Gilbert and Sullivan


I should declare my own stance on this. I like Gilbert and Sullivan opera. I could go further, calling it a missing link in theatrical history that everyone knows about but no one will properly acknowledge, and rambling on like that for hours … but I won’t.

I get the impression that many in the arts were exposed to the operas at school and have retained the idea that it’s basically opera for kids. I also get the impression that it’s associated with things like the British Empire and jingoism (falsely of course), also the conservative middle class, and has lost out that way.

We are about ten times more likely to hear a Cole Porter song on BBC Radio 3 than a song by Gilbert and Sullivan, or indeed any music by Sullivan. Decide amongst yourselves whether that’s good or bad.

I think that over the years, the Savoy Operas they have introduced a huge number of people to “operatic” (i.e. properly sung, as opposed to amplified) musical theatre and provide a great introduction to opera, especially for the young. My principal operatic taste nowadays is Janáček, but I still listen to G&S pretty frequently.

There is an inexplicable degree of snobbery over G&S that does not seem to exist over Cole Porter or Gershwin’s musicals. I have never understood this, as Porter particularly was clearly heavily influenced as a lyricist by W.S. Gilbert. Sullivan’s music is frequently underrated by those who do not know it. It would be a foolish soprano indeed who thought she could sing The hours creep on apace (“H.M.S. Pinafore”), Poor wand’ring one (“The Pirates of Penzance”) or either of Princess Ida’s arias without any rehearsal. One should also remember just how revolutionary W.S. Gilbert was in his deployment and use of the chorus, who frequently drive the plot (as in “Iolanthe”), rather than just stand around decoratively in a crowd scene.

As to accusations of imperialism, I would refer any such accusers to “Utopia Limited”, which is a biting satire on those who would impose British manners and mores on the Empire.

My own bugbear is those people who complain of the misogyny in “Princess Ida” (for my money, the finest score Sullivan wrote for Gilbert). Yes, at the end of the opera, the princess abandons her women-only university to marry the prince, but she does so in a far more advantageous position than if she had done so without a struggle. Indeed, she is even given a get out clause whereby she can return to the university if marriage does not suit her.

I’d appreciate a repeat of the epic cycle of all thirteen operas broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1989. For many of us, these were truly definitive recordings, particularly of “Princess Ida”, “Utopia Limited” and “The Grand Duke”.


3 Responses to “Gilbert and Sullivan”

  1. This G&S snobbery will pass in time, of this I am sure. In the meantime, thank goodness for determined amateur groups who keep it alive, SOMETIMES with excellent results.

  2. Thank you, Blog Princess G. I have been familiar with G&S from an early age. Sullivan was a far better composer than people think.

  3. Tom Mitchell Says:

    I was, indeed, introduced to Gilbert and Sullivan at school but went on to both perform in and, later, conduct many Gilbert and Sullivan productions (as well as Broadway shows and Operettas). I am in complete agreement that Princess Ida is Sullivan’s finest score of the 14 collaborations with Gilbert (Especially the finale to Act II) – Don’t overlook Thespis despite the fact that the score is lost.

    I now live in Canada but was born in Scotland and thoroughly enjoyed an “epic cycle” of the operas broadcast by the BBC in 1966. The Princess Ida, in particular, was exceptional and had 2 soloists from Saddlers Wells Opera and 1 from Covent Garden. A testament, indeed, to the vocal demands of the score.

    Do you happen to know if the broadcast in 1989 was a re-broadcast of those productions from 1966? One clue might be the fact that actors were used for the dialogue while singers were used for the vocal work, thus resulting in 2 credits for each (singing) role.

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