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Sidney JONES (1861-1946)
The Geisha - A musical play in two acts (1896)
Libretto: Owen Hall; Lyrics: Harry Greenbank
Lillian Watson - O Mimosa San, (sop)
Sarah Vivian - Juliette, (sop)
Sarah Walker - Molly, (mezzo)
Harry Nicoll - Katana, (tenor)
Richard Suart - Wun-Hi, (bar)
Michael Fitchew - Marquis Imari, (bar)
Christopher Maltman - Fairfax, (bar)
Jozik Koc - Cunningham, (bar)
Michael Fitchew - Grimstone, (bar)
Paul Parfitt - Cuddy, (bar)
New London Light Opera and Orchestra/Ronald Corp
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, England, 19-21 June 1998. DDD
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Of the succession of musicals that came to the stage to replace the operetta era, The Geisha was a firm favourite with late-Victorian and Edwardian audiences and amateur companies up and down the country. As the best Jones musical, it outlived its composer before going out of fashion in the early fifties. Its certain box office success was modelled on the first comic opera with a Japanese theme, The Mikado (1886); it even managed a longer opening run. The success brought fame to Sidney Jones who successfully followed the formula with another Japanese musical play, San Toy. Little of Jones‘ music has been recorded and until this welcome Hyperion recording of 1998 there were only CD transcriptions of early 78s: An Artist’s Model (1895) (Pearl GMMCDS9050) and another success, San Toy (1899) (Pearl GEMS 0081). Little had been heard of The Geisha until the 1990s. To my knowledge no LP version was recorded. Hyperion will have been very pleased with sales of their first issue of this disc. It must have been something of an experiment since Jones and his kind (Stuart, Monckton and Rubens) had been neglected in the catalogue. This re-issue of the 1998 recording is now bargain priced and will consequently reach a wider audience.

Sidney Jones was born into a musical family where his father was a military bandmaster/conductor who ended up as musical director at the Grand Theatre, Leeds and conductor of the Spa Orchestra, Harrogate. The young Sidney was exposed to good musical styles and picked up the secrets of harmony and fine composition from playing in his father’s orchestras (clarinettist) and later through being entrusted with conducting duties for various touring productions.

Owen Hall’s libretto, which opens in a Japanese teahouse is slick in pace and introduces strong and amusing characters that interact interestingly and always move the plot forward. Harry Greenbank’s lyrics at times provide a good story in ballad tradition, yet become tiresome where filled with repetitious nonsense, especially in line endings like, ‘chappy, chap, chappy’ ‘he’s a brute-ti-toot-toot’. Only in the superb comedy song ‘Chin Chin Chinaman’, excellently sung by Richard Suart, does repetition bring honest amusement. But is one really going to worry about the lyrics when the music is so engaging?

Jones has skilfully added oriental character to his music and achieves some very good eastern effects that are pleasing to the Western ear. I like the way he carries momentum in the song with orchestral links between the vocal lines to help achieve a continuous flow and interest. Is there a whisper of Puccini here? The story of Geishas with English sailors hints at Butterfly. The writing is frothy, full of new ideas with good harmony. It is much lighter than the regimentation and stronger classicism of Sullivan.

There are many good numbers although a few of them were composed by Lionel Monckton and James Philip. The main theme of the opening chorus is rhythmically captivating. The music hall style of writing for ‘The interfering Parrot’ and ‘The Toy Monkey’ (interpolated song by Monckton) reverts to a standard musical form. A Lehárian style of setting for ‘The Kissing’ carries good orchestration and sounds unusually modern for this period. Likewise, the catchy chorus number, ‘If you will come’. It has a touch of eastern promise with its repetitious notes and minor key play-out. The engaging melody of ‘The Toy’ refrain would I think sound better if taken faster. The pace here is disappointingly ploddish. Perhaps the top number with much atmosphere is ‘Chon kina’ with chanting chorus, interesting rhythm and key changes as well as delightful orchestral detail. Such are the skills of this composer. The main section of the Act I finale is reminiscent of the Act II tenor aria in Sullivan’s The Rose of Persia written around the same time.

Excellent notes on the composer and production are provided by Andrew Lamb in English along with the lyrics of all numbers.

Raymond J Walker


Further reading:
‘The Musicals’ by Kurt Ganzl - gives good detail on this musical
‘Operetta’ by Richard Traubner - gives detail on the composers



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