Even when among self-described Gilbert and Sullivan geeks, Joseph Sorge is stunned by their level of acumen on the celebrated 19th century artistic pair. He has long been the musical director for the “Great Sing Out,” a singalong event of Gilbert and Sullivan works that occurs only once every five years and will have its sixth iteration from Friday, Aug. 31 through Sunday, Sept. 2.
“You know who the real geeks are when they are totally off-book” at the first rehearsal, Sorge said. “Whereas I always had a book in my hand, and I would sing different roles each time just to get familiar with the different shows.
“I just conduct now; I don’t sing anymore.”
Sorge will lead the musicians of “The Sixth Great Gilbert and Sullivan Sing Out,” put on by the Victorian Lyric Opera Company (VLOC) at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville. Many of the vaunted musical duo’s compositions are lengthy, thereby requiring an entire weekend for the singalong.
“It’s a place for G&S lovers all up and down the East Coast to come and sing through all 13 (surviving) Gilbert and Sullivan operettas — no dialogue, just the music,” Sorge said, explaining that the pair “actually wrote 14 operettas, (but) their first, “Thespis” was lost, with only two songs surviving.”
The program features the “big three” works: “The Pirates of Penzance,” “The Mikado” and “H.M.S. Pinafore.” But some of the other lesser-known and rarely performed works, like “Utopia, Limited” and “The Grand Duke,” have been programmed this year as well. The latter comic opera will be performed Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, backed by a full orchestra.
“No one does those works,” Sorge said. “‘Grand Duke’ is the last opera that they composed in 1896. You don’t normally hear that one because it requires a large cast.”
Sorge came to VLOC in 1996 as a singer after several years of performing on stage elsewhere, mostly in choral music and leading church ensembles. Joining the company introduced him to opera, after which “I’ve never looked back,” he said. He soon moved to the front of the ensemble in 2003, functioning in three capacities: as artistic director, music director and conductor.
Sorge, who has no formal music degree, claims he learned the fundamentals of leading an ensemble along the way. “Some people find [that] surprising because they like the way I conduct; they like the way I run rehearsal,” he said, adding that he picked up a great deal by soaking up the techniques of a mentor who had been an instructor at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
Sorge now serves as chorus master, artistic director and orchestral conductor for “The Great Gilbert and Sullivan Sing Out,” leading the ensemble for every one of the operettas that will be performed during the three-day extravaganza.
“When I first came in, they would have a different music director for every show, and it kind of took a while for the orchestras to get used to” the constant shifts in leadership, Sorge said. “So, when I started in 2003, I just said, ‘I’m going to do it all.’
“That’s 15 years and 45 shows,” he said.
Ten years ago, for the fourth “Sing Out,” Sorge first programmed “The Grand Duke,” the lesser-performed — but no less grandiose — opera that was Gilbert and Sullivan’s final collaboration.
“Some of our members had never heard it. I got a recording of it, and I said, ‘How do you do this?’” Sorge recalled. “So, I pushed the [VLOC] board. I said, ‘Let’s do a full production,’ and we did it two years later.”
For this staging of “The Grand Duke,” Sorge has at the ready a choir of some 40 voices in addition to a full orchestra and soloists. He is also pumping up the instrumental ensemble with “extra” trombones, bassoons and violas.
“I’m really looking forward to the sound that we’re going to project for these people who have not heard this score anywhere before,” he said. “It’s my pleasure to present it to them and give them an opportunity to hear it.”
A problem Sorge runs into every five years when programming each new “Sing Out” is paying homage to the classics from the Gilbert and Sullivan catalogue while simultaneously running low on other works of the duo to rotate in. He said singers often press him to include works Gilbert composed without Sullivan, and vice versa, but that presents its own problems.
“I’ll say, ‘yeah, they’re wonderful shows, but if you can’t find me an orchestration, there’s not much use in me even attempting it,’” Sorge said. “Or it’s so old and out of date that people will do it with [just] a piano, but we can’t do it with an orchestra.”
Sorge is a longtime fixture of the metropolitan area’s music scene, having even conducted portions of “The Messiah” holiday singalong at the Kennedy Center. “I’m telling you, that was a real thrill — the Kennedy Center Opera House orchestra and 400 [singers] up on the stage,” he said. “And, of course, the people in the audience got to sing along, too.”
Sorge worked for the National Education Association for 35 years before retiring 15 years ago. Since then, he has poured his energies fully into music, both with his church jobs and in his “hobby” with the VLOC.
“It’s really fun to get together with people who are in a similar vein and talk about the shows that we’ve done,” Sorge said of the shop talk he shares with fellow Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts. “For the ‘Sing Out,’ we go straight through all day Friday and Saturday and Sunday morning with breaks for lunch and dinner.
“We don’t go crazy. But it’s interesting.”
The Victorian Lyric Opera Company presents “The Sixth Great Gilbert and Sullivan Sing Out” at from Friday, Aug. 31 through Sunday, Sept. 2 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, Rockville Civic Center Park, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Tickets range from $20 to $28; visit vloc.org or call 240-314-8690.