Why are Gilbert & Sullivan so popular?
March 9, 2007 10:57 PM   Subscribe

Why are Gilbert & Sullivan so popular today, at least compared to other light opera composers? I find it hard to believe that they were the only ones creating works in that vein; so why is it that today they're the only ones we remember?

There are dozens of well-known grand opera composers, and probably hundreds of lesser-known ones, spanning hundreds of years. But if you're looking for "light opera", whatever that means, it's hard to think of anyone other then Messrs. G. & S. Is it just that their works are in English, that jokes & horseplay don't translate well, and there are other composers who worked in other languages whose works are just as popular in, say, France, Germany, or Italy? Were there other English composers & librettists who wrote similar works? Or were Gilbert and Sullivan really the best at what they did, to such a degree that we don't remember anyone else?
posted by Johnny Assay to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, they really were the best at what they did.

But not every time. You don't see too many performances of shows like "The Yeomen of the Guard". (I saw it one time, and what a downer of an ending!)

They didn't hit a home run every single time. But when they were good, they were a hell of a lot better than anyone else.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:22 PM on March 9, 2007

Offenbach comes to mind, and his popularity in England created the niche G&S came to fill. For other languages/composers, Wikipedia has some good starting points.

Speaking as a non-expert I'd say that, overall, G&S were really quite good, had good marketing/publicity (they were the Walkman/iPod of light opera in their day -- everyone wanted to be like them), and their material isn't so dated as to be meaningless to a modern audience.
posted by ubernostrum at 11:47 PM on March 9, 2007

(also, that Wikipedia article reminded me that I've heard some of Sousa's work in the genre -- another part of it, I think, is that it wasn't too long after G&S before "light opera" became the modern "stage musical")
posted by ubernostrum at 11:50 PM on March 9, 2007

The answer to this question may depend on where you are. Here in the Netherlands, I think Gilbert and Sullivan were virtually unknown until Topsy-turvy came out. Over here Viennese operettas have always had a devoted following among people over 50, though they're considered naff by everyone else. Strauss' "Der Fledermaus" and Offenbach's light operas are part of the "opera mainstream" and are regularly performed.
posted by rjs at 12:36 AM on March 10, 2007

Best answer: An interesting question. No, Gilbert and Sullivan were not the only ones. There were many, many other composers of English opera comique, mostly now forgotten. They include Frederic Clay (composer of The Pirates' Isle, The Bold Recruit, Princess Toto, etc etc) and Edward Solomon (composer of Rothomago or the Magic Watch, Polly or the Pet of the Regiment, The Nautch Girl or the Rajah of Chutneypore, etc etc). (You can read a synopsis of The Nautch Girl here; I don't think it's due for a revival any time soon ..) This guide to the curtain-raisers performed alongside the G&S operas gives a vivid insight into the world of Victorian comic opera; while the index to Lacy's Victorian Plays shows what an amazingly large number of plays were being written and performed.

So, why have G&S survived when all the rest are forgotten? Largely, of course, because they were the best at what they did. But that's not the only answer. They also succeeded, and survived, because of the entrepreneurial talents of their promoter, Richard D'Oyly Carte, who organised a syndicate (the Comedy Opera Company) to finance their productions, and built his own theatre (the Savoy Theatre) to stage them. The key to his success was that he hired the best performers, maintained very high standards of staging and production, and made use of the most modern technology (e.g. the Savoy Theatre was the first London theatre to be lit entirely by electric light). He also had a monopoly of the G&S operas (continued after his death by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company) and ensured that they never slipped out of the repertory.

(The closest modern equivalent, I suppose, would be Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Clearly, Lloyd-Webber's success has a lot to do with the fact that he is very, very good at his job -- maybe not a great composer, but certainly a highly competent, highly professional one. But the popularity of Cats, Starlight Express, etc, also has a lot to do with the high production standards, the special effects, the hard-sell promotion, and the way that these musicals have become established as permanent fixtures of London theatreland.)

As to why G&S remain so enduringly popular .. the answer, I think, has something to do with national stereotypes, and the fact that the Savoy Operas reflect a certain image of Englishness which the English find very attractive. In that sense they are the English national composers of light opera, just as Offenbach is the French national composer and Lehar the Austrian national composer. Myself, I have a love-hate relationship with G&S: I'm very fond of the music, but it has an element of smug self-satisfaction ('we English, we know how to laugh at ourselves, and that is the secret of our national greatness') which I find intensely irritating if I stop to think about it. The only way I can enjoy G&S is just to let myself be carried along by the music without trying to analyse it too deeply.
posted by verstegan at 2:49 AM on March 10, 2007 [8 favorites]

Sorry but I must put my 2 cents in to say G&S have nothing in common with Lloyd Webber save the stages both composers' shows might be performed on. That and the fact that in their time, they were the ne plus ultra of their genre- anyone who was anyone had to see it.

Other than that it's not the same. G&S scores are full of incredibly witty social commentary that skewered multiple streotypes, often in an almost in a Python-esque fashion. ALW (or maybe more specifically Tim Rice) can't hold a candle to their skill.

Well-done G&S (productions at Canada's Stratford Festival come to mind) are fantastic. If you just don't "get" G&S then you probably haven't seen it done right.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:05 AM on March 10, 2007

Response by poster: Good answers all.

...the Savoy Operas reflect a certain image of Englishness which the English find very attractive. In that sense they are the English national composers of light opera...

So then why are they popular in America as well — at least, more so than any other light opera composers? Part of me doubts that it's just Anglophilia.

I actually have seen a performance of "Yeomen of the Guard" — I've performed in the pit orchestra for a community G&S society for a few of their productions, and they did YotG last year. Although I agree it's not the equal of "H.M.S. Pinafore", which I'm playing for currently, it still does have some good tunes, and the ending actually did get me choked up when I saw it.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:42 AM on March 10, 2007

I think G&S's continued popularity might have something to do with the founding of Gilbert & Sullivan societies that exclusively or regularly perform those works. Maybe it's just where I've lived, but the only other plays I can think of that have their own societies are Shakespeare's. Are there Rodgers & Hart societies? Maybe.

G&S also has a tradition of being updated for the audience (like Ko-Ko's "little list" which is (at UMGASS anyway) updated for every performance with whoever's unpopular at the time). This makes the humor a little more flexible and accessible to modern audiences, although most of the themes are pretty accessible anyway.

Only other operetta writer I can think of: Lehar (The Merry Widow)
posted by srah at 8:48 AM on March 10, 2007

In fact they were even created, not just promoted, by D'Oyly Carte -- a la New Kids on the Block. Knowing them both (Gilbert was already a successful playwright), he convinced them to work together.
posted by lorimer at 12:15 PM on March 10, 2007

They were designed to be musically sophisticated, but funny and broad enough to appeal to those who find opera inaccessible.

Seconding what srah said about societies, which were possible partly because G & S works are so perform-able -- the character roles can even be carried off well by a great actor with a merely servicable voice.

The Wikipedia pages on light opera, comic opera, and operetta are pretty good, with other examples of notable composers.
posted by desuetude at 12:55 PM on March 10, 2007

Arthur Sullivan was a very serious composer...really much to good for this lite genre (as he himself would have been the first to declare). He may not have been a BRILLIANT very serious composer (ok, he was NOT brilliant), but he was definitely up there.

So the quality of what he offered a somewhat fluffy genre felt as lavish, at the time, as the quality Leonard Bernstein offered Broadway in the late 50's (apologies to broadway musical fans...my point is that "The Pajama Game" was not, like, Mahler). It was a vast upgrade to the genre.

And Gilbert was a brilliantly funny lyricist and had the great drive to pull it all together.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 3:40 PM on March 10, 2007

Wasn't the American Victor Herbert as popular as G & S? But now he's only known for Babes in Toyland.
posted by Rash at 10:21 PM on March 10, 2007

What about Sondheim?
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:39 AM on March 11, 2007

I've had the pleasure of introducing some G&S fans to this, so I should mention it here: "How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan," on a CD called The Anna Russell Album, is 15 minutes of some of the most inspired and dead-on satire I've heard on any topic. Her patter song, in particular, is funnier and even more nimble than any of the originals. The more you know G&S the more you will love this.
posted by lorimer at 12:42 AM on March 13, 2007

dirtynumbangelboy, the line between musical theatre and light opera is fuzzy, to be sure, but Sondheim is pretty squarely on the musical theatre side. Neither Sondheim's musical style nor storytelling structure directly references opera strongly enough for the comparison to be useful.
posted by desuetude at 6:40 AM on March 13, 2007

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