Opera & Musical Theater

Gilbert vs. Sullivan

Ask any actor and they'll tell you: Comedy is much, much harder to do than drama. And yet, come awards time, even brilliantly done comedy rarely is rewarded. It's common knowledge that comedy films and the comedic performances in them have little chance at scoring an Academy Award.

And so it is in the world of musical theater. Operetta, or light opera, continues to prosper, all the while never seeming to command the respect in critical circles, or sometimes even with audiences, given opera. This despite the fact that it usually takes the same creative resources to produce, and despite the fact that there are more than a few operas that have never exactly held lofty ambitions.   I mean, let’s face it, Giordano’s Andrea Chenier and Cilea’s Adrianna Lecouvreur can make for some very entertaining nights in the theater, but high art they ain’t

The light opera masterworks of Gilbert and Sullivan, by contrast, are much more stylistically demanding than either of the afore-mentioned operas . . . yet even these two great masters have not been immune to prejudice. In fact, this comic opera inferiority complex played an important role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s often tempestuous relationship, with  Sir Arthur Sullivan eager to distance himself from the comic operettas that had made him and W.S. Gilbert so famous.

Just prior to leaving England for his summer stint in Houston to direct and star in the Houston Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of Yeomen of the Guard, G&S scholar Alistair Donkin took time to shed more light on Gilbert and Sullivan’s divergent ambitions. Explains Donkin: “It is clear from the many resource books on the subject of Gilbert and Sullivan’s stormy partnership that they were very different animals indeed.  Gilbert had a fixation for the so-called “Lozenge plot” whereby the characters are altered by some potion or other device changing their behavior, and only being corrected in the last moments of the opera.  Sullivan, whilst enjoying the financial fruits of his labors in the Savoy Operas [so named for the theater built to perform them], yearned to write a serious piece and was in fact urged to do so later in life by Queen Victoria herself.  D’Oyly Carte [the impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together] actually built The Royal English Opera House (renamed the Palace Theatre) in London expressly for the opera Ivanhoe written by Sullivan. It was only the suggestion of the plot of Yeomen by Gilbert to Sullivan which saved the situation.  But even days before the opening performance Gilbert was so unsure of what they had created that he was still insisting to Sullivan on changes.

So how did the two partners resolve their differences? “This was resolved to some extent by the writing of The Gondoliers,” says Donkin, “in which the premise of ‘Two Kings rule jointly’ refers directly to the two partners.  Each deferred to the other and was equally generous in praise of the other’s work. However this happiness did not last many days after the opening of Gondoliers due to a quarrel, of all things, about the re-carpeting of the Savoy Theatre by D’Oyly Carte.  Sullivan took D’Oyly Carte’s side in the argument and Gilbert stormed out of the meeting set to resolve things, calling them Blackguards!  They were not to work together again for many years and when they did for Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke it was clear that, despite some musical gems, they had lost that spark which made them so so great.”

Small wonder, then, that works like Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke have gone out of the standard Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire. 

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s 2008 production, Yeomen of the Guard, is noted as the pair’s “darkest” work. Is that due to Sullivan trying to take them in a more serious direction? “I think Yeomen is dark due to it’s setting in the infamous Tower of London rather than a deliberate attempt at its inception to make it so,” responded Alistair Donkin.  “Mind you, it did give Sullivan an opportunity for more “grand” music with its pomp and ceremony.”

“It is, of course, strange to say the least that a so-called comic opera should have a tragic ending,” Donkin continues, “and there has been endless speculation over the years as to what exactly Gilbert intended as the Curtain falls. The stage direction for the character Jack Point is that “he falls insensible at her (Elsie’s) feet. The assumption is that he is to faint, but it is said that one of the touring companies, shortly after the opera was premiered, had a variation done without sanction by the actor playing the role. Unlike the established performer in the London Production, he had no reputation as a comic actor to maintain, and quite clearly “died” at this point rather than fainted. The Touring Company Manager contacted Gilbert for a ruling on this but Gilbert’s response having seen it played this way was ‘It is just what I want.  Jack Point should die and the end of the opera should be a tragedy.’  However the stage direction was never altered and it has thus been debated for many, many years.  I play it as a death, since to my mind the music itself swells to a climax and crushes Point into the stage.”

There are six performances of Yeomen of the Guard by Houston’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society in the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater: July 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, and 27, 2008. 


> click here to visit Houston’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society website