VLO's 30-year run, Celebration, show on Friday night

[ Originally published on: Thursday, March 10, 2005 ]

Bill and Sally Venman of Amherst look over photo albums chronicling the 30-year history of the Valley Light Opera, which they co-founded in 1975. The Gilbert & Sullivan company celebrates its anniversary Friday night with a banquet and concert show.
AMHERST - THE Valley Light Opera, celebrating its 30th anniversary Friday night, can trace its roots back to a Saturday-night date at Oberlin College in Ohio in the 1950s.

OK, technically its roots go back to London in the late 19th century, when composer and conductor Arthur Seymour Sullivan teamed up with librettist William Schwenck Gilbert on a series of uproarious and wildly popular satiric operettas.

But what would become the VLO, staging both a major and minor G&S show in Amherst every year for the past three decades, started gestating when co-founder Bill Venman saw his first G&S production at Oberlin in the 1950s on a date with Sally, his VLO co-founder and now wife of 50 years.

"It was 'Pirates of Penzance,'" Bill remembered last week in the couple's Amherst living room as they took some time to reminisce about the VLO's 30-year run.

"Both of us fell in love with Gilbert & Sullivan," Sally said, "as well as with each other."

After moving to Amherst in 1962, Bill participated as a musician in the few G&S shows produced in the Valley. Mount Holyoke College occasionally did one and in the early 1970s, VLO veteran Jim Ellis produced a couple as head of the English department at Smith College.

Long story short, "I thought, there's a lot [of musical opportunities] for kids around here, but not a lot of opportunity for adults," Bill said. "There was the Pioneer Valley Symphony and the Hampshire Choral Society and that was about it."

At the G&S productions they'd attended, they began seeing the same faces and realized that there were others of their ilk in the Valley, who just might be interested in starting a company. So in March 1975, they put together a list of a dozen people and invited them to a meeting. "It started right here in this room," Bill said. "But the couch was over there," Sally remembered.

In meetings in March and April, the group picked a show - "H.M.S. Pinafore" - chose a name and set audition dates for Mother's Day weekend. The show opened Nov. 7 that year.

"We built our first set in Caxton Foster's barn down on Shays Street," Bill said.

"We absolutely did not know what we were doing," said Sally.

Bill traded off conducting duties with Michael Greenebaum in those first years, while Sally describes her role as "the mom."

"I worked the front of the house and behind the scenes, holding hands," she said.

Over the years the company has produced all 14 of the existing G&S operas, most at least twice, with "Pinafore" staged four times. And 2,300 people, players and crew, have been named in the programs.

In all those years, the company had its fair share of out-takes and bloopers. Bill remembers a time in 1985 as the curtain was rising for the second act of "Utopia Limited." "One of our ditzier sopranos forgot she was supposed to be at stage left," he said, "and as the curtain goes up, there she is running across the stage."

Then there was the rainy night of the terrible smell when, during a production, Sally hunted everywhere for the skunk she assumed had wandered into the auditorium. The mystery was solved when a patron filed out for intermission in his wet and ratty raccoon coat.

It makes sense that a group devoted to comic opera became known for its parties and high spirits. For many years the Thursday night after opening was a re-dress rehearsal, at which practical jokes became de rigueur. Bill remembers re-dress for a production of "Trial By Jury" in 1984. At one point the jurymen leave the sheltering jury box and perform a dance behind the tenor. But this time, "They came out without their pants on," Bill said. Later when they were instructed in the script to "put your briefs upon the shelf" ...well, you can guess where they went with that.

That's a tiny taste of the stories that will be flying around the auditorium at the Campus Center at the University of Massachusetts next week when the company celebrates its 30th anniversary with a banquet and concert show Friday night.

Festivities start at 6 p.m. with hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar, followed by a buffet banquet and concert rendition of "All at Sea (A Gilbert and Sullivan Dream)" by David Stevens. In the spirit of Gilbert's humor of the absurd, Stevens weaves songs, choruses and characters from several of the most popular G&S shows in a new story line.

The Venmans, who moved from longtime VLO producers to consultants in 1991, are producing the show. The cast includes three players who sang in that first "Pinafore" in 1975 - Joseph Donohue, Patrick Callinan and the current VLO president, Glen Gordon.

"Having the Valley Light Opera was like having a sixth child," Bill Venman said. "It had all the joys and traumas of raising a child. It's been through its teen years and now it's a young adult and it's on its own."

"Well," adds Sally, "to the extent that any parent can let go of a child."

They are, after all, producing the anniversary show.

More information on the VLO is available at the group's Web site, www.vlo.org. For information about the anniversary celebration and reservations, call Paul Peelle at 253-3682.

© 2005, Daily Hampshire Gazette/GazetteNET, Northampton, MA. Reprinted by permission.