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Saturday, 7 September 2013

Gilbert & Sullivan Operas—art at the level of immortality

Author Clint Smith is a Gilbert and Sullivan tragic. He tells us he has seen all the Operas several times over the years and even acted in a few. And that they never lose their freshness. Here is his appreciation:

The G&S phenomenon is well documented indeed. Every remaining artifact and anecdote has been mined by books, reviews, miniseries, films and documentaries. Every quip, musical reference, faded photograph, cartoon, playbill, costume sketch, has been lovingly reproduced, repeated, recounted, annotated. 

So there is little more to say. Except to point out that it is now almost 139 years since Trial By Jury was first staged in 1875 and 143 since Thespis (1871).

Any comic opera that survives more than a century is not only notable but also exceptional. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are certainly that—derivative at times, weak in patches, but generally so perfectly constructed that the grand edifice appears unmarked by time. And the enthusiasm of everyone who appears in such productions or attends them is equally timeless.

After the triumph of one masterpiece, The Gondoliers, an unusually benign Gilbert wrote to Sullivan: "I must thank you for the magnificent work you have put into this piece. It gives one the chance of shining right through the twentieth century with a reflected light." Sullivan replied: "Don't talk of reflected light. In such a perfect book as The Gondoliers you shine with an individual brilliance which no other writer can hope to attain." Both were right. But neither man could have envisaged that the gracious old operas, like majestic galleons depicted by Turner, would sail not only through the twentieth century with their lilt and brilliance undimmed but into the next—the age of Higgs bosons, Mars rovers, quantum entanglement and stem cells.

This is more remarkable when you consider that, when Thespis was produced, the orchestra wore top hats and the cast rehearsed with handwritten manuscripts because the typewriter had not been invented. And that the whole production was lighted by a central T shaped arrangement of gas jets that illuminated the piece so poorly that anyone not centre-stage vanished into gloom.

Before Gilbert met Sullivan, he was a very successful playwright. His plays are now long forgotten except by G&S researchers. As for Sullivan, that darling of Royalty, he hoped to restore the reputation of British music with serious works such as his oratorios The Prodigal Son and The Light of the World—ponderous attempts now as neglected as Gilbert's plays.

Compared to the sublime composers of Austria and Germany, Sullivan's serious music is mundane. And in his comic operas, his sense of fun and parody of the 'greats' is easily dismissed by those with cultural pretensions. If tunefulness and adroitness is not 'serious' mediocre intellects would not dare not call it 'great'. Consequently, as a composer, he has long listed with the lightweights.

But time is the ultimate art critic and the ageless popularity of the music increasingly affirms its worth. So, as the operas dance through the centuries, the opinion of Sullivan had to be revised. British music has few significant composers. And in that company, Sullivan is a giant. Strangely, this man, who detested being shackled to light opera, yet could toss off the evergreen score of Trial By Jury in a couple of days, consistently failed to see where his supremacy lay. Yet his audience knew it at once. And posterity has proved it right.

As for Gilbert, his translation of his lugubrious Bab Ballads into masterful topsyturveydom, together with his brilliance as a producer/stage manager—unique in his era—and, not least, his admirable good taste, provide virtues enough to secure his position among the exalted. But this was just part of his accomplishment. He did something even more remarkable—wrote satire that is universal. So his operas do not date! And this has thrust him among the immortals with equal thunder, fanfare and acclaim.

The Savoy Operas now grace Grand Opera Theatres—whenever they are seriously short of funds—remain the staple of school musical productions and continue to be enthusiastically produced by amateur and semi-professional groups worldwide.
Gilbert and Sullivan did far more than revive British comic opera (which had languished since The Beggars Opera—150 years before them). They created a body of work, so sparkling, witty and endearing that it will breeze through the twenty-first century and probably the twenty-second.
If that is not evidence of epic artistic achievement, what is?

You can find Clinton Smith's thrillers on Buzzword.

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