Interview with Evan Richards of the Madison Savoyards
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Written by Barry Brenesal   
Sunday, 26 May 2013

Interview with Evan Richards of the Madison Savoyards

Evan Richards is the secretary to the Madison Savoyards’ Board of Directors, and is also on the boards of the Association of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra and the Youth Orchestra Division of the League of American Orchestras. He maintains the Madison Savoyards’ website, videotapes the performances, and does the DVD post-production. He is retired, but previously worked at the UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center.

Brenesal: Let’s start at the beginning. When did the Madison Savoyards first start? What did it take, and how long did it take, to turn the idea into a reality—and who contributed their resources to making it a success?

Richards: The Madison Savoyards came into existence in 1963 when a group of West High School students and alums decided to produce a show in the summer. Interestingly, they chose from the beginning to do it with orchestra, not with a piano as was common at the time. That founding principle remains as one of the core values of the organization today. They picked Iolanthe , not one of the “big three.” It was a modified concert reading. Their success with the first one led to another production the following year. After four years or so, they decided to do a fully staged and costumed production. Development was rapid in those early years, and by the time I discovered them in the early 1970s, they had assumed the general shape of what has been done ever since.

Brenesal: Who contributed the resources?

Richards: At first it was an entirely volunteer organization, with the ticket revenue providing sufficient income for modest expenses. There were also a handful of individual contributors, none of whom would be called, in today’s terms, a major donor. Even as late as the early 80s, the Savoyards were proud of the fact they received no government foundation support, but depended entirely on ticket revenue and voluntary individual donations. There was no organized development activity to solicit contributions.

The Savoyards continued through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s in much the same way, and everything kept working—except that in the late ’90s audiences began to fall. A crisis arose in 2001 when the audience dropped to a level that could no longer sustain the budget. It was at that point I became involved as a board member. Until then, the board had been almost entirely composed of cast and crew members, but they decided they needed broader community representation, especially some individuals with development experience. The new board members set out to restore a robust budget by increasing development activity, increasing publicity, and reducing expenses. The greatest reduction was achieved by moving from the 1,300-seat Wisconsin Union Theater, with rather high rents, to the more modest cost, 390-seat Music Hall.

Note that the 2006 Patience had more attendees than the 2001 Iolanthe . The 2001 Iolanthe was the last show in the 1,300-seat Wisconsin Union Theater, and the 2006 Patience was in the 390-seat Music Hall. That demonstrates how we have made that change of venue work to keep our financial house in order, while actually serving a larger audience. With seven performances, we now have a capacity of 2,730 seats which is more than we sold in 2000 or 2001 and several prior years.

Given the attendance records, six or seven performances in Music Hall could be done at far less expense than four performances in the Union Theater. And the acoustics and sight lines in Music Hall made a far superior experience for the audience. We have been in the black ever since the move.

Brenesal: You were struck by the use of an orchestra in the 1960s performances by the Madison Savoyards. That’s very important to you, I take it.

Richards: Unlike some other groups, such as traveling companies from New York and California, the orchestra we use in our Savoyard productions is a full one, as specified in Sullivan’s score. We do not use any of the numerous reduced orchestra arrangements available these days. One often finds performances elsewhere with only 12-15 or fewer chairs in the pit. Our orchestra is typically 26-28 players.

When we recently did The Yeomen of the Guard , for example, Sullivan calls for an additional trombone and bassoon. When we were considering the budget for that production, the issue arose: Should we actually increase the orchestra and add the players called for? Well, of course we did. With almost no discussion, the augmented orchestra was adopted in our budget. It is of critical importance to use a proper orchestra and we are very proud of the results we have achieved.

Brenesal: You’ve stated that attendance began to fall in the 1990s. That’s something I’ve heard from other G&S companies as well, and still holds true today. To what do you attribute this?

Richards: I’ve heard similar reports from other performing arts organizations, particularly symphony orchestras. One hears about the aging of the audience, but I agree with Henry Fogel’s take that audiences have always been old because once the nest is empty, one can attend concerts and performances much more easily than before.

In the case of the Madison Savoyards, I think a more significant factor is that there is much, much more offered in the summer when we have our performance than was the case in earlier years. Now we have Concerts on the Square, another very good company mounting musical theater pieces in the summer, the Madison Early Music Festival, the Token Creek Festival, and on and on. So we can no longer attract a large audience by default. And of course there are many more options available at home via the Internet, Netflix, and more. Add to that the decreasing public education budgets squeezing school music and performing arts programs, and the lower profile of music and arts in the public media. But, we have managed to maintain a very loyal and consistent audience—perhaps not as large as in the ’80s, but enough to nearly sell out our run, at times.

Brenesal: Do the Madison Savoyards apply for public grants these days? I know the climate for public arts funding is heavily down from the time of my own decades of involvement in public radio from the ’70s through the ’90s, but the company would seem a natural for that.

Richards: Yes, we have successfully sought funding from the Wisconsin Arts Board, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, and the Madison Arts Commission. The grants are modest, but significant. Yes, the budgets for those are ever tightening, particularly in the last few years in Wisconsin under an extremely toxic political environment. But, the politics cuts both ways. Funding was down when we mounted Utopia Limited in 2011, but Gilbert’s political humor felt so current that many asked if we had rewritten some of the material to match the current situation. Of course we did not. It was precisely as Gilbert wrote it but, it seems, his insight into human nature and politics makes it seem like it was written yesterday. At the end of Utopia Limited when the perfection has led to lawyers, doctors, police, and the rest all being out of work, the question was what did they forget to include to make the ideal society? The answer, of course, was political parties. Put that back in, and all the problems will return. The laughter actually stopped the show.

Brenesal: Have you found that in the time you’ve viewed and worked with the Madison Savoryards, the audience for specifically G&S in Madison has grown or diminished?

Richards: Our numbers have been holding up very well, but depend on the opera. We know Mikado, Pirates, and Pinafore will draw near capacity, and sometimes sell out. And for those we schedule a seventh performance. For The Sorcerer , we expect about 50 percent of the house. So we tend to plan in multi-year cycles, and bookend one we expect to operate at a loss with one of the more popular ones—so that over, say, three years, we will stay in the black. The mission is to do them all, so that is what we do; although some are done more than others. The Grand Duke has only been done once, and will come around again in 2020.

The audience has been generally consistent over the years, with fluctuations due to the popularity of the show. The year we did The Sorcerer and Cox & Box we had lower than expected numbers, but more often— Patience, Utopia Limited —our expectations have been exceeded. We do try to be conservative in that we estimate income on the lower side, and expenses on the higher side, in hopes that variations will generally be in our favor. It seems to have worked out that way, but it does require some discipline which is a challenge for a mostly volunteer organization. We pay our production coordinator, stage director, and music director, but not much. We also pay a little for lighting, set design/build, etc. and we pay the orchestra musicians. But the cast is all volunteer, with the very rare exception of needing to hire a last minute substitute if someone must drop out for illness or other emergency. That’s happened once since I’ve been around, and the tenor we secured was great.

Brenesal: So the changing cultural climate and the increasing number of entertainment venues that some other G&S semi-professional companies sometimes cite as making it more difficult to bring in audiences doesn’t truly affect you very much?

Richards: While that is true, I would say the board has to be very focused on planning their promotion and advertising very carefully, so that the money is spent as effectively as possible. In years past, the Savoyards did not advertise much. There were posters around town—the printing of which was, and still is, donated by a local printing company, one of whose executives has a spouse and children frequently in the cast—but not much else. Now we have print ads, public radio “underwriting” spots, constant contact messages, postcard mailings, appearances on public radio, speaking engagements around the area, attention to getting on various event calendars, and so on. I’m not sure it is more difficult, but it does perhaps take more effort, more planning, and efficient execution to hold the audience and perhaps grow it.

Brenesal: What would you say is the biggest financial and artistic success the Madison Savoyards have had in the last decade or so—and why was it so successful?

Richards: I think our most recent Pirates of Penzance in 2012 would be at the top of the list. Our local reviewers said it was our best effort for many years, and I cannot disagree. We had a very experienced and skilled stage director in Bill Farlow. He had a strong vision for what he wanted to do, was highly organized, was able to attract first-rate talent, worked well with our production staff to keep within budget, and ran efficient and effective rehearsals. His use of time was particularly skillful, and that led directly to everyone in the cast and production staff being able to do a better job—because they got what they needed when they needed it. They had time to produce quality results. I think our PR and advertising efforts were effective and efficient. Our audiences were large and appreciative.

The 2006 Patience and the 2011 Utopia Limited were also both artistically very successful, and did better than expected in ticket sales. Expectations were modest in both cases, but results have shown us that even lesser-known G&S can do very well—although not as well, financially, as The Mikado, Pirates, and Pinafore.

Brenesal: Have the audiences for G&S in your opinion changed over the years—grown younger, older, more formal or informal?

Richards: We keep track of our ticket sales by the categories and prices: adult, senior, student, child, group, etc. Over the most recent decade that breakdown has been very consistent, with the normal adult tickets being just under half of the sales, seniors about one fourth, students just under 10 percent, children about 5 percent, and the rest groups and comps. The senior category seems to be trending down just a little and the adult is moving up. Those are not dramatic changes, but the glacier seems to be moving in the direction of a slightly younger audience. My impression being in the house is that not much has changed. The very small shifts in the actual numbers are not something one would pick up by just being there.

As far as dress: Madison is and has been a very casual town, reflecting the influence of the University. Blue jeans, tee shirts, and sweatshirts are the default. One would rarely if ever see a coat and tie in our audience. Since our run is the last half of July, and that is the hottest part of the summer, people are usually dressed very casually. The “country club casual” would be at the more formal end of our attire.

Our audience is made up of groups with different reasons for being there. First, there are long-time fans. We have many people, and many groups of people, who make it part of their summer vacation, or part of a family tradition—such as a birthday gathering, or among a group of friends. Then, there are hardcore G&S fans. We have people traveling regularly from other communities including Green Bay and Chicago to attend. We also have friends and family of cast and crew, visitors to Madison for other reasons looking for something to do, and people from the region who are responding to our promotional advertising.

My impression is that it seems to be a healthy mix of long-term repeat customers, some who come every year, some who come some years and skip others, and first-time attendees. That impression is reinforced when I enter contributions in the database. Most of them are from people who have donated before, but after the shows we get contributions via the handy envelope stuffed in the program. Most of those envelopes are from previous donors but many are from first-time contributors.

Brenesal: In your experience, are there ever any problems getting enough talented people to come to auditions for the Madison Savoyards?

Richards: We have a really deep pool of talent in the area. There are also quite a few people with Madison connections who live elsewhere now, who seem willing to travel back here to be in the performances. One fellow comes from Iowa. Anthony Ashley—last summer’s first sergeant, and Pooh Bah some years ago—lived in Austin for several years, but has now moved back to Madison.

But some years the bench can be a little thin in a specific area. One year, for example, our tenor withdrew about a week before rehearsals. In that single instance we had to pay someone to come in from New York. Fortunately, he was great and knew the part. Some years we seem to be short in the chorus; sometimes it is men, sometimes women. Usually in the case of those specific shortages, the director makes some calls. A common situation is that someone decided not to audition because of a specific conflict for a portion of the rehearsal schedule. In many cases, particularly if it is an experienced singer/actor, the director can create a mutually workable schedule. For the past several years, it seems to have been less of a problem rounding up a cast than it was a decade or so ago. Our recent practice of recording and releasing a DVD seems to have helped raise awareness and interest.

Brenesal: Since the Madison Savoyards are doing well enough to keep in the black, have you and the rest of the board ever considered the possibility of branching out into multiple operas per season? Or doing non-G&S operas along with canonical works?

Richards: We have considered multiple productions; and there have been years when we have done another, usually much smaller, production in the winter. Most recently we collaborated with the Madison Theater Guild on a show called Tarantara Tarantara , which depicts a little G&S history, and includes pieces from most of the operas. We have done Cox & Box on the same bill in the summer with The Sorcerer . We helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of the local zoo with a production of The Zoo at the zoo the summer before last. And we have been holding an annual winter gala where we get cast members, some from long ago, to perform an evening of pieces from various operas around a general theme.

Long ago there was a new board member that suggested we add such things as Oklahoma, Show Boat , or Lehar operettas. We did not pursue that suggestion after realizing there wasn’t much enthusiasm for it. In the meantime, another theater company has arisen in town that does mount those kinds of shows, as well as more contemporary Broadway. We feel comfortable sticking to G&S and closely related material, but we explore doing more than one a year, now and then. There are many problems we would have to resolve from the venue, to availability of musicians and cast, to finding a good time in a very crowded theater and music calendar.

Brenesal: I think it makes sense to conclude this portion of our interview with a glance towards the future. What sort of direction would you like to see the Madison Savoyards take in the next decade? Anything you wish they could do that they aren’t or can’t do now, given finances and other resources?

Richards: We set a plan in 2004 for doing all the G&S works at least once between 2005 and 2020. I would like to see that plan followed to completion. I would also like to see our preliminary talks with the Madison Ballet for doing a program with Trial by Jury and Pineapple Poll come to fruition.

Many years ago, the Savoyards took the show on the road and performed in Whitewater. That ended when the underwriter in Whitewater no longer could support the venture. We have lots of lovely, restored opera houses in small towns around the area, and I would like to see us put on programs in those venues—if not a full production, then perhaps a smaller show. Or perhaps Trial by Jury ? But that requires not only financial support, but being able to plan far enough in advance to get on the various venues’ schedules, and secure our cast and crew at a time of year outside our usual pattern. We’ve met with some theater managers and talked about what it would take, but have so far not been able to get something like that started.

Brenesal: Now we get to the part our readership has been waiting for: hard-hitting questions about your personal life. When did you first get interested in Gilbert and Sullivan?

Richards: My dad was a big G&S fan, so I grew up with the sounds of the D’Oyly Carte 78 rpm sets. I did not understand until I was older that not everyone had that kind of upbringing but, for me, G&S was always there along with the Saturday broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. But seeing live performances was not part of my childhood until my junior and senior high school days when my father discovered that Shorewood High School in the Milwaukee area produced an annual G&S production. We began attending those regularly; and during that period a new company was formed in Milwaukee, the Skylight Opera Company, that began to perform one or two Gilbert and Sullivan operas per year. All of these productions were done with piano accompaniment only.

In that same period, the D’Oyly Carte LPs began to appear in our home, and my father built a collection of all the G&S operas—except Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke , which were not recorded as of that time. So I became familiar with all of them, and how they sounded with an orchestra. I discovered the Madison Savoyards in the early ’70s, about 10 years after their founding. My first experience with them was The Pirates of Penzance , and I will never forget the thrill I felt when I heard those first notes of the Overture. It was a credible orchestra; and I knew I was hearing a performance that strived to be authentic. I became a fan, and have seen every annual production since then.

Brenesal: Going back to what you said in your first remarks, it sounds as though your father greatly enjoyed Gilbert and Sullivan.

Richards: He managed to get a few of his colleagues at Allis Chalmers, where he worked as an electrical engineer, interested as well. He was always quoting G&S in various situations, something I have been known to do—so when someone says to me, “Too much information,” I’m likely to respond, “Merely corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” My mother was not a big G&S fan, however.

My dad would take every opportunity to attend performances when on business trips out of town, and managed to catch the D’Oyly Carte Company in New York, several times. When I was attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison, D’Oyly Carte had about a week’s run at the Lyric Opera in Chicago during Christmas break. We made a several days’ stay there so we could watch, as I recall, three performances. At my father’s retirement party there were many G&S quotations heard during the festivities. One could see his influence on his long-time colleagues.

Brenesal: You mention enjoying those 78 rpm releases of G&S. Do you recall any specific sets with especial fondness? Or any specific artist?

Richards: The D’Oyly Carte recording of The Mikado on 78s is what I remember. I think it was most likely the 1936 made for HMV/Victor. When LPs came along, we had the 1950 LP on London/Decca. When I was very young, I didn’t pay much attention to the artists, but I did notice and like Martyn Green. Much later I became—and still am—a big fan of Donald Adams, who played Pooh Bah in later recordings. But all of those LPs we had featured the D’Oyly Carte, and those formed my ideas of how G&S should be done, and how it should sound. It’s funny how that 1936 set made such a lasting impression. I still know to this day where the side breaks occurred when they had to interrupt the music.

Later when London/Decca recorded and released the G&S operas in stereo, I was old enough to collect them on my own. Those D’Oyly Carte stereo recordings on vinyl got lots of play, and I collected all of them again when they reappeared on CD. Still later I acquired the Sargent EMI recordings, the Mackerras, and the “New” D’Oyly Carte on Sony, plus various others, such as Marriner’s disastrous Yeomen on Philips. But the Decca stereo series with D’Oyly Carte remains the gold standard in my mind.

Brenesal: Have you ever wanted to perform in G&S, yourself? Ever done it? If you could gift yourself with the skills necessary to play any part—which would it be?

Richards: No, never performed. I auditioned once in high school when they were planning to do Pinafore and the audition was a disaster; but then so was the production, even without my help. Since we are trying to put on a first-rate production with the Madison Savoyards, a necessary but not sufficient condition of so doing is that I remain offstage.

I think my first choice of a role would be Pooh Bah in The Mikado . He has always been one of my favorite characters. His brazen corruption which he casts as personal sacrifice and humility is one of Gilbert’s best creations. And, one that we see bits of over and over in present-day politicians.

What makes G&S so compelling, in my opinion, is not just the words, not just the music, not just the incredible combination of both that make for a whole much greater than its parts, but the wonderful insights into human nature that are presented so aptly. Human nature does not seem to change much over time, and that is why G&S remains so fresh. Fresh, that is, if it is done with an appreciation of what it is. It gets lost in too many productions where a director wants to re-create it. Or, perhaps worse, that awful production of Pinafore that Guthrie produced and that was broadcast on PBS a couple years ago.

As Bill Farlow, our director for Pirates of Penzance last summer, said, “Gilbert and Sullivan do not need my help.” His approach was to understand what it was all about and produce it in a way to bring out what was created by the authors. That is what we try to do, so the emphasis is on quality, not change or resetting for the sake of misplaced creativity.

SULLIVAN The Pirates of Penzance Blake Walter, cond; Matt Marsland ( Major-General Stanley ); William Rosholt ( The Pirate King ); J. Adam Shelton ( Frederic ); Anthony Ashley ( Sergeant of Police ); Catherine Schweitzer ( Mabel ); Kathleen Butitta ( Ruth ); Madison Savoyards O & Ch MADISON SAVOYARDS (DVD: 108:00) Live: Madison 2012


Last Updated ( Friday, 24 May 2013 )