NEW YORK — Nothing evokes the sublime foolishness of Gilbert and Sullivan better than their rapid-fire patter songs, like the one in which the baritone introduces himself as “the very model of a modern major general.”
And no one has done more in recent decades to keep alive the legacy of the great comic opera team than Albert Bergeret, founder, artistic director and chief conductor of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players. It’s one of the few companies dedicated full-time to performing the G&S classics, both in New York and on tour throughout the U.S.
Those facts help explain why, on a recent fall evening, a dozen or so enthusiasts gathered in a midtown Manhattan rehearsal space to hear Bergeret lead the first in a series of seminars dedicated to “The Art of the Patter Song.”
Part history lesson, part vocal demonstration and part animated discussion, the session was imbued with deep affection for the team whose series of hits from “H.M.S. Pinafore” (1878) through “The Gondoliers” (1889) gently satirized the institutions of Victorian society and have delighted audiences ever since.
“The patter song is the centerpiece of the repertory,” Bergeret said at the outset. “Many of them were written as tongue-twisters or elocution lessons to show off the singer’s virtuosity.”
Some, like the Major General’s song, are what Bergeret calls virtual “laundry lists” of miscellaneous names, places and things. Others tell a character’s backstory, like “When I Was a Lad,” from “Pinafore.”
They also served the purpose of helping to establish the G&S brand, something that impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, who nurtured their collaboration, was eager to do. “He was trying to create an English school of operetta to compete with popular revivals of Offenbach,” Bergeret said.
Andrea Stryker-Rodda, the company’s assistant music director, explained the origin of the term “patter song.” It’s a corruption of the Pater Noster, or Lord’s Prayer, which Catholics recited in its original Latin several times daily. The habit of rushing through the words as quickly as possible gave rise in England to the term “patter,” which also came to be used for the mile-a-minute “spiel” of street vendors or circus barkers.
Though Gilbert and Sullivan brought the patter song to new heights, they didn’t invent it. Bergeret pointed to its antecedents in opera buffa of the late 18th and early 19th century — arias like “La Vendetta,” from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” or Dr. Dulcamara’s opening number from Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.”
And the tradition didn’t die out with them either, rearing its head occasionally in American musical comedy songs like “Tchaikovsky” from Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “Lady in the Dark” or “I’m Not Getting Married Today,” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” Bergeret called that last “perhaps the most difficult patter song ever written.”
Arthur Sullivan typically set the lyrics that William Gilbert wrote for their patter songs to melodies that are rollicking yet repetitive, so as not to be terribly demanding vocally. In fact, the comedy is actually heightened if the performer half-sings and half-speaks the words.
Stephen O’Brien, a company member who took part in the evening, recalled something he was told once by the late John Reed, a leading comic baritone with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company for 20 years. Reed, who had been trained as an actor and dancer but not as a singer, related that when he first joined the company he began taking voice lessons, “but the company asked him to stop, because his voice was getting too big and strong.”
Almost all the patter songs were written for male baritone rather than for tenor or soprano. “Being able to sing the words so they’re understandable is much more difficult at a higher pitch level,” Bergeret said.
One exception is the trio from “Ruddigore,” written for a woman and two men. In its refrain, Gilbert makes delicious fun of the whole genre of the patter song: “This particularly rapid unintelligible patter/ Isn’t generally heard and if it is it doesn’t matter!”