Richard Sheldon, founding director of the Los Angeles-based Gilbert and Sullivan troupe Opera a la Carte, can’t count the number of times he’s sung Sir Joseph Porter in “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
“It must be now into four figures,” he said recently. “And I’m sure I’ve done just as many Major Generals (in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’)!”
Which is why Sheldon brings uncommon authority to the Yorba Linda Musical Theatre production of “Pinafore” this weekend at the Forum Theater where, having joined the 25-member Yorba Linda players, he will sing Sir Joseph yet again.
Working in Yorba Linda is “a change of pace,” he said, “and I see it as an opportunity in a different sort of atmosphere to spread the Gilbert and Sullivan word.” The word needs some spreading, according to Sheldon, who declined to give his age (“Say I’m middle-aged,” he said).
“We’re dealing now with a generation that has never heard of Gilbert and Sullivan,” he said. “There have been instances where we have approached colleges and universities and, sadly, I have to say in many instances, I find I’m dealing with people who never heard of this stuff. They don’t know what it is.”
And because “it winds up in the hands of people who don’t really understand it,” Gilbert and Sullivan “is the victim of all kinds of misunderstandings.” Too many modern productions of the work tend to rely on newfangled staging ideas, “and the result is bad Gilbert and Sullivan, which, like bad other things, is embarrassing.”
“I think the ingredients that people tend to overlook in this art form are things like charm, elegance, sophistication. It’s not a broad form of comedy. It’s not a slapstick form of comedy. Neither is the music, which is composed very much along classical lines. Too many people try to cheapen it.
“The material itself is so powerful in its musical element, its satirical element, its dramatic element that it doesn’t need tampering with. Why can’t people leave it alone?”
What the works need, Sheldon continued, are “first of all, trained operatic singers to pull it off properely,” he said. “Sullivan was as much of a satirist as Gilbert was. There is a great deal of musical satire and so any musical director should see that and treat it as such. . . .
“Exactly the same is true with Gilbert and the style of delivery of dialogue. Any actor who is well versed in theater of this period, of the Victorian period, should know how to put over dialogue and to portray characters of that period.”
Sheldon said that he is not against innovative stagings, however. “Be innovative certainly, but tastefully so, within the framework.”
Sheldon said he “got bitten by the Gilbert and Sullivan bug” when he first saw the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company--the company founded by Gilbert, Sullivan and impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte--in York, England, his birthplace.
“I think the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera I saw was ‘The Mikado,’ ” he said. “That sort of did it for me. It was something I just latched onto and became passionately interested in.”
He did not plan to make it a career. But he did study drama and serious music and participated in amateur G&S; productions.
He came to Los Angeles in 1965 “with the intention of seeing if I could pursue a career in the arts, not necessarily in Gilbert and Sullivan.”
However, he experimented with a little entertainment made up of G&S; scenes in 1970 at a dinner theater in Santa Monica. The review proved popular, word spread and invitations slowly started arriving from nearby colleges and professional organizations. Opera a la Carte evolved from that.
Five years later, Sheldon staged the company’s first full production, “The Mikado,” at the Concord Pavilion in Oakland. The Oakland Symphony accompanied.
“From then on, it’s been, I won’t say plain sailing. It’s been very hard work. There have been a few pitfalls along the way, ups and downs. . . . But now Opera a la Carte is buzzing along and doing all kinds of things.”
Sheldon speaks highly of the Yorba Linda players, who invited him to be a guest artist in their production. “They’re working very hard,” he said. “I like especially that they are a new, young, vibrant group. Yes, of course, they have a lot of teething problems to go through. But the enthusiasm is there, the will to build something is there. That to me is exciting.”
Richard Sheldon will sing Sir Joseph Porter in the Yorba Linda Musical Theatre production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” this weekend at the Forum Theater, 4175 Fairmont Blvd., Yorba Linda. Curtain times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets: $10, general; $8, children and seniors. Information: (714) 779-8591.