People often ask, who were Gilbert and Sullivan? Or what are Gilbert and Sullivan? My best answer is usually in comparison with William Shakespeare. They don’t have the same style, however, in many ways, they’re treated the same in terms of them both being their own genre in a sense. I wasn’t introduced to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas until more recently, but they have left a unique impression on me. I knew of several of their operas in the past but had no idea these two men were behind the comic and iconic madness of these shows.
Dramatist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan were theatrical partners of the Victorian era producing fourteen comic operas together. Gilbert would write the stories of the operas while Sullivan would compose the music to complement the unique plots. Some of the most well known G&S operas that almost every avid theatre fan knows of are The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. Many high schools, colleges, and professional theatre companies have performed these shows. I’ve only been able to delve into one in particular, which was The Mikado, but it was a challenge in so many ways.
Not only is the music beautiful in these operas, but the stories ooze pathos and idiocy, and make you laugh at the absurdness of the plots. At the same time, they help you appreciate the strong character choices made by Gilbert and the extreme jokes that can’t help but make you crack up. These plots are not precisely one-liner jokes or funny comments; it’s the quirkiness of the characters and the scenarios they are in that make us laugh.
The music choices by Sullivan are a real challenge for any opera vocalist and make you have to study the music. This helps actors and vocalists gain valuable experience when researching and analyzing the scores. The Mikado and The Gondoliers, in particular, are some of the most vocally challenging G&S operas in my opinion. From a stage manager’s perspective, studying the score for The Mikado and following it throughout rehearsals was a real challenge for me. I didn’t have a formal background in music, so this was a significant growing and learning experience in terms of reading the score and understanding the flow of the music, the structure of the written music and learning about the vocal end of it.
When you first sit down and listen to some of Sullivan’s music choices, usually the first impression you might get is that it’s really beautiful music. The second reaction is often a more surprised and amazed because of the incredible voices and vocal ranges it takes to sing this kind of opera.
Many directors don’t gravitate towards G&S operas. It becomes like a do it once and move on kind of genre in the theatre world. For other directors, it’s all they do. They study it; they research it, they memorize it and master it. I’ve learned to appreciate and respect directors who do this, but I do agree with others who feel it becomes less of a challenge after a while. But that could be with any show you do. I think maybe that goes with how I treat theatre and how I work in it on a personal level. I never focus on a certain kind of show unless I am incredibly fascinated with it. I am always open to everything and never stay with one type of show for long. I am quick to work with one style, appreciate it, learn from it, embrace it to pieces, but then move on. I like to have a wide range of experience on my plate and never limit myself in that way. However, G&S operas give us a basis and a general understanding of operas and scores even though they are not considered lite operas. It’s challenging as I said before, but it’s testing the first time you do it. The second and third time, you get the hang of it…..hopefully.
I believe these operas are great first learning experiences and are an excellent way to get your feet wet in operas before you do something like maybe Phantom of the Opera. So it’s not that I don’t like doing many G&S operas it is not personal to G&S. I never stay in one area of theatre for long regardless of the show. I have wholeheartedly embraced G&S and do love it. I appreciated their work and became immersed in the insane character choices and funny scenes and costumes. I think where I treat and place Gilbert and Sullivan in my theatre career, is that it may not be a style I’d do over and over again, but to be a true thespian, I need to include a G&S opera, or several, in my lineup at least once. I believe it’s a must do and strongly encourage all of you to delve into one if you haven’t already. You may hate it, but at least you can say you’ve done it.
The Mikado has been my first and only G&S opera that I have worked on personally, and it was a controversial one, to begin with. The criticism around this opera through the years is one that I understand and sympathize. Back in 2014, a performance of The Mikado in Seattle, Washington drew in some controversy regarding a simplistic portrayal of Asian stereotypes. This sort of debate has been going on since the early 1990s causing many companies to ban it or ignore it and choosing other G&S shows to perform instead. The general essence of the show is to mirror the British culture from a more silly, Asian, blurred comparison to reality. It necessarily is a made up, insane, fantasy world, with the main point based on more cultural severe issues of the British. However, it can be sensitive to people, and I can honestly say, I get it. I believe every company or school who decides to do it, should consider this.
The company producing the production I was involved in does one Gilbert, and Sullivan show a year. It had been a while since The Mikado was performed within this company. So rather than to ignore it, the company decided to delve into it and treat it as the art it indeed is. It was time.
I think the approach this time around to doing it for this company, was a simple one yet conscious of what some people may feel. I think a lot of this is all about the director’s perspective and individual, creative vision of what he wants to do with it. I think the mindset was to keep it light and fun and capture the true essence of the show. People’s first reaction to The Mikado is that it’s fun and hilarious and I think everyone should try to remember that when doing this G&S production in particular. However, keep the other stuff in the back of your mind. You don’t have to agree with it necessarily, but be mindful of it and acknowledge people’s feelings. At the end of the day, a show is what you make of it, and I believe that is something we should carry with us as thespians as a whole.