Oh, bury, bury – let the grave close o’er
The days that were – that never will be more!
Oh, bury, bury love that all condemn,
And let the whirlwind mourn its requiem!
– The Gondoliers, Gilbert and Sullivan
Who has not lost work as a result of this current world crisis? I know many in our industry recognise that sad feeling of having to delete calendar notifications of an opening night or the commencement of rehearsals when they pop up on the screen. How do you fight those inner demons screaming that all your exciting, creative opportunities have just evaporated, never to return?
May 2020 was to be the premiere of my new production of The Gondoliers for Scottish Opera. Who’d-a-thought that just three months ago I was lunching at Osteria Oggi in Adelaide with Scottish Opera General Director, Alex Reedijk. We were discussing our new G&S project, just as that company’s production of Breaking the Waves was wowing audiences at the Festival. Rehearsals for Gondoliers were only three weeks away; schedules had been posted, our designer had been sending snaps of early costume fittings and WhatsApp was alive with discussions with our choreographer. Phrases such as ‘self-isolation’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘Zoom meeting’ had yet to find a regular place in our daily discourse.
We all know what happened that following weekend.
So, The Gondoliers has been postponed to February next year. They maintain it will happen. But it’s a waiting game. None of us can possibly know when this situation will end. We know the post Covid operatic landscape will look very different, but we know our artform will continue to thrive. It’s has weathered worse than this; war, revolution, social upheaval. Opera relies on bringing people together in one place, at one time, to have a shared experience of the great works.
Richard Rodgers of ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein’ and ‘Rodgers and Hart’ fame once enthused: ‘The greatest gratification allowed anyone, is to be able to gather a large group of people under one roof, and through words and music, impel them to feel something deeply and strongly within themselves. People have an emotional need for melody’.
I’m lucky enough to have made a career peddling melody; opera, music theatre, operetta, parlour song, lieder. As Artistic Director of State Opera South Australia I am in the enviable position of being able to programme an eclectic and exciting repertoire which will appeal to the widest possible audience. We aim to delight our most loyal supporters, to entice new offenders and to keep our funders happy. At State Opera we are committed to showcasing forgotten Australian works along with a specialist range of opera, operetta and, of course the great works from the Top Ten. We regularly hear people say ‘I don’t like opera’. But more often than not the comments come from people who have never experienced the artform. Our strategy is to give people NO excuse to NOT try opera. One just needs to start.
For me, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan provided the springboard to my love of this glorious artform. However, in these days of multiple entertainment options, alas, I am becoming a rare breed. This is the reason that, with almost religious zeal, I have been flying the flag for G&S for years.
My Scottish Opera production of The Gondoliers, proudly a co-production with State Opera was a chance to build a whole new army of converts. Many will come to The Gondoliers with absolutely no knowledge of the G&S tradition. With all our theatrical possibilities G&S is no longer the ‘go to’ for schools and amateur production. This is no bad thing. We now have the opportunity to reinvent, to reassess this repertoire without the weight of a century of performance practice.
At sixteen I discovered a book called Martyn Green’s Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan, which annotated all of the libretti. I read it from cover to cover and fell in love with Gilbert’s use of language. Here were words that you’d never meet in your ordinary life, impossibly clever rhymes plus obscure classical references and countless ‘tarantara’s, ‘tiny tiddle toddle’s and ‘willow waly’s. Gilbert’s mad world delighted in the English language. Without even hearing the music I was hooked.
My adoration of Sullivan came a little later, these operas providing my first taste of classical music. Through Sullivan’s extraordinary ability to pastiche, satirise and pay homage, I discovered a whole world of musical styles from Handel to Verdi and even a soupçon of Wagner. And yet, like the best of composers it always sounds like Sullivan; play a few bars and it is unmistakable.
In my zeal to learn all I could about this partnership I discovered that Australia’s love affair with G&S is almost as enduring as the works themselves. In the 1870s, two unauthorised productions of H.M.S. Pinafore were playing across the street from one another in Melbourne. Smelling a great business opportunity J. C. Williamson, an American actor manager then working in Australia, travelled to London to secure the copyright to all future G & S productions in the Antipodes.
From that point on, this part of the world became one of D’Oyly Carte’s most prolific export markets. The first “official” production of The Mikado was playing in Australia only six months after the London premiere.
At the end of 1961, the copyright on the Gilbert & Sullivan operas expired, and companies all over the world relished the prospect of new productions. Since then, the operas have been reimagined in countless contemporary guises. We have seen “Hot”, “Black” and “Swing” productions of The Mikado. There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Bart sings excerpts of Pinafore to calm a murderous Sideshow Bob, and a bizarre sketch on The Muppet Show in which a seven-foot-tall carrot sings selections from The Carrots of Penzance.
Each new incarnation seems to confirm the inherent strength of the original material. The music, of course, soars when delivered by great voices, and most of the text works beautifully just as it is: its particular genius is that the then-topical references still sound relevant. And Gilbert’s dramatic situations are still funny. The way in which his plots hinge on twins being swapped at birth or ridiculous legal technicalities delighted the Victorians, but let’s face it, stranger things happen every night on A Current Affair. Sullivan’s music succeeds in providing a kind of romantic foil to Gilbert’s pervasive drollery and cynicism, encasing his words in glorious melody. This kind of friction was very much at the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan’s creative relationship; a perfect marriage, complementary and challenging and a shared sense of humour.
What other body of theatrical work, fourteen operas in total, reveals such riches? All are remarkably different, yet the family genes are strong. Gilbert and Sullivan’s fusion of gentle satire, alternating with genuine heartfelt emotion, is a combination that never ages. Perhaps it’s something we need now more than ever.
A Gilbert and Sullivan led recovery?
Of that there is no manner of doubt
No probable, possible shadow of doubt
No possible doubt whatever.