Stuart Maunder on discovering the topsy-turvy delights of the G&S operas
I discovered Gilbert & Sullivan as a 16 year old rehearsing for a high school production. First, I fell in love with W.S. Gilbert’s language – words you’d never meet in ordinary life, words seemingly coined for the sheer thrill of it.
Then came Arthur Sullivan. I revelled in his sprightly, gleeful musical invention, getting my first taste of classical music along the way. His ability to satirise, and celebrate, other composers led me to a whole new world: Handel, Donizetti, Verdi, even Wagner… And yet it was always unmistakably Sullivan.
Gilbert and Sullivan created 14 comic operas that endure to this day. Their staying power is extraordinary but not unexplainable. Gilbert’s dramatic situations – hinging on plot devices such as babies swapped at birth or ridiculous legal technicalities – are still funny and, let’s face it, stranger things happen on Home and Away. Sullivan’s music offers a romantic foil to Gilbert’s drollery and cynicism, almost sabotaging the words as he transforms them in glorious melody. This ‘topsy-turvy’ friction was at the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan’s creative relationship. The resulting fusion of gentle, witty satire and genuine heartfelt emotion hasn’t aged – indeed, it’s something we need now more than ever.