Model modern satire

Gilbert and Sullivan’s best works fit perfectly into the 21st century
April 24, 2013

Opera North’s 2010 production of Ruddigore © Opera North

Gilbert and Sullivan—the very names conjure a sepia world of amateur dramatics in which Britannia still rules the waves with indulgent despotism and where there is still honey for tea. Is there a place for the gentle social comedy of a bygone era in 2013?

“The whole idea of English satire can be traced back through Gilbert,” says Derek Clark, head of music at Scottish Opera, where a new production of The Pirates of Penance is about to open. “If he were alive today I think he’d be a big fan of Monty Python. That same zany, surreal humour—gentle but never anodyne—is what Gilbert and Sullivan are all about.”

Clark is not their only high-profile fan. Jo Brand and Alistair McGowan recently took roles in The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, Aaron Sorkin has repeatedly championed his musical heroes in his writing for television shows like The West Wing, and even Mike Leigh devoted his award-winning 1999 film Topsy-Turvy to their creative partnership.

Opera companies have been slower to return to the fold, lagging behind Broadway, which staged its Tony Award-winning adaptation of Pirates in the 1980s. But recently the revival has gained pace, with Jonathan Miller’s iconic Mikado returning almost annually to English National Opera and the tricky Gothic fantasy Ruddigore coming from nowhere to gain huge critical acclaim in Jo Davies’s 2010 Opera North production.

Ian Martin, general manager for D’Oyly Carte Opera—Gilbert and Sullivan’s champions since the 1870s—thinks the success of Ruddigore comes down to authenticity. “Opera North took the piece seriously. They presented it for what it was, and didn’t try and do anything too unexpected with it. I think when you do that audiences can see that these pieces are really worthwhile.”

It was certainly true of Victorian London. A chance commission brought barrister and playwright WS Gilbert and young composer Arthur Sullivan together in 1871, accidentally forming the creative partnership that would go on to produce some of the biggest commercial hits of their day. But while Sullivan’s ambitions ultimately lay in realism and Grand Opera, Gilbert, with his satirical sense of the absurd, had no such lofty aims. Tensions blighted—and almost dissolved—the partnership that endured more than 20 years and some 15 productions.

Far from the emotive dramas their composer hoped for, or the harmless bits of vintage fun we now label them, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are clever and self-aware parodies of British social, political and cultural mores. Iolanthe, their 1882 collaboration, mocks the House of Lords and its hereditary peers, while Utopia, Limited has a persuasive point to make about the political dangers of imperialism and the social absurdities of a globalised world. HMS Pinafore’s study of snobbery and tensions of rank remains equally relevant in 21st-century Britain.

Gilbert and Sullivan are also starting to be recognised as the missing link between the increasingly polarised worlds of West End musical theatre and opera, a gap down which audiences too sophisticated for one and too alienated for the latter are being lost. “Most European countries have a national light opera or operetta company,” explains Martin. “And there’s a whole repertoire that has fallen off the radar in the UK that has a foot in both camps, most notably Gilbert and Sullivan but also Jacques Offenbach and Franz Lehár.”

While Sullivan may have spent his career longing for recognition as a serious operatic composer, both he and Gilbert might have enjoyed the irony of their new-found success in Britain’s opera houses. Writing his operettas while working for music publishers Boosey & Hawkes, Sullivan’s melodies and arrangements took inspiration from the operas that passed across his desk. He reworked these sources in sophisticated pastiches and musical satires, poking fun at the pomposity of the repertoire that still dominates our stages today.

It has now been just over 100 years since Gilbert’s death in 1911. A notorious roué, he suffered heart failure while taking a midnight swim with two young ladies in the lake at the bottom of his garden—a tragedy that occurred while his wife was asleep in her bed. In art, as in life, Gilbert and Sullivan prove themselves more playful, risqué and modern than we give them credit for. Their best works may be over a century old, but in the words of Trial By Jury’s judge, “they may very well pass for 43 in the dusk with the light behind [them].