David Wannen and James Mills in The Pirates of Penzance.
David Wannen and James Mills in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of The Pirates of Penzance.
(© William Reynolds)

Albert Bergeret has dedicated his life to what he calls the "living legacy" of Gilbert & Sullivan. He's the artistic director of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, a professional repertory company that produces shows in New York and on tour around the country. Their New York season includes The Pirates of Penzance (December 27-31) and Patience (January 3-5), both presented at Symphony Space.

For the unfamiliar, William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were the Victorian composer-lyricist team behind popular operettas including H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado. These topsy-turvy satires of 19th-century England have led to the creation of myriad Gilbert & Sullivan societies around the globe and become standard fare for high school and amateur troupes. While cynics might contend that this is because the canon has entered the public domain (no pesky licensing fees), Bergeret would argue that this is because the work is relevant as ever.

Albert Bergeret
Albert Bergeret, artistic director of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.
(© www.nygasp.org)

How did you first discover the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan?

I started out as a kid. My mother had a couple of recordings at home. She had sung in the chorus of The Mikado at the University of Michigan in 1919. In the sixth grade my class did The Mikado and I played the title role. Then my voice changed. I became a brass musician and played trumpet and French horn. I went off to a prep school in New England [and] they were doing a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe. So I auditioned and they said, "We'd love to have you. One problem: We need you in the orchestra." I fell in love with the show. Then I went to Columbia University and saw that the Barnard College Gilbert & Sullivan Society was doing Iolanthe. So I thought, here's my chance to go sing the show and get it out of my system and that will be that. Well...that was the hook. I did twenty shows with them. Out of that group, a few of us started the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, and since 1973 I've been doing four or five productions of Gilbert & Sullivan every year, including my own.

What's your favorite role?

Iolanthe is still my favorite show. Lord Tolloler is my favorite role, although the Lord Chancellor is really the better role. Directing and conducting is my focus now, as well as promoting the living legacy of Gilbert & Sullivan, which is a bigger mission than just selling tickets.

This year you're presenting The Pirates of Penzance and Patience, which is Gilbert & Sullivan's send-up of the Aesthetic Movement.

Gilbert & Sullivan were all about satirizing human and institutional excesses. Patience is about the aesthetic movement in its language, but it's really about fads. Gilbert was concerned that ten years later his aesthetic show wouldn't play, but it still did even though the craze was gone. That's because it's really about what happens when people decide that their love of admiration transcends the normal bounds of the culture at the time. So they create themselves in the image of something that will attract attention. That happens in every generation.

So there's always some new attention-seeking icon.

In the show the Colonel sings a difficult patter song about all the remarkable people in history. He rattles them off. These people are all from the mid-nineteenth century or prior and some of them are really obscure. We do an encore verse about Obama and Frank Sinatra — references that the audience will recognize. This material is accessible to a modern audience and you don't have to be a Victorian scholar to understand it.

Who are the modern aesthetes?

They're people who have camp followers, usually in the arts-and-entertainment world.

Like Beliebers?

Justin Bieber is in the encore!

Like a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan companies, you add verses. Do you write those?

I contributed with the person who sings the colonel song. There's a list song in The Mikado, however, that changes from day to day according to the headlines. The guy doing it usually writes it. I've been known to fall off the podium laughing so hard at a new ad lib.

There's something very scrappy and vaudevillian about that.

There is. We're not about teaching people about Victorian England. We're talking about the living legacy, not the dead legacy. It's alive; it's theater. Some people go too far in one direction or the other. On one side there are the traditionalists, who have to do it exactly the way Gilbert said was to be done. That's not my scene. On the other hand, I don't believe the original material has to be completely reinterpreted. The original material speaks volumes. There are little tweaks, though, and places where Gilbert rewrote his lyrics during his lifetime. I really believe in what they did. It's like Shakespeare. It's classic material that has legs to go beyond its time frame.

I really enjoy this production photo from Patience (see below). It looks like a Victorian selfie.

There you go. In all Gilbert & Sullivan there is a remarkable parallel and reference. When Sir Joseph Porter sings, "I never thought of thinking for myself at all" in H.M.S. Pinafore, I always say, "Holy crap! Couldn't that be about Washington today?"

James Mills takes a Victorian selfie in Patience.
James Mills takes a Victorian selfie in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of Patience.
(© William Reynolds)