Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Talking with Alistair Donkin and Justin Smith about the "Yeomen of the Guard"

Alistair Donkin
Marylhurst University will be presenting Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Yeomen of the Guard" this weekend at St. Anne's Chapel on the Marylhurst campus. There will be two performances: one on Saturday, June 10th at 7:30 pm followed by another on Sunday, June 11th at 4 pm.

Justin Smith
To find out more about the production, I talked with director and actor Alistair Donkin and music director Justin Smith. Donkin is well-known in England for his directing and performances of Gilbert and Sullivan's works.

Does this production involve students only?

Smith: The orchestra is a mixture of students and hired professionals. The entire cast consists of singers from Marylhurst. The production Gilbert and Sullivan operas started when I came here five years ago and has grown significantly since then. It’s basically the spring project for our choral and vocal area.

Gilbert and Sullivan is particularly good for young , emerging voices. It’s just challenging enough and not too straining. It is even better when you have a resource like Alistair from England to bring in every year to direct it because he knows and loves the material so well and does such a wonderful job teaching our students.

How did you find out about Alistair?

Smith: Before I came to Portland, I was getting my doctorate from the University of Houston in Houston, Texas. The Houston Gilbert and Sullivan Society is one of the big three or four in the US, and I served as their chorus master for three summers. Alistair has directed them for 36 years now. He is so awesome, brilliant, and funny and he comes directly from the D’Oyly Carte Company, which is the one that Gilbert and Sullivan started to produce their own shows. It tell my students that this is the next best thing to resurrecting Gilbert from the grave!

So after I got the job at Marylhurst I invited Alistair to come direct here and do a show before he goes to Houston. We started with a production of “Pinafore” and it’s been uphill from there!

Donkin: After “Pinafore,” we did “Pirates,” and “Iolanthe.” Last year we off the rails and did “Candide.”

“Yeomen of the Guard” is different than the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas. While the other operas are two-dimensional, “Yeomen of the Guard” is a fully staged drama that happens to have music attached to it. It has elements of grand opera – for example, at the last chord of the production, my character, Jack Point, drops dead of a broken heart, and it’s still supposed to be a comedy. The music is glorious. I just love it!

I have an odd link with this opera. It was premiered on the third of October, 1888. I was born on the third of October, 1947. The plot revolves around two people trying to rescue one man but without telling the other conspirators what is going on. Things get tangled and there are a lot of twists and turns.

Because of my link with Houston, we’ve had the costumes shipped up from the Houston company. My jesters costume just arrived yesterday, and it is fitted, which was quite surprising since it was made for me in 1983. The middle-age spread has not hit yet.

Since Jack Point is a jester, can you give us one of his jokes?

Donkin: Yes, ‘the lieutenant says, "Suppose I sat me down hurriedly on something sharp, and the response is "I would say that you sat down on the spur of the moment!”

How do you find working with the students?

Donkin: I love working with the students. I never intended to be a teacher, but working with the students in the rehearsals, explaining the interpretation of dialogue, explaining the text –even what some of the words mean. Read that line a different way and see what different meanings that you can bring out. The students are like blotting paper. They soak up whatever I tell them. Then they make it their own and create a wonderful performance. The way they are working is an absolute joy.

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