The Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island was founded in 1954 (by Sally Buckstone, Buddy Packer and Martin Waters) as the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island. An outgrowth of an adult-education class taught in Merrick by the three, it presented its initial production of The Mikado at the Camp Avenue School in Merrick. Response was strong enough to encourage a second production, and the company was off and running with H.M.S. Pinafore in 1955 and The Pirates of Penzance in 1956. It incorporated as a New York State-registered not-for-profit organization a few years later.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the company moved increasingly into a touring role, performing its shows for such sponsors as churches, temples, schools, parks, libraries and fraternal organizations first in Nassau County and then in Suffolk County and occasionally in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. In the course of the 1960s its repertoire expanded to include Trial by Jury, Patience, Iolanthe, and Ruddigore. New members such as Emil Davidson, Elaine Lerner, Sam Levinkind, Edith Litwak, Jerry March and Bob Tartell arrived to supplement the original membership, and the company leadership passed to an elected executive board.
The 1970s was a flourishing time for the company, as it pushed the limits of how often it could perform and how many different shows it could do per season (often as many as four). The Gondoliers joined the company’s repertoire in 1975, and The Sorcerer in 1979.
New members arrived, including Billy Budd, Marilyn Chapman, Eileen Chigos (and her daughter Christa), Drew and Shelley Davidson, Howard Garrett, Al Grand, Sue Hoffman, Gloria Montlack, Terry Pinzur (later Hochler), George Rystar, Sy and Margaret Schwartz, Debbie Starker, Iz Stein, Judy Tane, Tom Trempy, Jim Vazoulas, Jesse Waldinger and Howard Zimmerman. Two company stalwarts ever since also appeared: Robert Del Monte in 1970 and Gayden Wren in 1975. Longtime tech director Fred Lehman was succeeded by his assistant, Paul Hinckley, and a gifted accompanist, Doris Smith, arrived. In 1977 the company moved from its longtime home at the Old Mill Road School in Merrick to the Chatterton School on Merrick Avenue, where it has rehearsed ever since.
The 1980s was a decade of change for the company, beginning with its name: In 1980 it became the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island (a lengthy compromise between blocs favoring the Gilbert & Sullivan Company of Long Island and the Light Opera Company of Long Island). The decade brought a new influx of talent, including Bill Boyle, Robin Brandvein, Audrey Burke, Kim Dacey Lupinacci, Martin Fuller, Phil Gellis, Lisa Anne Green, Janette Kennedy, Barry Mastellone, Stefan Miller and Ellen Pickus.
In 1978 the company had presented a short Yiddish version of H.M.S. Pinafore called Der Shirtz as a fund raiser, and it proved so popular that in the early 1980s the group developed a second company performing a full-length Der Yiddisher Pinafore and Der Yiddisher Mikado. As demand for the Yiddish productions escalated, the Yiddish company developed its own membership and, in 1988, was spun off as a separate group, the Yiddish Light Opera Company of Long Island.
Meanwhile Packer left the company in 1982 (moving to Florida) and Waters in 1984 (eventually moving to Louisiana), while Buckstone moved to the Yiddish company in the late 1980s. Most of the company’s productions over the next 20 years would be directed by either Phil Gellis or Gayden Wren. In 1989 the company did its first show with music director Raymond J. Osnato, who would be a mainstay of the company well into the 2000s. Hinckley left and was replaced by his assistant, Barry Slonim. Doris Smith married company business manager Don Blake, and the two moved upstate to Summit, N.Y.
The 1990s was the era of The Savoy Project, a complete cycle of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas begun in 1992. Over the course of the decade, Princess Ida, The Grand Duke and The Yeomen of the Guard were added to the company’s repertoire, along with the Sullivan/Stephenson one-act The Zoo. Along the way the company also premiered Wren’s A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol (1994) and Very Truly Yours, Gilbert & Sullivan (1996), which would go on to popularity throughout the U.S. and abroad.
With the ambitious Savoy Project came the launch of the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Orchestra of Long Island, under the baton of Osnato. (The company had done occasional shows with orchestral accompaniment previously, but not since the early 1980s.) A legion of new singers also appeared, including Howard Bernstein, Anthony Edelman, Patricia Gallagher, Rob Greshes, Judy Kelsey, Cassandra Lems, Michael Miller, Debra Mulé, Stephen O’Leary and Vicki Revere, while Slonim was replaced by his assistant Janette Kennedy, who in turn was replaced by Fuller, who would remain the company’s tech director for the next 20 years.
The Savoy Project continued into the new century, with a revival of The Gondoliers in 2001 and the company’s first-ever Utopia Ltd. in 2002, culminating with The Mikado to mark the company’s 50th anniversary in 2004. (That same season also saw a gala reunion show, in which more than 40 veterans of the company’s five decades returned for a one-night-only special performance of Very Truly Yours, Gilbert & Sullivan.)
New blood was a theme for the new century, as Will Curtis, Lily Grehan, Valerie Grehan, David Groeger, Tanya Jimenez, Andrew Schwartz and Tamara Shyngle made their company debuts. The company launched its first website, under the aegis of longtime webmaster Schwartz, and Wren directed a series of staged readings of such Gilbert plays as The Palace of Truth, The Princess, Pygmalion and Galatea and Tom Cobb.
A highlight of the 2010s was the company’s first-ever production of the first Gilbert & Sullivan opera, Thespis, featuring a new score (Sullivan’s being largely lost) by Thomas Z. Shepard. The company welcomed a series of new directors and music directors who brought fresh ideas and renewed vigor to its productions. Also coming onto the scene were Stanley Bergman, Jordan Breslow, Emily Della Pietra, Michael Economos, Vincenzo Fiorito, Christian Jurak and Kara Vertucci.
As the 2020s loom, only one thing is sure: The Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island will be there to meet them, with the proverbial song—nay, a whole opera, or even 13 of them—in its heart.