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

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Of society offenders who might well be underground

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

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