Posts Tagged ‘Gilbert & Sullivan’

Great moments in opera: The Mikado

February 6, 2012

If there is a spectacle of song and stage more delightful than The Mikado, I do not know what it is. Oh sure, the premise is ridiculous, the plot is inscrutable, and the characters — bearing names like Pish-Tush, Yum-Yum, and Nanki-Poo — are, at best, caricatures. But the music is so good, and the text is so witty, and it is all served up with such warm-hearted humour that audiences have found it irresistible ever since its 1885 premiere.

The story is set in Japan, in the town of Titipu. The ruler of Titipu, The Mikado, has decreed that in his jurisdiction flirting is to be punished by death. I forget why. The people of Titipu, naturally distressed by this decree, have contrived a clever remedy. They arranged for . . . well, they thought about it, you see, and . . . just a moment. Oh yes, they . . . hmm. How about I let Pish-Tush explain? Here is Our great Mikado, virtuous man [text]:

They are right, I think you’ll say, to reason in that kind of way. So that’s clear enough.

We are soon introduced to three young ladies, Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, and Pitti-Sing, who, judging from their song, are on their way home from school. This, I must say, is one of the most memorable of all of Gilbert & Sullivan’s songs. In fact (if I may make a private disclosure), on those not infrequent occasions when I spontaneously burst into song, it often happens that this is the song I sing. In any case, it seems that few can hear it without making remarks. (i.e. “Stop singing, Daddy.”) Here is Three little maids from school [text], excerpted from the film Topsy Turvy:

Yum-Yum, it turns out, is betrothed to Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, but she loves the minstrel Nanki-Poo, who loves her in return. Clear? This puts Nanki-Poo in a bit of a tough spot, for not only is he tempted to flirt, he is tempted to flirt with the Executioner’s fiancée. The situation calls for tact, and Nanki-Poo hits on a brilliant tactic: flirtation under cover of the subjunctive. Here is their love duet, Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted [text]:

These happy affairs are interrupted by a directive from the Mikado: at least one person must be executed within the next month. I forget why. Talk around town turns to the question of who it ought to be. In this trio, I am so proud [text], each of Pooh-Bah, Ko-Ko, and Pish-Tush argues that it ought not to be him. I am especially fond of the closing section of this excerpt:

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!

Complications ensue. Deals are made. New, but still distressing, bylaws are discovered. Things fall out, as they will. Along the way we are treated to a few quiet moments with Yum-Yum, in which she sings The sun, whose rays are all ablaze [text]. I consider this to be among Arthur Sullivan’s greatest achievements as a melodist. It is a lovely song that would not, I think, be out of place in a grand opera.

In the end, Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo somehow obtain the blessing of the Mikado for their marriage. I will not attempt to explain how this happens; it is one of life’s little mysteries. It is enough to simply enjoy the closing chorus, For he’s gone and married Yum-Yum [text], which is as rousing and joyful a chorus as you are ever likely to hear. Here again is an excerpt from Topsy Turvy:

Great moments in opera: Pirates of Penzance

January 23, 2012

The Pirates of Penzance followed the success of H.M.S. Pinafore, receiving its premiere (in New York, interestingly) in 1879. Like its predecessor, it is one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most beloved works. It has the wit and charm characteristic of their most successful collaborations (even if, in my opinion, it is not quite as good as Pinafore and The Mikado).

The story is quite silly, as you would expect: a young man must serve a term of indentured servitude to a raft of pirates before he can marry his true love. Complications ensue.

Each of the clips below is taken from a 1983 film adaptation, starring Kevin Kline and — if you can believe it — Angela Lansbury. I am reluctant to use these clips because they are sort of odd: the voices are not recorded in a natural acoustic space, and there is something vaguely robotic about their sound. But there are not many clips of decent quality available, so I am stuck with these.

No doubt the most famous section of Penzance is the patter-song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”. It is one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s great hits, known (I imagine) to anyone who knows anything about any of Gilbert & Sullivan’s music, and much beloved.

The popularity of this song has led to many, many imitations. A few that I could find: about Obamatranshumanistspsychopharmacologists, and the periodic table.


It is sometimes not appreciated that Gilbert & Sullivan are occasionally poking fun at the operatic hits of their time. Penzance provides some good examples, and the particular target is Verdi’s Il trovatore.

Consider “With cat-like tread”, in which the pirates sing a rousing chorus about how quiet they are. This is a parody of the so-called “Anvil Chorus” in Il trovatore, which was much ridiculed for doing the same thing. It is really quite funny:

Another good example is the Policeman’s Chorus, “When the foeman bares his steel”. This is funny all the way through: it is a double-chorus, first for a group of men (the policemen) and then women (the Major-General’s numerous daughters); the men are confessing their fear at confronting the pirates, and the women are giving them, well, some sort of encouragement, I suppose. Towards the end the two choruses join forces in a contrapuntal tour de force, but the music ensnares them: they are singing about going on their way, but the music itself prevents their going. This is likely a parody of “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore, in which the same absurdity occurs. But it is certainly humorous enough on its own terms:

Great moments in opera: H.M.S. Pinafore

November 25, 2011

Everyone, I suppose, has their favourite Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Most of the time I am inclined to name The Mikado as mine, but in those moments when I crinkle my brow at the thought of ladies attending seminary, or sink wearily under the weight of faux-Japanese gibberish, it is H.M.S. Pinafore that crests the waves and comes to my rescue. From start to finish it is packed full of good humour, sharp wit, and infectious melodies, with hardly a misstep anywhere. It is really hard to imagine a more winsome combination.

This week I had the good fortune to view, for the first time, a stage performance (on DVD) of the work. As I watched, I was embarrassed to realize that, despite the fact that I could sing along to a good portion of the music, I did not actually know the story, for I had never before heard the dialogue that comes between the musical numbers. The plot is essentially a love triangle with a good bit of class consciousness thrown in, with the various difficulties being magically resolved at the last moment by a ridiculous contrivance. This story, as always with Gilbert & Sullivan, is ludicrous, but still it was enjoyable to learn how the various songs fit together in context.

One is spoiled for choice of good music in Pinafore, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of the clips available online. This operetta is, it seems, a favourite of small-time musical societies the world over, each of which posts a grainy, dark, out of focus, and muffled recording of its performance online. I have had a horrendous time sifting through them to find something decent. The DVD I watched was from Opera Australia, and it was superb (recommended without reservations!), but I could find only a few clips from it.

Here is one. This is I am the Captain of the Pinafore [text], an introductory number in which we get to know the Captain and his right good crew. The Captain is sung here by Anthony Warlow.

When I was a lad [text] is probably the most famous song in the piece. In it, the First Lord of the Admiralty describes how he rose to his position of eminence. The part is sung here by Drew Forsythe:

I am fond of the finale to Act I, which is quite jaunty and has some nice contrapuntal surprises, but I cannot find a decent clip. Alas.

Alas the more: good online clips of the best numbers from Act II elude me. I am thinking in particular of Never mind the why and wherefore [text]. I shall have to make do with this audio-only clip (albeit from the best available recording):

If H.M.S. Pinafore droops anywhere, it is in the finale [text]. That’s a bad place to droop, obviously, but there you have it. Sullivan weaves a medley of tunes we’ve heard before, but prominent among them is a grand (that is, rather dull) chorus on the theme “He is an Englishman” — where “Englishman” is understood to mean something like “As Good A Chap As You’re Likely To Find”. Our hearts are supposed to swell with pride at hearing this chorus, but mine does not, and so the finale fizzles for me. Fiddlesticks.

The [text] links in this post all go to the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive. My thanks to them for making the libretto available online in such a convenient and readable format.

Great moments in opera: Trial by Jury

August 16, 2011

The taxonomy of stage-and-song extravaganzas is sometimes ambiguous. The Gilbert & Sullivan collaborations, of which Trial by Jury was the first, are not, despite their designation as ‘Savoy Operas’, generally considered to be operas in the strict sense, and certainly not in the grand sense. I suppose they could be called operettas, or even stage musicals. In the end it hardly matters. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and no difficulties of nomenclature can efface the bountiful pleasures afforded by Gilbert & Sullivan’s whaddaya-call-ems.

The inspiration in Trial by Jury isn’t as consistently high as in their later, more famous works, and at only about 40 minutes in length it is comparatively slight, but it is good, clean fun all the same. The ludicrous plot involves a man on trial for forsaking his wife, and mostly serves as an excuse to poke fun at judges, juries, and law courts generally.

The most famous song in Trial by Jury is “When I, good friends, was called to the bar”, in which the judge explains to the court how it was that he came to be a judge. His career path was quite atypical — or was it?

The part is sung here by Anthony Warlow in a superb production from Opera (there’s that word again!) Australia. It’s a very funny performance. The words can be found here.