A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

In defense of Gilbert and Sullivan


I went to see The Pirates of Penzance last night. It was a jolly evening. I wore my best thigh slapping boots and toyed with the idea of sporting a skull and crossbones. Friends and colleagues were there, and the smoked salmon sandwiches in the Utzon Room were just dandy.

But what about the show?

It’s been a long time since I sat through an entire Gilbert and Sullivan show. It’s not that I don’t like them; I just like other things  better, and when you’ve got eight shows to get through in the Winter Season a couple sometimes slip through the cracks. In fact, I think the last time I ‘did’ G&S I was playing the violin in a tiny theatre somewhere near Bondi Junction. I remember then being blown away by the beautifully turned tunes. It was Mikado and that sixth leap at the beginning of ‘Tit Willow’ totally charmed me.

But back to Opera Australia’s The Pirates of Penzance. It’s a classy production. Not lavish, mind — the 2D ships and trees  are clever and effective but they strike me as designed with touring in mind.  The costumes are quaint but nothing like the over-the-top confabulations of their Gondoliers production. But the main ingredients — the music, the performances, the direction — are hard to fault. I mean, Anthony Warlow giving it all he’s got, Peter Carroll hamming it up, and the Opera Australia chorus doing the pirate thang… What’s not to like? Opera-goers could quibble about the amplification, which sounds tacky until you enter into full suspension of disbelief mode. Or about the quality of the voices, which are not all full-blown operatic blasters (although Frederic and Mabel deliver a very touching duet).

In the end, I suspect the main objection of naysayers is the repertoire itself. Gilbert and Sullivan. Eeoo. Patter songs. Double ick. Corny jokes and double time reprises. Yuck-O. Why does Australia’s national opera company stoop so low?

I’ll tell you why. Because Gilbert and Sullivan are the genii of the genre, because their work deserves (and rewards) performances of the highest calibre, and, most of all, because no-one else is doing it. Since the demise of Kookaburra, Opera Australia is the only professional company creating new productions of musicals (rather than cookie cutter restagings from the various really useful mackintoshs). It is also the only company with the infrastructure — an ensemble company, a full orchestra, set building / costume making / facilities — to be able to create new work, perform it to a high standard, keep it in repertoire and get it to a wide audience. The fact that they do it alongside a smorgasbord of opera from Monteverdi to Mills is, to my mind, a demonstration of how versatile their artists can be. I mean, it’s all very well singing Dove Sono like an angel – Mozart’s good like that — but can you spit out a million words a minute and do the pirate dance and win the juvenile lead’s heart all at once?

I’m not sure when my next G&S will be. I’m a bit more of a Lulu person, myself. But I’d hate to see Gilbert and Sullivan become strictly am-dram material. The am-dram classics are classic because they’re wonderful pieces of theatre (which is why STC is doing Our Town this year). And while no other professional company is keeping the good ship G&S afloat, I’m delighted that Australia’s national opera company is playing its part.


  1. I agree completely. Part of my early music education came in the form of attending some good professional performances of G & S in, first, Adelaide and then Melbourne. I can still, just about, recite Trial by Jury (it would be wise not to ask me to sing it). G & S is a fine way to introduce the young to a musical theatre genre which can inculcate a love of singing in the theatre. After all, it is good fun. But along with the fun, Arthur Sullivan is a very good composer. A creator of some fine melodies, and outside his G & S work excellent choral works.
    I may not always include the G & S in my OA subscription. But I have enjoyed a number of their past performance greatly.

  2. He is a good composer. And you can almost hear him squirming at the duality of his career — having a superb facility for writing music, and using the facility to write comic operettas.

    I sometimes feel the same way when I do copy-writing. I’m quite proud of the wordsmithing I do, but it’s not the next great novel. But in all probability if I actually attempted the great novel it would be totally useless.

    I digress. Linguistically and musically, not to mention sociologically and politically, there is so much in Gilbert and Sullivan to appreciate, but perhaps satire has always been a poor relative of ‘high art’. I certainly enjoyed it more than Sonnambula, vocal pyrotechnics notwithstanding.

  3. For those who truly love Gilbert & Sullivan, there are two annual festivals where one can totally “flake out” on G&S 24/7. The original Gilbert & Sullivan Festival (now in it’s 18th year) is in Buxton, England – 30 July to 20 August, 2011 and in North America in Gettysburg, PA from 24 June to 3 July, 2011.

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