Afunny thing happened on the way to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: Jennifer Garde found religion.
"It's a strange and roundabout way of joining a church," admits the mother of two, who joined the St. Anne's Music and Drama Society as a teenager, and eventually came into the adjoining St. Anne's Anglican Church. "Once you get to know that group of people, it's hard to leave."
Now in its 44th season, the troupe is one of the best and oldest Gilbert and Sullivan companies in the city, renowned for the quality of its performers and orchestra (all cheerfully unpaid volunteers who hand over profits to the church). St. Anne's even attracts students from the University of Toronto's opera school, such as Colin Ainsworth. Filmmaker and G&S addict Don Shebib is also a big fan: "[The soprano]could have been a big star on Broadway . . . and they've got real tenors," he says. "That's the secret."
His documentary about the group, A Song to Sing-O, airs tonight at 8:30 on Bravo! (The title is a nod to a popular song from the duo's 11th operetta, Yeoman of the Guard.) Mr. Shebib's film explores St. Anne's G&S community, a passionate group who put their social lives on hold from September to January to stage the satirical, Victorian-era operettas.
The longevity of the group is something former priest Canon George Young probably never dreamed of when he decided St. Anne's should hold a Gilbert and Sullivan night in 1963. Nor that the troupe could still pack the 250-seat parish hall in January for most of its eight annual performances. As a one-time performer himself, though, he did know that song and dance would be good for the congregation's soul. Forty-four years later, it still is.
"Toronto is a huge city, and if you don't have somewhere you belong, you're adrift," says Laura Schatz, the troupe's director and nearly a lifetime member. "That's what the St. Anne's Music and Drama Society has always been for me: a community of people who love to sing and have fun." Ms. Schatz's parents, Roy and Diana Schatz, started the group not long after she was born, and the family are the centre of Mr. Shebib's documentary.
Their dedication and passion to the G&S oeuvre has kept St. Anne's Music and Drama Society alive all these years. While Roy performs, Diana makes it come together behind the scenes; years ago, she made the costumes too, even while heavily pregnant. (In 1970, one last-minute fitting went awry as Diana went into labour with their third child on the day of a performance. "That night, one of the rector's sons came up on stage, handed me a pair of boxing gloves and hollered, 'It's a boy,' " says Roy, smiling at the memory.)
The Schatzes met at the University of Toronto's Victoria College music club during rehearsals for the 1951 production of The Sorcerer, a romantic comedy. Married nine years later, the couple began attending St. Anne's not long after their first daughter, Laura, was born. It would be the beginning of a Gilbert and Sullivan family dynasty as Laura, who inherited her the musical talent of her father's family, eventually took his place in the director's chair and became a fixture in the church choir.
"We both admit she's a better director than he is," says Diana, who excuses herself to answer the telephone in their uptown condo. It's another request for tickets (the fourth in an hour) to their production of The Grand Duke, opening Jan. 26.
At 75, Roy is still addicted to showbiz. "I don't think I could live without it," he admits with a hearty laugh. "If William Hutt is going back to Stratford this year at 87, then I don't see why I can't last just as long."
Laura is the only one of their three children to truly take to Gilbert and Sullivan. It started early when they created a role for her at the age of 6, as an axe bearer to her father in The Mikado.
Laura, who also met her husband while performing Gilbert and Sullivan, is a French-immersion teacher and mother of two young children. She's starting the operetta indoctrination even earlier with her family. Her kids end up catching a lot of rehearsals, but her son also had a carry-on role at five months in Princess Ida. "My friend walked him right across the stage and handed him to me on the other side," she recalls. "Then I had to breastfeed him in between Act 2 and Act 3."
It's a family affair out of necessity, Laura says, but she adds that the troupe's strength is helped by the cross-pollination between the church and the Music and Drama Society. Ms. Garde -- who is the company's choreographer and often performs -- is not the first parishioner to come for the play and stay for the prayer. Rev. Philip Cooper says there have been several like her, as well as others who join the drama society after reading about it in church newsletters. "The G&S is something that grew out of the church itself, so people get involved and then find the way into the church," Mr. Cooper says.
For Ms. Garde, the transition took three years. "I had never been a churchgoer," she says. But when asked to join the church choir, she was curious enough to say yes. "The church music is attractive and it does make you think, 'Why did these great composers dedicate so many hours just for the glory of God?' You think about that Sunday after Sunday."
Now, a quarter-century later, she drives across town several times a week for opera practice and worship. "It's a special church," she says, "and it's a special performing group."
The Grand Duke runs Jan. 26 to
Feb. 3 at St. Anne's Anglican Church Parish Hall, 651 Dufferin St., (416-922-4415).