This well-ordered volume is welcome for it takes fresh look
at the Gilbert & Sullivan genre. It does this through a
number of essays each with an individual slant on facets of
the Savoy Operas. These articles provide an in-depth look at
a particular aspect in microscopic detail. The writers propose
assertions and back up their claims with substantial evidence
The book is more of a compendium for dipping into at random.
It is made up of 5-12 page articles:
Part I Background: Savoy opera and its discontents;
Identity crisis and the search for English opera; Resituating
Gilbert & Sullivan; Popular misconceptions of Gilbert & Sullivan.
Part II Focus: The operas in context- stylistic elements;
The librettos in context; Patter songs and the word-music relationship;
Concepts of time in the Savoy operas -The Mikado and Haddon
Hall; Motives and methods in Sullivan’s allusions; Characterisation
and emotion in the Savoy operas.
Part III Reception: Topsy Turvy, the film; The amateur
scene; Amateur and listener experiences of the Savoy operas
in performance; Tracing Gilbert & Sullivan’s legacy
in the American musical; the reception of productions and translations
Part IV Into The 21st Century: Scholarship, editions,
productions and the future.
I like the clear order of this book, prefaced by short résumés
on each of the 16 contributors, all of whom have a known pedigree
in the field of theatre, music or literature. What comes across
most convincingly is how many of the intellectual subtleties
in the 14 extant Gilbert & Sullivan operas have been largely
overlooked. It is astonishing to learn that previously only
Gervase Hughes wrote a monograph of Sullivan’s music
(1959). That said, Arthur Jacob and Percy Young each provide
detailed assessments in their well-respected Sullivan biographies.
Despite this, many of the skills of Gilbert & Sullivan
have previously been glossed over.
What this volume does so convincingly is to provide the reader
with a new assessment of the operas by examining them in detail
within a helpful overall perspective. This serves to reveal
the quality of the penmanship, separately, of both author and
composer. At times, G&S worked independently of each other.
Clay - who showed strengths in the music of Princess Toto
- and Hood - who in Rose of Persia followed a Gilbertian ‘recipe
for success’ - could offer material approaching the Gilbert
and Sullivan marriage of quality. Even so, despite the best
of intentions, they fell short of well-intentioned box office
The Companion provides many fascinating gems of information:
The opening ‘Savoy Opera’ article by the Editor
gives a clear overview of the background to G&S. It charts
the rise and the route of increasing popularity at the Opera
Comique and Savoy theatres. It then documents its Finale when
the two artists went their separate ways. This usefully compacts
the essence of G&S and sets the scene for the articles
In ‘The Search for English Opera’ we learn how
the failure of Carte’s new English Opera House was primarily
due to the flop of Messager’s La Basoche, which
had to be hastily turned into Mirette yet failed to
fill the theatre. Not only did these two operas have to close
but they lost a considerable sum; a sum the theatre just could
not support. I wonder then why the BBC chose to mount a broadcast
of the unsuccessful La Basoche in the 1920s if its merits
We examine myths about the author and composer in ‘We
sing as One Individual’. To most of us, Gilbert was believed
to be dictatorial and manipulated Sullivan. This is shown to
be unfounded since instances are cited where Sullivan demands
humanity in the characters or requires fresh lyrics. Without
Sullivan’s input, many of Gilbert’s operas with
other composers - Princess Toto, Fallen Fairies, for
example - were not particularly successful.
Through ‘Resituating Gilbert & Sullivan’ we
come to appreciate that Sullivan pursued a keen sense of musical
humour. To the superficial Savoyard, the humour is believed
to be embedded in the dialogue, but here we are reminded of
the considerable amount of musical humour to be found in subtle
musical jokes and parodies of other composers. Their styles
are deliberately put in the wrong setting. We discover that
Sullivan, the composer, is better likened to Auber and Lortzing
rather than an ‘English Offenbach’.
I liked the overview of amateur operatics in Britain and some
amusing anecdotes provided in ‘Amateur Tenors and Choruses
in Public’. This essay includes an interesting breakdown
of the number of G&S productions that took place in the
decades from 1961-2001 (NODA statistics). Interestingly, 996
productions in 1961 - when the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company
was still promoting the operas - to 942 productions in 2001.
This serve to prove that at least some eight years ago the
Savoy operas remained as popular as ever.
A fascinating article for musicians is ‘The Operas in
Detail’, where a lively discussion of Harmony, Counterpoint
and Instrumentation is provided. This survey is related to
an Appendix showing the breakdown of instrumental configuration
for each of Sullivan’s orchestral scores.
In ‘Topsy Turvy’, Film director Mike Leigh is honest,
direct and accurate in his bright appraisal of common opinion.
He homes in succinctly on the quality of the genre, revealing
how unfair snobbery has managed to gain a foothold in certain
camps. He goes on to explain the background to the making of
his film Topsy Turvy - a fascinating story in itself.
However, I found the breakdown of the film’s scenes a
bit out of place as many readers would not wish to study the
film content in this setting.
In ‘Characterisation and Emotion’, we are rightly
reminded that Sullivan replaced a trend of treating choruses
like ‘wallpaper’, by introducing double-choruses
and making them an integral part of the plot like the Sailors
in Pinafore, the Police in Pirates or the Peers
in Iolanthe. His choruses play an important role in
finales and skilfully match the mood of the music to dramatic
changes in the scene. This is evident in the Act I finale of Patience.
Examples of Sullivan’s skill in composition are provided
in detail. One of these relates to a rising fourth and a falling
third suggesting the movement of waves and imagery of the sea
to complement Gilbert’s emotional lyrics.
I found ‘Tracing the Gilbert & Sullivan legacy in
the American musical’ somewhat detached. Emphasis on
an association of the Savoy genre/English satire with Sondheim
was too narrow and was in places contrived. Surely Savoy opera
characteristics in American musicals would first have been
handed down through Herbert/Suppe and later through Kern/Porter/Berlin/Rodgers
(if links have been noticed) before Sondheim? Research in this
respect could have provided really interesting material. If
one doesn’t know Sondheim those accurate comparisons
will be unhelpful.
There is interest for the would-be researcher since the volume
contains appendices. These include a summary of German productions
between 1914 and 2009. There’s also good information
on the source of scores (which are accurate and which are not),
where the autographs are held and what has happened to ‘lost’ numbers.
It would have been helpful to have had works other than Gilbert & Sullivan
included in the Index. I would wish to dip into the Companion
over a period of time and this would have added to the pleasure
and the utility.
I was surprised to find that in defending Sullivan so well,
none of the authors make reference to strong negative criticism
of him spread by two composers, Parry (in written comment)
and Stanford (in verbal criticism). One can only assume that
they were envious of Sullivan’s unbridled success in
the theatre, society and royal circles. An organist, Ernest
Walker in particular (c.1905), went out of his way to smear
Sullivan and all that he stood for in a book written soon after
the composer’s death. He did not justify his claim in
any detail yet this did much to poison the minds of the musical
establishment against Sullivan for the first three-quarters
of the twentieth century. A main reason why Sullivan had been
so disgracefully sidelined by much of the media in his centenary
year (2000) can only be put down to a lasting effect of this.
Sadly, in ignorance, they closed their minds to a genre of
English heritage that is so well documented and respected by
groups and operatic societies worldwide. To be told of the
availability of commercial DVDs of excellent Australian productions
confirms the positive views that the contributors of this Companion
take. Maybe every Performing Arts degree course should include
mention of 19th Century British operatic composers such as
Sullivan, Barnett, Balfe, Wallace, Thomas and Loder. They were
all well trained and intellectually competent at providing
theatrical pleasures that have spanned well over 150 years.
The present volume is primarily intended for those enthusiasts
who think they have read and know everything about Gilbert & Sullivan,
yet clearly have not.
Raymond J Walker