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Montreal in Microcosm: Seventy Years in the life of the Montreal West Operatic Society

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Seventy years is a long survival time for a community theatre troupe, and especially so in English-speaking Quebec. At seventy, the Montreal West Operatic Society is one of the longest-surviving in Canada, and the hands-down oldest troupe specializing, as many of them do, in the works of Gilbert & Sullivan. MWOS’s longevity producing this most British of theatrical forms mirrors sweeping changes in the composition and outlook of the province’s English-speaking community, as old cultural assumptions and solid social networks gave way to the challenges of fickle audiences, volunteer burnout, and an increasingly diverse population.

The array of amateur performers whose Pirates of Penzance, painstakingly put together over the course of weekly winter rehearsals in church basements, impressed audiences and critics in the spring of 1940 would have been greatly surprised on many levels at their successors’ 2010 production of the Mikado. They would no doubt have been pleased to hear MWOS was still around after seven decades, intrigued that its members still rehearsed in the church basements of Montreal West and performed in school auditoriums (not Montreal West High, but the newer Wagar, after a long stint at West Hill High), and tickled that much veneration was always given to the MWOS music and stage directors in 1940 – Harry Norris and his wife Doris Hemmingway, alumni of the original London D’Oyly Carte company – who provided the historic link with the first London productions. Everything else would have shocked them.

The Norrises were famously meticulous and adhered closely to the more conservative tendency within the D’Oyly Carte tradition that revered WS Gilbert’s original stage directions. The Montreal Gazette critic in 1940 called the production “orthodox Gilbert and Sullivan, well cast with a special emphasis on ensemble work” – implying an awareness of less orthodox productions of which he, Thomas Archer, likely did not approve. Harry Norris was a choir master and a professor of music at McGill, and drilled his singers rigourously; Doris taught piano by the book – “no nonsense” was how one former pupil put it – and this precision was also reflected on stage. Visually, the chorus was arranged on stage in tableaux, framing the soloists and reacting to their actions, but rarely interacting with them. Early photos confirm this tendency for the ensemble to be carefully posed: the effect, combined with gorgeous costumes and lavish sets, is striking, if somewhat static.

As Harry and Doris remained at the MWOS helm until the 1960s, and as subsequent music and stage directors tended to be MWOS alumni, this blocking tradition was maintained for many decades. The later 1990s saw the introduction of actual choreography and more frenetic blocking, notably under the direction of Corey Castle, a professional director with a strong track record in musicals. Castle opened MWOS productions to broader comedy, slicker production values, and the notion that members of the troupe were actors in their own right rather than merely part of a choir, playing characters, however minor, with personalities and “schtick.” The result worried traditionalists, who saw the creeping hand of “Broadway” (a buzzword today for flash and frivolity despite the reality that Gilbert & Sullivan has always been performed on Broadway – indeed, the Lincoln Center is on Broadway), but delighted a new generation of playgoers who wanted something fresh. Freshness continues to be the operating MWOS philosophy in 2010 under new director Stephanie Pitsiladis, who decided to give the Mikado an Indian – or more properly a Bollywood – setting to appeal to a more youthful audience familiar with this exotic idiom, and to give the members of the company a real choreographical challenge. That departures of this sort are quite common within today’s out-of-the-box theatrical thinking, and that this production, like the ones under Castle, retains all of Gilbert’s wonderfully convoluted language and Arthur Sullivan’s gorgeous music would not, of course, please purists.

The social backdrop to this stylistic sea change was, of course, the shrinking since the 1980s of the audiences MWOS had taken for granted during its first four decades. As with theatre everywhere, movies and television had cut significantly into audience size, but the added problem in Quebec was the rapidly dwindling English-speaking population, especially after 1977. This is not to imply that the theatre-going portion of the great Anglo exodus was particularly conservative in its taste – the lively community and university theatre scene in Montreal of the late 1960s and 70s is proof enough that this was not the case – but rather that companies such as MWOS always relied on extensive social and business networks to sell tickets and fill seats. Particular thinning of the English-speaking middle classes who had such networks took its toll on ticket sales, and a newer more culturally diverse generation had no background in Gilbert & Sullivan or natural affinity with British comedy. To Francophones, it was a foreign world, even potentially suspect. Companies such as MWOS had to put tradition on a back burner and find something to attract a new audience. To this day – and this is typical of community theatre – the bulk of ticket sales still comes from long-time patrons, and the single most profitable form of marketing remains direct mail and follow-up phone calls. But of customers looking back on two or more decades of performances there are fewer every year.

Social and business networks were once central to all aspects of MWOS, including its management. In the early years, the West End, and Montreal West especially, was a tightly-knit, middle-class world where leisure pursuits and professional organizations overlapped. For decades, the MWOS board of directors consisted mostly of non-performers: friends and family members, husbands of female performers, and even prominent people for whom sitting on the board of a theatrical company was prestigious. The work of producing and promoting the show, and coordinating the house, was handed over to the local Rotary Club – whose own directors were, as often as not, the same people. Fundraising for a production was easy – and in return the proceeds were donated through related channels, namely the Montreal Children’s Hospital. (MWOS still donates a portion of its income to the MCH, though rarely as much as it would like.)

This broad support base with considerable managerial prowess was the first element to disappear. MWOS persisted past the 1980s because it remained great fun to put on these shows, but the managerial side fell to performers themselves; outside of a few spouses or children who could be called in to sell chocolates or rip tickets, the memberships consisted entirely of performers. To audition for the male chorus, or for “Mad Margaret” or the “Duke of Plaza Toro,” was very likely to also sign on to stints of minute-taking, book-keeping, public relations, and even tramping the streets of town soliciting ads for the programme which would once have come in effortlessly through business contacts. Ticket sales, too, came to depend on shoe leather, and the free publicity generated through media contacts all but evaporated. This last issue is about more than dwindling social networks, of course: the English-language media in Quebec no longer sees the English-speaking community as its primary focus, and as a result getting the likes of Thomas Archer to review an MWOS production is virtually impossible – especially with some theatre critics who appear to find attending musical theatre beneath them and community theatre well below any radar.

Just as the distinctions were breaking down between leads or soloists and the chorus, and between performers and managers, the professional-amateur dichotomy was also disappearing. This happened for two reasons, the first of which was that companies such as MWOS came to find it increasingly difficult to afford professional set, costume, lighting and makeup designers, all of whom had always been integral to the productions. For some time, members (ie performers) did their best to counter costs by helping in, and ultimately taking over, the construction of sets and costumes – which in fact had been typical of community theatre productions since the nineteenth century. The crunch came in 2004, when production costs mixed with especially low turnout plunged MWOS into deep deficit and there was no money even to hire a stage director. As often happens, however, necessity proved fecund: within the extended membership were some highly skilled people who set their sights on costume and set design, with startling results – and, as had been the case in the wake of Harry Norris’s departure, members undertook to work out stage directions. Although MWOS has been able in recent years to return to hiring a professional stage director, raw in-house talent continues to keep production costs down without, many argue, any loss in quality whatsoever. Even so, what with all details of production as well as all managerial issues their responsibility – to say nothing of day jobs – MWOS members often experience significant burnout as overworked volunteers, compensated only when the curtain goes up.

The other reason for the loosening of the professional-amateur distinction is that increasing numbers of MWOS members are amateur only in that they are not paid. Many are theatre students, many more are music students, and a portion are graduates of theatre and music programs in search of experience. Although volunteers are notoriously overworked and can seem a dying breed, the idea of giving one’s time and talent pro-bono is gaining ground in a world where part-time and casual employment, let alone unemployment, is part and parcel of the life of an artist.
But the thing that would probably shock the MWOS members of 1940 the most, were they to look ahead seventy years, would be the composition of the current membership. The entirely white, middle-class and Protestant nature of 1940s and 50s Montreal West and its resident operatic society is long gone. The ethnic composition and physical complexion of the MWOS membership is diverse, in keeping with the growing cultural variety evident within the English-speaking population in general, and the number of third and even fourth languages at the disposal of rank and file members would have floored the folks Thomas Archer reviewed. Moreover, there are even a small number of francophones who have braved the notoriously difficult rhythmic and diction requirements of WS Gilbert’s fantastic patter songs; the audiences they connect with and draw to MWOS performances are no longer unfamiliar with – in many cases are quite obsessed by – English-style musical theatre. MWOS’s current Bollywood Mikado is an apt metaphor for a culturally diverse company that may not take itself entirely seriously, but is quite serious about its talent and more than keen to put forth a top-quality product.

Indeed, it may be that, after seventy years, MWOS is growing up.