When graduate student Phil Arevalo wants a diversion from his research on gene transfer and population structure, he turns to the comic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
“These plays are very silly, and I really appreciate that,” says Arevalo of the 14 operas produced by librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan in the late 1800s. “If you’re a real musical nerd, you can’t help but fall in love.”
At present, the MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players, a student club led by Arevalo, are offering a modern exploration of the classic “The Yeomen of the Guard.” Every show draws in a volunteer cast and crew of about five dozen people, and currently more than half of the longstanding actors and musicians hail from off campus.
“We are always eager to get more students at MIT connected with our group,” says Sara Haugland, a member of the club’s executive board. A few years ago, Haugland moved from Sacramento, California, to Boston looking for work as a singer, and learned that MIT is home to one of the most welcoming theater groups in the area. “I discovered this passionate Gilbert and Sullivan community at MIT — a place where you wouldn’t expect to find a really prolific musical group. I loved the surprise of that,” she says.
She and Arevalo, along with fellow executive board member Emma Brown, an Emerson College graduate, are squeezed together in a cramped room in the MIT student center. Haugland motions to the racks of costumes behind her, “We have a lot of fun.”
Getting it right
On a recent April night, the cast of “The Yeomen of the Guard” ran through Act One. People divided into small clusters where, aside from singing, they acted out various parts: A man fell to the ground in death throes, a woman fainted, and various actors delivered dramatic shoves.
As the final scene wrapped up with signature comic absurdity, stage director Cailin Doran, a graduate of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee College of Music, yelled: “Everyone take a moment to think about how that could have gone better for you.” She is an upbeat and demanding director, often shouting things like: “Keep up that energy! Think about making some bold choices! I’m loving what I’m seeing in that cluster!”
Walking away from the rehearsal grid for a five-minute break, Doran said: “This is a nerdy niche that requires a decent grasp of language and music. The work of Gilbert and Sullivan is funny and smart. I think MIT students love it.”
Doran directed her actors back into position, and the tempo picked up. They began to run around the stage in complicated patterns, at times colliding. A young man stepped forward to catch a young woman, and something went awry. “I’m used to catching a guy!” he shouted, after miscalculating the placement of his hands. He blushed and muttered, “It’s so different.” Doran patiently demonstrated how to correctly catch a woman. Then the players were back at it again.
As Doran encouraged “environmental noises,” which involved whooping, squealing, and other antics, music director Lorraine Fitzmaurice, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, resident who also discovered the club by word-of-mouth, reminded the cast to keep their singing on pace. “You have a half note for the word in this line,” she said. “Take a breath earlier because the orchestra won’t wait.” Opening night was less than a week away.
A personal repertoire
Stage manager Kathryn Jiang, a first-year MIT student, is in charge of running rehearsals and maintaining “The Book,” the master score with all of the cues, entrances, exits, and edits. Not an opera singer herself, she loves to witness the music come alive. “My favorite moment so far was during our sing-through,” she says, referring to the first time the cast convened to sight-read the score. “It was magical.”
Concertmaster Rossana Chung, a technical associate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, says that people who join the MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players get the chance to learn about singing, dancing, set design, costuming, and more. “And if you’re an instrumentalist, you learn how to play in a pit and work with singers,” says Chung, also a member of the executive board. “Gilbert and Sullivan is light opera. It’s accessible to modern audiences, and it’s a lot of fun. There is no reason to be intimidated.”
With enough exposure, the quirky operettas will charm you, says club president Arevalo. “I wasn’t sure I’d like it when I started, but the more I listened and performed, the more the Gilbert and Sullivan humor really grew on me,” he says.
Now Arevalo finds the world made possible by Gilbert and Sullivan more comforting that he could have imagined. “It’s a set repertoire,” he says, listing off just a few of the perennial favorites, “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” and “The Mikado.”
“You can sort of just know the whole cannon. And that’s a really neat thing,” he says. “It’s always there to go back to.”