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.
“Satire and silliness are two of mankind’s greatest pleasures. Try it – I dare you not to love it!”
And Australia? We’ve long been an export market for G&S. The first ‘official’ production of The Mikado was seen in Australia just six months after its 1885 London premiere. In the 1870s two different productions of H.M.S. Pinafore were playing across the street from one another in Melbourne. The theatrical promoter JC Williamson smelled an opportunity and secured the rights to all future productions in Australia and New Zealand; G&S became one of his biggest cash cows.
In 1961 the copyright on G&S operas expired. Companies all over the world relished in new productions, freed from rigid stylistic guidelines. Since then, there have been countless ‘modern’ productions. We’ve seen G&S on The Muppet Show and The Simpsons. Each new incarnation, however absurd the premise, only confirms the inherent strengths of the originals. G&S is no longer the go-to for amateur productions as it was when I was at school. Many will come to this festival with no knowledge of its traditions.
This is no bad thing. We now have an opportunity to reassess this repertoire without the weight of a century of performance practice. We can discover these delightful concoctions afresh.
Which is why I’m thrilled to be able to introduce the pleasures of G&S to a whole new generation in May 2023, when State Opera South Australia presents an action-packed program of performances, conversations and laughs over two weekends. This new G&S Festival will be exclusive to Adelaide – the only festival of its kind outside the UK – and promises to be a memorable experience for aficionados and newcomers alike.
Stuart Maunder AM
State Opera South Australia