For the love of performing

Nonprofit theater organization Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company turned 30 this year and is joining the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra this month for an outdoor show

It sounds like the opening line of a bad joke, but what do an engineer, a Russian priest and a doctor have in common?

They’re all unpaid amateur actors who break from their daily routines twice a year to perform operas by writer W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan.

“We are dedicated amateurs,” said production coordinator Waldyn Benbenek. “That is, we do it for the love of it.”

The Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, a nonprofit community theater organization, is celebrating its 30th year with a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore at Lake Harriet July 11 and 12. The group, which began meeting in a basement, is now performing with the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra, which is celebrating its 60th year of outdoor concerts.

On July 11 at 7:30 p.m. the opera company will be at the Lake Harriet Bandshell to perform a story of forbidden love between members of different social classes.

The quick moving mixed identity plot of H.M.S. Pinafore, one of the most popular Gilbert and Sullivan operas, entertains its audience with humor and musical numbers. The Gilbert and Sullivan shows have been a hit in the past, such as last year’s “Pirates of Penzance,” which was a crowd favorite.

The second and final performance of the year is the next day at 5:30 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public, but arriving early to snag a spot is suggested.

The opera company performs one fully staged production a year from the operetta repertory of Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as one summer concert at Lake Harriet. The spring show, “Ruddigore,” closed April 5 and the next operetta, “The Sorcerer,” will happen March 5, 2010.

Actors are unpaid and often run the productions, assist with set building and costume design. The monetary incentive is slim, but the reward for these Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados is an escape from the daily grind.

“There is no dominant person driving it. It is a collective passion and a continually changing group of people producing shows that sell out and uplift the hearts of people from many far corners,” said Benbenek.

The main audience for the spring shows come from the metro area and surrounding states, but some travel from as far as England.

The principal roles for the summer production at Lake Harriet are auditioned and usually draw familiar faces, such as this year’s Jim Ahrens and Eric Mellum, but the rest of the chorus is volunteers.

“With the chorus there is a core group that always comes back and drives the company on, but we also audition new people each year,” said opera member Rhea Sullivan.

Founded in 1979 by Dick Fishel and Jim Hart, the opera company is committed to providing performing opportunities for Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts throughout the Twin Cities.

“We are, in a sense, a community theater without a neighborhood…we rehearse where we can find space,” Benbenek said.

The company has presented all 14 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as well as a few light operas from alternative sources at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center, 1900 Nicollet Ave. The Company not only does its own performances but assists schools and community groups in performing their own Gilbert & Sullivan shows.

The Minneapolis Pops Orchestra is also celebrating a milestone of 60 years of outdoor performances. Its 45 members are part of the Twin Cities Musician Union and gather a few weeks in June and July to perform free concerts throughout the Twin Cities.

“It’s a way of enjoying opera in a light setting,” Sullivan said.