was offstage. I had a vision of the performance being canceled if I was called to play the role and mentioned this to Joseph Arko, the actor playing Corcoran. “Please,” I said, “for the love of God, don’t get sick.”

“You never know,” he teased. “I have to drive an hour from Aurora. What if I get stuck in traffic? You might have to carry all of act 1.” I spent opening night watching his every move from the wings and hastily committing them to memory. (Thankfully, Arko was on time every night.)

We thought our run of three shows was a big success, meaning we didn’t screw up in any way the audience could notice. But our sense of triumph was bittersweet: as soon as the curtain closed on Sunday afternoon, we started to strike the set. It seemed like we’d lived a lifetime in Mandel, but it had only been eight days.

We lingered at a cast party afterward at the home of David Bevington (the Phyllis Fay Horton professor emeritus of English, a member of the company’s board, and a violist with the orchestra) and then said our goodbyes. For the most part we won’t see each other again, as the amateurs return to our ordinary lives and the professionals go onto other shows.

Each year I can’t believe how much effort I’ve put into our show, and each year I say to myself that I’m not going to do it again. But I always seem to forget about that when auditions roll around, and I work myself in a little deeper with each new part I learn. A few weeks ago, the opera company’s executives asked if I was willing to take on an administrative role in addition to singing and dancing, and so help me, I said yes.

Time to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Benjamin Recchie, AB’03, is a businessman and science writer who lives in Chicago’s Little Italy with his wife. He can quit singing Gilbert and Sullivan any time he wants, thank you.