Gilbert and Sullivan’s best works fit perfectly into the 21st centuryby Alexandra Coghlan / April 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 p…