Why are Gilbert and Sullivan operettas so popular?

Why are the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan so beloved? G&S veteran Daniel Jaffé explains their brilliance

Gilbert and Sullivan operas

Why are Gilbert and Sullivan popular?

Though their heyday was in the 1870s and ’80s, Gilbert and Sullivan shows are still performed with relish all around the English-speaking world and beyond; their songs are referenced in popular TV shows (most frequently in Family Guy – try Stewie’s version of the ‘Little List’ song), and sung by lead characters in blockbuster cinema franchises such as Star Trek (Jean-Luc Picard in Insurrection) and Indiana Jones (Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

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The songs featured do tend to offer just one side of G&S – the tub-thumping patriotism of ‘A British Tar’ and ‘For he is an Englishman’ (both from HMS Pinafore), and the wry patter songs of the ‘Little List’ (from Mikado) and of the Major-General in Pirates; but at least they showcase something of Gilbert’s verbal dexterity and wit, and Sullivan’s ability to write a memorably stirring tune.

But there is a great deal more to Sullivan than those sturdy anthems and patter songs. I have just revisited a well-loved recording from my childhood: soprano Cynthia Glover singing ‘Poor wand’ring one’, Mabel’s first aria in Pirates. On the face of it, it is simply Mabel’s admonishment to her sisters for not taking pity on the pirate Frederic, who wishes to renounce his profession and find love. But as much as Glover’s artistry, it’s the touching sentiment of Sullivan’s orchestral accompaniment I find myself admiring. 

What makes Gilbert and Sullivan songs so special?

At his best, Sullivan throws in musical details which transform his songs from merely tuneful to something far more resonant. Take another, far lesser known aria – that of the Prince of Monte Carlo in G&S’s final show, The Grand Duke. After that show’s opening night, the Prince’s roulette song was cut by Gilbert (often not the best judge of which songs should be axed – witness the near loss in The Mikado of the title character’s song), but it is a real gem which again shows Sullivan’s intense engagement with Gilbert’s text. The music both captures the swagger of a vain man who has regained his fortune, while evoking a gambler’s excitement at the roulette table, its skipping rhythm and rallentandos imitating the roulette ball’s dance before it settles in a numbered pocket.

There is tenderness in G&S, too, though usually with a sting in its tail. Patience is perhaps their most sustained essay in longing and often forlorn hope, a sentiment that runs like a subterranean river in a comedy about two absurdly pretentious poets who vie for the adoration of ‘the young ladies’. Even if Gilbert did not intend that subtext, it is surely there in Sullivan’s wistful music. This makes all the more touching the score’s one moment of unadulterated calm: the sextet ‘I hear the soft note’, sung in Act I’s finale by three Dragoon Guards officers reunited with their fiancées, who together swear ‘never, oh never, our hearts will range From that old, old love again!’. Such is the touching simplicity and apparent sincerity of their music that we are all the more appalled and amused when the next moment Grosvenor, a vision of youthful beauty, makes his first appearance before the ladies; instantly distracted, the women are beguiled the moment Grosvenor confesses he’s ‘aesthetic and poetic’ and abandon their beaus for their new idol.

Why do amateur dramatics like  producing Gilbert and Sullivan operas?

All that said, it is the catchy show tunes which are more widely remembered, often misleading people into thinking G&S is a pushover for amateurs. While much of the music was written for actor-singers rather than professionally trained singers, generally Sullivan’s music demands more from its performers than do Rodgers and Hammerstein or Sondheim musicals. As Jackie Mitchell, a well experienced director and performer of a wide variety of musicals (and by day, a high-level research scientist), tells me: ‘If you do Gilbert and Sullivan you are extremely well prepared for almost any type of musical. And it is more possible in their shows to find a way to involve an amateur performer, no matter their talent or physical state.’ Certainly, G&S shows are not noted for energetic song-and-dance routines (though there are certainly dance episodes) and the music – as Eli Corp insists – is of outstanding importance.

Yet among the challenges (not forgetting coloratura soprano roles), Sullivan included several straightforward yet highly effective numbers. Personable ditties such as ‘A policeman’s lot’ in Pirates are still sure-fire hits with audiences. The Sergeant, as it happens, is one of those plum roles ideal for those wanting a share of the spotlight without the bother of learning a full-length role; indeed, there are quite a few G&S bass-baritone roles that don’t appear until Act II – such as the Mikado, Sir Roderic (in Ruddigore) and Private Willis (Iolanthe) – yet have highly effective and memorable arias. (The catch, in amateur productions at least, is that singers of those roles are usually expected to join the chorus in Act I, necessitating a complete change of character and appearance.) And for women desiring a solo but not a full principal role, there are even shorter gems. One example is within the opening chorus of Patience, where one of the lovelorn maidens, Ella, has her brief but touching moment of song: ‘Go, breaking heart’. She also has the privilege of taking the top line of the sextet ‘I hear a soft note’ mentioned earlier.

Even the chorus has its challenges. The cliché of repeating what a principal has just sung may pop up extensively in Trial by Jury, HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance (the last mentioned even pokes fun at this convention in its Act I finale), but hardly occurs at all in subsequent shows. Often enough the chorus is a protagonist in its own right, whether King Hildebrand’s army in Princess Ida, the irritating bridesmaids in Ruddigore or, of course, the jury in Trial. And Sullivan often presents daunting but worthwhile musical challenges for his chorus. One highly characteristic trick is presenting two contrasting choruses – typically a graceful women’s chorus, followed by a more boisterous male chorus – then subsequently revealing their perfect ‘fit’ by having them sung simultaneously (‘Welcome, gentry’ in Ruddigore is one fine example). And some of Sullivan’s ensembles involving both chorus and principals, particularly in the earlier operettas, are devilishly difficult. One notorious example is the sextet plus chorus in Trial by Jury, ‘A nice dilemma’, where a great deal of the chorus sings off-beat triplet quavers. Yet the exhilaration of mastering these choruses noticeably increases the company spirit, with a sense that everyone is truly investing in the show.

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