Gilbert and Sullivan: Opera for People Who Hate Opera
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. Sparing repetition of a full biography, 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
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.
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
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
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.
Had you ever heard of Gilbert and Sullivan before?
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