Make mine a G&S

One night it's Ligeti, the next Gilbert and Sullivan. All a patter of course for Richard Suart, singing ambassador for the Savoy.

Many of us would find it a long and arduous journey from the English wit and whimsy of Gilbert and Sullivan to the more fractured musical imaginings of Gyorgy Ligeti. For the baritone Richard Suart, it's simply a short- haul flight. Last Monday he sang in the Salzburg premiere of Peter Sellars' new production of Ligeti's Ghelderode opera, Le Grand Macabre. The following day, he flew to London to rehearse the role of the Duke of Plaza-Toro for tonight's Proms performance of G&S's The Gondoliers. Next week, it's back to Salzburg and Ligeti.

Any singer's career throws up unlikely juxtapositions, but for Suart this is something more than the random couplings of a busy performance schedule. His sterling services to contemporary music include singing in the world premieres of both Mark-Anthony Turnage's Steven Berkoff-based Greek (1988) and Benedict Mason's Faustian soccer opera Playing Away (1994), as well as in David Freeman's scatological staging of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King - a production that infuriated the composer. On the other hand, as a self-confessed "pattermane" - and expert exponent of the rapid-delivery witticisms of Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan - Suart has devised a one-man show, As a Matter of Patter, built around the works of the great Savoyards - works he has performed the length and breadth of Britain and, in what he describes as an "ambassadorial" role, in such far-flung outposts of G&S-erie as Vancouver, Dusseldorf, even Penang.

In his amiably self-deprecating way, Suart is proud of his success in both fields. His first encounter with Gilbert and Sullivan came at the age of 13, when he performed in a school production of one of the operas, not behind the footlights, but in the pit. "I rather liked the music, but I hated the viola part. I felt it was grim, although I thought they were having a good time on-stage, and indeed they were. At that time, I had no pretensions to be on the stage. I played music, had been on the stage, but the idea of putting the two together never occurred to me. I was a chorister at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, and to me music was just church music. I don't think I heard a `proper' opera until I was in my twenties."

Later, as his professional career gathered momentum through the early 1980s, he ended up doing a lot of contemporary music. "My first job was with English Music Theatre, the successor to Britten's English Opera Group," he recalls. "That had its grant lopped by the Arts Council. I also did quite a bit of Tippett and Britten with Kent Opera. The Arts Council lopped that too. I'm the kiss of death to any opera company!"

Then, in 1984, he understudied the late Derek Hammond-Stroud in John Cox's staging of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience at English National Opera, following that up two years later by understudying Eric Idle when the ex-Python took on the role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, in Jonathan Miller's then-new staging of The Mikado. "After the first run, Eric didn't want to do it any more, so ENO brought in another famous comedian. That was disastrous! But, when he had a few days off, I got the chance to do it instead."

The role of Ko-Ko is one Suart has now made very much his own in the umpteen revivals of Miller's staging over the past 10 years. Not only does it provide a showcase for his more than merely pleasing baritone, it also gives full rein to a comic talent rare among opera singers: why, he even writes his own text for Ko-Ko's "little list", varying the targets for vilification with all the up-to-the-minute topicality of TV's Drop the Dead Donkey. "Earlier this year," he recalls gleefully, "ENO announced its intention of leaving the Coliseum. That announcement coincided with the last few performances of a run of The Mikado, so I put the whole board of directors on Ko-Ko's list. The audience clearly agreed with me, but I'd forgotten that one member of the board, Richard van Allan, was actually on stage with me, singing Pooh-Bah. The company's general director, Dennis Marks, said it was the most expensive laugh I'd ever get..." The threat, if threat it was, was never carried through, and Suart finds himself playing Ko-Ko at the Coli once again next month.

In the beginning, though, G&S was, Suart says, "something of a sideline. It seemed to me that there were a lot of amateur performances, it was something people did, and it was quite easy to do. I still think it's quite easy to do, but it's difficult to do well. I've worked with conductors who do it appallingly. The same with singers. It's as if they say, `This is a piece of piss. Let's just do it' - rather than asking, `What's the best beat for this aria? How do we make it exciting?' I've heard so many performances done slowly, perhaps because the conductor's trying to make it more of a `piece of music'. But it's all about energy. And there are some beautiful melodies, like the soprano aria `The sun, whose rays' from The Mikado: it looks terribly easy, but it's terribly hard to sing well."

Even those of us not quite so enamoured of Gilbert and Sullivan might concede that their work disproves the common assertion that English is an unmusical language. As Suart says, "Gilbert's libretti are brilliant, terribly witty. People complain that they're very polite, but there they were, pouring scorn on the House of Lords in Iolanthe, or on Oscar Wilde in Patience, or on the fad for all things Japanese in The Mikado. Their work has real verbal and musical substance, whereas contemporary musicals are visually excellent, but musically they make you want to scream after a while."

Suart pays tribute to G&S's "verbal and musical substance" in his one- man show As a Matter of Patter, musical accompaniment provided by his wife, Susan Cook. G&S dominate proceedings, with some audience participation, but there's some Rossini to make the link with Italian opera, and some contemporary patter-songs. It's an entertaining show that highlights Suart's engagingly dotty persona. The idea grew out of a fund-raising gig he gave for Music Theatre Wales some seven years ago. "As they did mostly contemporary music, they thought a bit of my Gilbert and Sullivan would make a nice change. Then I did some Gilbert and Sullivan for a fund-raising event at my children's school. Suddenly I realised we could do some fund-raising for ourselves: that was a bit necessary at the time! Now I do about 15 shows a year, and it seems to work quite well. A whole evening makes it quite difficult from the memory point of view, but at least it's my evening, and I'm learning to play a different audience."

That ability to work his audience feeds back into his stage performances, whether in G&S or in Mark-Anthony Turnage. For Suart, communication is paramount, singing in English vital: "Many singers don't like singing in English, but I don't really want to sing in anything else. My voice is suited to doing character work in English, and I think it's good to have to make yourself understood. I think it's a fair charge to level at singers. that we are lazy. Some singers have a relaxed approach to text, as if it's more for the singer's glory than for communication."

Anyone who's ever seen Suart on stage will know that he puts his all into his art: heart, soul, and a little bit more... "When I was doing The Mikado in Vancouver, one of the singers told me that I spat more while I was singing than anyone they'd ever met. It's not something you're aware of as you're doing it, but I think it must be to do with the fact that I'm interested in the consonants, where a lot of singers are only interested in the vowels. Perhaps it comes out of singing psalms, especially in an acoustic like King's, where you really have to over-emphasise your words."

Suart's commitment to singing as communication makes him a valuable asset in new music, where text is all too often obscured by sharp angles and precipitous leaps, but it's not a question of contemporary music being good for the soul while G&S is good for the bank balance. Suart is convinced that the one helps the other. "I enjoy doing Ligeti and Gilbert and Sullivan so close together. I remember when I did the premiere of Turnage's Greek in Munich, I was also on tour with Iolanthe for D'Oyle Carte. I was in Munich for Greek on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, flew back to London on Monday morning, and drove up to Leeds for a performance of Iolanthe that night. I thought to myself, `That's how I like it.' And I like to think that each benefited from the different energy and characterisation of the other. That's the ideal."

Richard Suart sings in `The Gondoliers' at the Proms: 7.30pm tonight, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212) and live on BBC Radio 3

`The Mikado' returns to ENO on 18 Sept. London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, WC2 (0171-632 8300)

The little list that almost got 'im missed

`As some day it may happen that a victim must be found

I've got a little list - I've got a little list

Of society offenders who might well be underground

And who never would be missed - who never would be missed!'

`There's that bearded wonder with balloon going slower than a tractor

Yes, Branson had to pull out but his Virgin's still intacta

After Christmas celebrations one discovers who one's foes are

That Honours list described Lord Lloyd Weber as a composer

And the ENO board who moving from the Coliseum insist

I've got them on my list, I'm sure they'd not be missed

They'd none of 'em be missed

Richard Suart as Ko-Ko in `The Mikado', right, and a bit of his controversial 1997 New Year's list

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot