LOoP, a History

Actually, it has taken almost 60 years for the LOoP to form, that is, the Light Opera of Portland.

When I was about 20 years old and living my first year away from home in San Francisco, I wanted to keep up my singing and needed a reason to sing other than weddings, funerals and requiem masses that paid the rent along with my job at the Sherman Clay sheet music counter. When I heard about a little musical theatre company housed in a converted former book store in City Center that had a tenor opening in their chorus, I jumped on it. I knew nothing about G&S-itis, the disease I was about to catch. The San Francisco Lamplighters was a fledgling Gilbert and Sullivan company that was destined to become the oldest resident Gilbert and Sullivan repertory company in America but back then it was a tiny volunteer theatre company , running on a shoe string budget with costumes made by the lead soprano and often in the dressing room during intermission for the second act. What constitutes a repertory company is a series of shows that are related to each other somehow and usually performed by the same cast or company of actors. Gilbert and Sullivan or Shakespeare plays lend themselves easily to this since the writers wrote enough good pieces for most to appeal to an audience. Of course now these works are royalty free which also makes them desirable to beginning theatre companies. It also makes them pray to distortion from the original and can be performed in a manor far from what the original writers intended. Luckily Ann Pool, the director/founder of The Lamplighters had a strong and abiding respect for both William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. She felt Gilbert’s humor was timeless and needed nothing changed or added and that Sullivan’s music, in the main, was slighted genius. Her direction taught that respect and audiences flocked to the performances. In the first year after moving the company to an abandoned vaudeville theatre with a thousand seats to fill, we ran the Mikado for nine straight months to practically sold-out houses. It was the humor and music done with authenticity that paid the bills.

When my singing career took me to New York, I found myself again in a resident Gilbert and Sullivan company that also produced some other well-known operettas. The director of The Light Opera of Manhattan also respected the works and was wise enough to leave the shows in their traditional form. Both of these companies attracted fine actors and singers who tended to stay and make the companies more family than work places.

My aging parents and their needed care brought me back to Portland where I cared for them into their late nineties. I had been carrying a deep love for my Lamplighter family with me ever since my early years in theatre so that when my parents passed, I knew what I needed was to start a family like those that I had known. It was also what Portland needed: a Gilbert and Sullivan company that stayed together and did more than one show a year, a company that would show other singers and actors how to be a family.

The music and lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan get in your blood. We used to call it “Creeping G&S-itis. I had heard about an old opera house at Alpenrose Dairy and one day while listening to Portland’s All Classical radio station on my car radio, they played the overture to H.M.S. Pinafore. I pulled to the side of the road in a fit of nostalgia. Afterward I thought, “I’m going to take a look at that opera house.” It was a lovely fall afternoon, blue sky and sunshine. When I arrived at the Alpenrose Opera House, I found that this turn- of -the- century style building was surrounded by a mock village of the same vintage, it was called Dairyville. It was even equipped with a working ice cream parlor! My first thought was, “What a wonderful place for matinees to introduce kids to Gilbert and Sullivan. My friend Paul Roder, a local theatre director, was also interested in starting a theatre there although he knew very little about Gilbert and Sullivan, he thought we could do a joint venture – my directing musical theatre and he directing other types of theatre. Ann Pool, founder of the Lamplighters, had developed some shortened versions of some of the G&S operas to perform for clubs and retirement communities which I felt would make for a good way to start by having hour long matinees on weekends and geared primarily to kids. However, by the June of 2012 opening of the condensed version of H.M.S. Pinafore, Paul had been made Artistic Director of HART Theatre in Hillsboro. So, the newly formed Dairyville Players and I, as director, were pretty much on our own.

What a wonderful event it was though. There were 600 seats in the audience and we could not even imagine filling those seats. But we had a huge stage area and a very small cast, so why not seat the audience on deck. Laurence Cox was very good with a boatswain’s whistle, so why not have him pipe the audience one at a time on to the deck of the Pinafore for them to watch the show? That idea, itself, I believe was the main idea along with a fine cast of singer/actors that made our first launch as The Dairyville Players a success.

Starting from scratch though takes time when money is not readily available. So the next show, although again a small condensed version of The Mikado, took a year to organize and of course, even though by this time our audience base was growing, we decided to use the stage for seating. The one thing we did not foresee as a problem though was the weather. The Opera House was built before air conditioning was invented. I will never forget how at the final curtain of one of those July 2013 performances, the audience dripping wet from the heat of the stage lights and the weather and the cast applauded each other for surviving the performance.

It was a given that we needed to put the audience into the orchestra seats where they belonged for the next performance. If we were to do that we would also need to change the time of year for our performance and go to full shows in order to attract a larger audience.

The problem with that though was that the Opera House was only available in the summer when the high school that used it in the winter was not using it. We decided to gamble and take the last two weekends before Labor Day. Another gamble was to offer two short but complete shows, Cox and Box, a three character show written by Sullivan and a writer other than Gilbert named F.C. Burnand and Trail By Jury, Gilbert and Sullivan’s shortest show but with a full chorus. However, we had been performing shows that omitted the chorus parts and we had no chorus. Luckily Bernd R. Kuehn, director of the Oregon Chorale agreed to musically direct Trial By Jury and along with him came new members joining The Dairyville Players, the beginnings of a very loose collaborative move with Oregon Chorale which continued into our next production.

But before that was to happen, I attended a story telling event at Multnomah Arts Center which had originally been the grade school I attended from kindergarten through the eighth grade. Portland Parks had taken it over when it ceased to be a public school and had developed it mainly for teaching visual arts but it had a fine old auditorium and the evening I attended was a fund raiser to improve the theatre there. I was moved to offer our performances of Cox and Box and Trial By Jury as a gift to help with fund raising. It was a success and I was asked by their director, Michael Walsh and Theatre Coordinator, Amy Jo McCarville if The Dairyville Players would perform for them in 2015. It occurred to me that if we did a performance in late August at the Opera House and moved it over to MAC, it would be close to Halloween and the perfect time to perform Ruddigore (or The Witch’s Curse) which could be our first full length Gilbert and Sullivan production.

We started preparation for Ruddigore in November of 2014 shortly after closing Cox and Trail by sending out scores and libretti to the principal cast because I was so concerned by the size of the show. As it came to pass, the remarkable pianist and accompanist of the Oregon Chorale was interested in not only accompanying the show but as it turned out, to musically direct it. How incredibly fortunate the company was to have had Dr. Linda Smith at the helm of the music for our very successful production of Ruddigore, the first to substantially earn a financial profit! I was about ready to throw in the towel when Linda came along with her positive and encouraging support, her superb musical talent and the wish to continue as the company’s musical director. The only negative to that was my age. At my age, having been at the business of theatre for over 60 years, I was reticent to continue as both producer and director for many more years. Linda had a solution to that, she suggested that her husband, David was about to retire and had always wanted to find something the two of them could do together. How would I feel about continuing for a while just directing?

Well, what can I say except that now that The Dairyville Players has a new name, Light Opera of Portland, it also has a fabulous musical director and an equally superb producer, in David Smith and the future of our lovely theatre family looks very bright indeed.

Dennis Britten