Gilbert & Sullivan programme notes

The excitement and humour written by these two men will soon take the Southminster United Church stage with great sets and costumes. Our team-up with the U of L Opera Workshop has become an annual event that people look forward to all season, and this year will be no exception! The world’s most famous English operas are topsy-turvy stories that elevate absurdity to an art. This family-friendly evening promises laughs and good-natured groans galore, presented by talented young opera singers on the rise and director Dr Blaine Hendsbee.

Please click here to download and print these programme notes (pdf version).

Series 4 – Gilbert & Sullivan

HMS Pinafore is one of the most influential comic operas the librettist-composer duo of WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (G & S) produced for London’s Savoy Theatre in the nineteenth century. The opera’s blend of accessible themes, comic wit and merry music attracted all types of theatregoer, leading it to become the second most popular musical work ever staged at the close of its 1878 run.

The success of the opera can be partially attributed to the artistic freedom the duo enjoyed while writing it. Gilbert, Sullivan, and theatre manager Richard d’Oyly Carte funded production of Pinafore themselves, granting them leeway on determining production dates, casting, and all other artistic choices. Despite the absurd situations in the libretto, G & S strove for realism in the work, employing realistic décor and costuming and asking the cast to play their characters as flesh and bone people rather than comedic pastiches.

HMS Pinafore’s official run was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of its success. The score quickly crossed international waters to the United States, where it was immensely popular with both professional and amateur ensembles. At one point in New York there were eight professional productions going on within five blocks of each other. In the hands of amateur theatre companies the work was subject to many unusual variations including burlesque productions and gender-swapped casts. Unfortunately for G & S, the lack of a clear copyright treaty between the United States and Great Britain meant none of these productions had to pay any licensing fees, and the duo was cheated out of a great deal of revenue.

In an attempt to capitalise on their success in the US, Gilbert and Sullivan travelled to New York, with the intent of staging an official production of HMS Pinafore as well as premiering a new opera. However, by the time they arrived in December of 1879 Pinafore had run its course with the theatre-going public. The official production ran strong for just a week before a drastic decline in sales necessitated that the duo rushed production of the then-forthcoming Pirates of Penzance.

Pirates of Penzance was Gilbert and Sullivan’s witty response to these copyright issues. Its title references the pirating their work had endured in the US the previous year, while also being a witty jab at the relatively safe British seaside town of Penzance (akin to titling it, Pirates of Palm Springs). This opera was the only one of G & S’s Savoy operas not to premiere at the theatre of the same name. Instead, it was first staged in New York so that the collaborators could register it under United States copyright law.

Pirates of Penzance endured a nearly disastrous genesis. Its rushed production schedule was exacerbated by the fact that Sullivan had forgotten his musical sketches in England and had to recompose the entire opera from memory. Luckily, Sullivan managed to finish the opera in less than a month, handing the score to the opera company a mere two days before a ramshackle preview performance on December 30, 1879. Fortunately, the cast managed to pull together a strong performance at the official premiere the following day, making Pirates of Penzance yet another major hit for Gilbert and Sullivan.

The Mikado has almost never been out of production since its 1885 premiere. By far the most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, its success came at a crucial point for the duo, for they had entered a mid-career crisis. Early ticket sales for their 1884 opera Princess Ida had not lived up to the great expectations usually heaped upon the Savoy operas, leading theatre manager Richard d’Oyly Carte to ask for a new work sooner than expected. To everyone’s surprise Sullivan refused to set Gilbert’s most recently proposed project, a story involving a magic lozenge, explaining that he was tired of Savoy operas and would only work with plotlines of a more serious character. This refusal hurt Gilbert, who among friends expressed fears that their collaborative relationship was at an end.

After much pleading and negotiation Sullivan agreed to resume collaborating with Gilbert as long as the librettist wrote a realistic story wherein humour was derived from the dramatic situation and was emphasised over humour from the character’s words. He felt these conditions would enable him to use his creative talents to their fullest capacity, as he would not need to sacrifice musical line for the clarity of the words. Gilbert initially struggled to think of a story, until finding inspiration by looking up from his desk. Hanging on a wall in his study was a Japanese sword he had purchased some years prior, an item that instantly motivated Gilbert to set the action in Japan.

The Mikado’s Japanese setting proved to be highly advantageous for both Gilbert and Sullivan’s creative skills and finances. Victorian Britain’s craze for all things Japanese was reaching its zenith, and the duo knew that their piece would resonate with increasingly cosmopolitan theatre audiences. Setting the story in the relatively exotic country of Japan also allowed Gilbert to make veiled critiques of British social codes and culture without risking censure.

Ironically, Gilbert’s efforts to avoid offending British audiences of his time have led some in our time to consider The Mikado offensive to Asian audiences. The librettist never visited Japan, so what he knew of the country came from objets d’art at Asian cultural exhibitions. Gilbert’s libretto presents a clearly oversimplified vision of the country, but this would have been considered fairly innocuous in Victorian England. Japan was a faraway place known only superficially to most Westerners, so Gilbert likely felt he could use an imaginary Japanese setting without consequence in Great Britain. The Mikado’s Japan was intended as an allegorical place, akin to Swift’s Lilliput or More’s Utopia, rather than a realistic reconstruction of the island nation.

Zain Solinski