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Gilbert and Sullivan: Opera for People Who Hate Opera

Liz has been an online writer for over nine years. Her articles often focus on music & culture of the 20th century. She also writes poetry.

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan

You may be thinking, "Wait! What part of 'I hate opera' did this author not understand?" Well, folks, the part where you have not yet met the Messrs (Gilbert and Sullivan). Both were British subjects and were knighted. Now, they both bear the title of "Sir."

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in London on 13 May 1842. He was the son of a military bandmaster. I'll spare you the repetition of a full biography, but he showed great talent at an early age, rose rapidly through the ranks of musical education, attended the Royal Academy of Music, later moving to Lepzig where he studied conducting. All the while he was turning out various compositions, many of which were commissioned.

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, born on 18 November 1836, came from a very different background. His father was a naval surgeon, and young William sometimes drew illustrations for the novels his father wrote later in life. In 1861, the younger Gilbert began writing illustrated short stories, poems and articles to boost his income. His genius was in taking an ordinary situation, adding an unlikely and ironic twist to the plot, and turning everything upside-down and sideways until in the end, everything came out just hunky-dory.

Sir William Schwenk Gilbert

Sir William Schwenk Gilbert

First Meeting

Gilbert and Sullivan did not meet until 1869 when they were introduced by composer Frederic Clay during a rehearsal for one of his own works.

Two years later, the pair would collaborate on their first joint work, commissioned by Richard D'Oyly Carte, a theatrical manager seeking a short opera performance as an "after-piece" to Offenbach's "La Perichole."

"Trial by Jury" was the result, and it was a resounding success; it far outlasted the run of the opera with which it had originally been paired. Gilbert and Sullivan, the team, had been born.

Grand Opera: The One People Love to Hate

When you say the word "opera," what comes to mind for most people is a long drawn-out stage drama of grand proportions (hence 'grand' opera). These productions, for the most part, involve some tragic story, sung out in Italian, French or German, thus making the lyrics unintelligible to people who are not linguists....and that includes most of us.

This is the classic, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings," performance, and indeed, there is a great deal of singing, as there is in any opera. It's the nature of the beast--most of the dialog takes place in song. Unfortunately, in addition to the foreign language issue, there is the added complication of a heavy dose of sopranos. Now I don't know about you, but my ear has a hard time picking out words from all those high notes.

To me, it simply sounds as if the singer is showing off her vocal range, and might as well be singing just "La, la, la, la!" for all I know. Even if I have the libretto,** and can follow the words, I can't understand them. The enunciation gets lost in the production of the tones. Some of those high-pitched tones are downright painful to the ear.

Years ago when my daughter was in the San Francisco Girls' Chorus, one of the members had a pin button reading, "Never argue with a soprano!" That's for certain--they can out-yell you easily! No wonder people think they hate opera!

Comic Opera: The Opera for the Rest of Us

Now, let's examine its cousin, the comic opera, or operetta as it is also often called. This performance is more akin to the stage musicals of our own era, such as "Oklahoma!" or "My Fair Lady," and its target audience is the common folk, not the ultra-wealthy aristocrats,who were, in days of yore, more likely to be well versed in other languages.

Gilbert, the lyricist, and Sullivan, the composer, wrote their works in this genre and for that market, and in English. They were immensely successful. After the aforementioned "Trial by Jury," they did not collaborate again for another couple of years, but when they did, the result was astounding.

Twisted Plots (Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)

The duo of Gilbert and Sullivan are famous for their ridiculous twists and turns of the plot. Virtually all of their works are spoofs and satires of the British legal and social class system. Many of them carry an alternate title, which may be classed somewhat as a subtitle, giving a clue to the plot.

"Trial by Jury"

In their first work, "Trial by Jury," the plot centers around a breach of marriage contract, with the defendant and plaintiff arguing their respective cases. The erstwhile groom has rebuffed his bride-to-be, and she bemoans her fate, claiming to "love him dearly."

Enter the judge, who tells his story of how he became a judge, first having married his mentor's "elderly, ugly daughter," who, he tells, "...could very well pass for 43, in the dusk with the light behind her."

The action proceeds to the illogical (but happily-every-after) conclusion of the judge marrying her himself!

The rich attorney, he wiped his eyes,

And replied to my fond professions:

“You shall reap the reward of your enterprise,

At the Bailey and Middlesex Sessions. 20

You’ll soon get used to her looks,” said he,

“And a very nice girl you’ll find her—

She may very well pass for forty-three

In the dusk, with a light behind her!”

— Sir William S. Gilbert

"HMS Pinafore"

In the later work of "HMS Pinafore, or, The Lass Who Loved a Sailor," the charming "Buttercup," is a vendor of supplies sailors are sure to treasure; everything from, "scissors, watches and knives," to "ribbons and laces to set off the faces of pretty young sweethearts and wives."

The twist here is that able-bodied seaman Ralph Rackstraw is in love with the captain's daughter. However, being from different social classes, they are forbidden to wed.

I'm called Little Buttercup — dear Little Buttercup,

Though I could never tell why,

But still I'm called Buttercup — poor little Buttercup,

Sweet Little Buttercup I!

— Sir William S. Gilbert

Along comes Buttercup, and confesses that, "When I was young and charming, I practiced baby farming..." (this would be like a nanny or babysitter).

Her further confession includes the fact that she somehow mixed up two of the babies, and the captain was actually the lowly-born child, and Ralph Rackstraw should have turned out to be the captain!

The spoof, of course, is about unqualified people rising to positions of authority.

A many years ago,

When I was young and charming,

As some of you may know,

I practised baby-farming.

— Sir William S. Gilbert

"The Pirates of Penzance"

"The Pirates of Penzance, or, The Slave of Duty" brings in another irony--the topic this time being the apprenticeship or 'indentured servant' status. After a given period of service, the apprentice/servant is guaranteed his freedom.

The twist here is that the hero, Frederic, has been apprenticed to a band of pirates, until his 21st birthday.

As he celebrates the end of his servitude, and is about to wed his sweetheart, it is discovered that he was born on February 29th (leap year) and so must still serve until 63 more years have passed until he actually turns 21. As solace, his love, Mabel (the daughter of the Major-General), agrees to faithfully wait for him.

When you had left our pirate fold,

We tried to raise our spirits faint,

According to our customs old,

With quips and quibbles quaint.

But all in vain the quips we heard,

We layed and sobbed upon the rocks,

Until to somebody occurred

A startling paradox.

— Sir William S. Gilbert

"The Patter Song"

Gilbert and Sullivan, in partnership with Richard D'Oyly Carte's D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, made the patter song a virtual trademark of all their operas. For G&S fans, it is a much-anticipated moment in the play, and one cannot help but admire the skill of the actor/singer's precise enunciation to pull of these rapid-fire tongue-twisting rhymes without:

  • losing their place
  • running out of breath
  • forgetting the words

In fact, in Pirates of Penzance, (see video clip below), just such a befuddled moment seems to happen as the Major-General 'fishes' for the word that rhymes; ah, but fear not--that bit of "confusion" is actually in the script.

I am the very model of a modern Major-General

I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral

I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical

From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical

— Sir William S. Gilbert

"The Mikado"

This play, also sub-titled "The Town of Titipu," features love gone wrong; lovelorn men; a deadly conundrum involving the Lord High Executioner.

The lovelorn fellow sings his dismay by the side of a river, having observed a small bird plunge into the waters.

Meanwhile the Lord High Executioner finds himself in a serious quandary, and what a twisted and impossible set of rules he faces, along with the others in the group! Weddings are in the offing, but the joy is tempered by these rules.

Both of these dilemmas are, of course, put to song.

On a tree by a river a little tom-tit

Sang "Willow, titwillow, titwillow"

And I said to him, "Dicky-bird, why do you sit

Singing 'Willow, titwillow, titwillow'"

"Is it weakness of intellect, birdie?" I cried

"Or a rather tough worm in your little inside"

With a shake of his poor little head, he replied

"Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow!"

— Sir William S. Gilbert

Here's a how-de-do!

If I marry you,

When your time has come to perish,

Then the maiden whom you cherish

Must be slaughtered, too!

Here's a how-de-do!

Here's a how-de-do!

— Sir William S. Gilbert

**What's a Libretto?

A libretto is a printed copy of the entire script, including words to songs so that the audience may follow along. It is of limited usefulness during the performance for several reasons, first being the lack of enough light in the audience seating by which to read, second being the forced choice between watching the performance, or merely listening, as if by radio, while trying to read along.

Try One on for Size

Even though all of these operas/operettas date back to the end of the Victorian era, their everlasting popularity tells of their mass appeal to the common folk--poking fun as they do at the ruling classes.

The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company of the UK produced these operas for 130 years, finally ceasing production first in 1982; then they enjoyed a revival until 2003. Not to fear, however: their website is still active, and promises a return to production in 2013, opening with "Pirates.."

A San Francisco group called The Lamplighters puts on excellent renditions of these pricelessly funny operettas, and that is where I became acquainted with G&S, attending performances with my mother who was a great aficionado of the pair. I still have her collected works on old vinyl LP's, complete with librettos.

Sometimes, you can catch a Gilbert and Sullivan performance for free at San Francisco's Stern Grove free weekend summer concerts, which features everything from Jazz to symphony to ballet to the full-blown grand opera.

If you get the chance to see a G&S production, do try it--I think you'll enjoy it immensely.

Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas

  • Thespis, or, The Gods Grown Old (1871)
  • Trial By Jury (1875)
  • The Sorcerer (1877)
  • HMS Pinafore, or, The Lass Who Loved a Sailor (1878)
  • The Pirates of Penzance, or, The Slave of Duty (1879)
  • Patience, or, Bunthorne's Bride (1881)
  • Iolanthe, or, the Peer and the Peri (1882)
  • Princess Ida, or, Castle Adamant (1884)
  • The Mikado, or, The Town of Titipu (1885)
  • Ruddigore, or, The Witch's' Curse (1887)
  • Yeomen of the Guard, or, The Merryman and His Maid (1888)
  • The Gondoliers, or, The King of Barataria (1889)
  • Utopia Limited, or, The Flowers of Progress (1893)
  • The Grand Duke, or, The Statutory Duel (1896)

© 2012 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on August 01, 2015:

Hi there, Charito1962--

Thanks so much for sharing your experience with G&S. The Mikado is quite a hilarious spoof of both the penal code and love gone wrong; (the latter of which figures to some extent in many of their works), and I do hope you get a chance to see it someday.

"Pirates" is also very funny; my favorite song is the Major-General's patter song, for which I included the video above.

Thanks very much for visiting and your nice comment. I'm glad you liked the article.

Charito Maranan-Montecillo from Manila, Philippines on August 01, 2015:

Hello, DzyMsLizzy. I enjoyed reading this hub because I happen to like Broadway musicals and some popular stage plays.

I'm not that familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan's works, but I've heard of "The Mikado". I also had the chance to watch a local production of "The Pirates of Penzance". I enjoyed the music!

I hope to watch the other operettas someday.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on June 30, 2015:

Hello again , BarbRad!

LOL In a way, I find that sad. Altering a historic performance piece because someone might be offended is to lose a part of the history and understanding of how times were in those days.

After all, the originals certainly poked fun at the aristocracy, and made no bones about it. While I do not think slurs of all kinds should be used indiscriminately in day-to-day life, I do feel the "PC" movement has gone too far, overstepping and infringing upon basic freedom of speech.

Barbara Radisavljevic from Paso Robles, CA on June 30, 2015:

I've Got a Little List" would be censored in most English-speaking countries today, too. That's one reason they may modernize it for today's performances. The original is quite politically incorrect. Nobody cared back then.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on June 29, 2015:

Hello, BarbRad--

Thanks so very much; I'm glad you liked this article. I, too, like Mikado very well, but the funniest song, I didn't dare quote much of, for fear of tripping the censor with the "t" word... "On a tree by a river, a little tom-t**" .. LOL

Interestingly, "Patience" is one I've missed seeing. It seems every time it was offered, I was unable to attend for whatever reason at the time.


Barbara Radisavljevic from Paso Robles, CA on June 28, 2015:

I'm another G&S fan. I'm glad you wrote about two I haven't seen or written about. My favorite is still the Mikado, and I also love Patience.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on October 25, 2012:

Hi, Rebecca,

Outdone myself, eh? Oh dear! How do I top that act?! ;-) I'm delighted you so enjoyed the article, and I hope you enjoy the show equally well.

Thanks so much for the high praise.

Rebecca E. from Canada on October 25, 2012:

you have outdone yourself, and now I must go and see one. It should be delightful! (mind you I expected no less from you!)

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on October 05, 2012:

Hello, JayeWisdom,

I'm very happy you liked the article. G&S are such fun, are they not? I thought it was high time for a new generation, so to speak, to become aware of this duo. In fact, I had to chuckle at you saying tunes would be in your head all was actually just such an incident that inspired the piece--I could not get, "I'm Called Little Buttercup" out of my head!

Thanks very much for the votes!!

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on October 05, 2012:

What a wonderful hub--so thorough and well written. I'm familiar with several of the G&S operas, so their music and lyrics will probably pop into my mind all evening--especially the patter songs. You did a great job introducing Gilbert & Sullivan to a new audience, and they should thank you for it.

Voted Up++++


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on October 05, 2012:

Hello there, tillsontitan,

Why, thank you so very much for that high praise! I'm delighted that you enjoyed the article so well. Fan that I am of G&S, it was a challenge to keep it short!

I very much appreciate the votes and the share. Thanks so much again.

Mary Craig from New York on October 05, 2012:

Reading this hub words like 'fantastic' come to mind. From start to finish this hub was a joy to read. Your short history of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan was just enough information to get our feet wet. Your further explanations of opera and libretto were educational and your synopsis of Gilbert & Sullivan's pieces was marvelous!

I voted all buttons but funny and shared with my followers. Excellent!!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on October 02, 2012:

Hello, Ann1Az2,

Ahhh, would that all my homework in years past had been this much fun! I enjoy G&S, but I'm not fond of grand opera. I do like musicals, though. I think "Oklahoma!" and "CATS" were my least, this week. LOL

. I'm so happy you enjoyed the article. Thanks so very much for your wonderful comment and the vote!

Ann1Az2 from Orange, Texas on October 02, 2012:

Sounds like you did a lot of homework on this one! I've never been to an opera, although, one day I'd like to go. I'll have to go by myself though; my husband wouldn't be caught dead at an opera - he doesn't even like musicals!

Well done and voted up.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on September 18, 2012:

Hi, midget38,

Thank you so much for the high praise. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the article. Pirates is great, as are the others. I can't really pick a favorite, although I guess I'm somewhat partial to HMS Pinafore, as I once auditioned for a community theater play with, "I'm Called Little Buttercup."

Thanks very much for the votes!

Michelle Liew from Singapore on September 18, 2012:

Nice to connect with an opera lover! I love the Pirates of Penzance, and certainly modern comic opera like My Fair Lady are what I grew up with. This was wonderful. Votes up!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on September 18, 2012:

Hello, Wayne Brown,

Thanks very much for stopping by; I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I hope you do get a chance to catch one of these performances--they are definitely funny.

I've not heard of the "Tuna Christmas" guys...I'll have to Google that!

Wayne Brown from Texas on September 18, 2012:

Quite interesting to hear that G&S, for all their cultural exposure, were just a pair of "regular guys" who apparently understood the little man better than we might think. Maybe that will all drift down here to Texas one day and I will get a look. For now, we have the "Tuna Christmas" guys....not bad but not G&S in the musical sense. Thanks much! ~WB

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on September 16, 2012:

Hello there, epi--

Thank you very much for the compliment and the share..and the invite. I'm so pleased you liked this presentation introducing G&S to a (perhaps new) audience.

I'll look up that video and see is it's there--I do enjoy the Mikado. Thanks again for your input ....Cheers, Liz

epigramman on September 16, 2012:

....a definitive world class presentation here all of the way and will be post most enthusiastically to my FB group Let's just talk music or cinema in which you are invited to join if you are so inclined - and sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada 8:23am I saw a wonderful production of the Mikado at Stratford, Ontario in the 80's (they also filmed it for CBC television)

You may be able to find it on You Tube

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on September 15, 2012:

Hello, Eddy,

Thanks so much--I'm glad you enjoyed the article! Have a good weekend, yourself. ;-)

Eiddwen from Wales on September 15, 2012:

How interesting and yes I loved it. Enjoy your weekend.


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on September 10, 2012:

Hi, drbj,

LOL--yes, that's one of the great patter songs, is it not? I enjoy the Pirates, but I am hard pressed to pick a favorite between that, Mikado and Pinafore. ;-) I'm glad you liked this article, and got something out of it.

Thank you so much for your comment.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on September 10, 2012:

Thanks, Lizzy, for the first time I now know precisely what the Major General was singing about ... from my favorite of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on September 10, 2012:

Hello, alifeofdesign,

Thanks so much for your comment and the votes. Mikado is one of my faves. "On a tree by a river....." LOL Pinafore, I think, is also a good 'starting place.' I'm so pleased you enjoyed the hub.

Graham Gifford from New Hamphire on September 10, 2012:

Voted useful and interesting. I LOVE opera! I have always thought that of those folks that say that do not enjoy opera, many of them were poorly introduced to opera. The Mikado-I would recommend that for someone interested in experiencing opera for the first time.Very much enjoyed your hub.

Best Regards,