Photography: Jonathan Hordle/Shutterstock
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, living above my parents’ candy store in Brighton, a terrible thing happened. I developed an obsession, a dark urge that threatened to derail my happy family home. My schoolwork suffered, I found myself unable to sleep, and my poor parents feared for my sanity. Social services were even mentioned. The diagnosis, at least, was simple. I had become addicted to Gilbert and Sullivan.
The entry drug, if there was one, was an encounter with their operetta The Yeomen of The Guard; for it was here, on Tower Green, among the Beefeaters, that my epiphany occurred. It may have been just a home-made staging at my boys’ high school, yet despite the wonky sets, the female roles played by improbably chesty firsts, and an orchestra resembling a bag of traumatized cats, I I was captivated by this perfect synthesis of drama, comedy and unforgettable melodies. There was even a promised live performance. What more could a boy want?
Within weeks of this life-changing encounter, I knew all 13 “Savoyard operas” (so named after the London theater most closely associated with their world premieres) by heart. I satiated my urge to perform in them by forming my own Gilbert and Sullivan concert band with other afflicted souls from my peer group, while my evenings were spent traveling to see amateur productions of Ruddigore or The Mikado in remote corners of the county. And when I had sufficient funds, my precious savings were not spent on booze, drugs or girlfriends, but on trips to London to worship at the sanctuary of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. , guardians of the Savoyard flame, at home in Sadler’s. Well.
I was captivated by this synthesis of drama, comedy and unforgettable melodies. There was even a promised live performance. What more could a boy want?
Fifty years later and though my passion may have shifted to Verdi and Puccini, and the name D’Oyly Carte is no more than an occasional answer on Mastermind, I must thank WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan for igniting my love of classical music in general and grand opera in particular. And yet, I still find myself sometimes having to defend their reputation. “All that tiddle-om-pom-pom stuff,” say sneering critics of this very English art form; a classical music professional – and choir specialist – admitted to me recently that he “never really considered them”. It is his loss. There’s so much more to Gilbert and Sullivan than whimsical stories and hummable songs. As in all alchemy, it is the suffusion of two disparate elements that turns into something special. Gilbert was perhaps not an outstanding playwright, and Sullivan was perhaps a little below Mozart or Beethoven as a composer; but mix them and the result is pure gold.
Inevitably, critics of these bastions of Victorian propriety will question the relevance of Savoy operas in modern, multicultural Britain. Aren’t they simply smug, silly relics of a distant imperial age, especially since their original luster has been dulled by decades of often threadbare amateur productions, slavishly adhering to the D’Oyly Carte model without question, criticism or inspiration?
If operas illuminate as we still like to see each other, it is in a very bilious yellow
But they miss the point, for Gilbert’s barbed satire and Sullivan’s glorious pastiches have always been cheerfully seditious. The blind certainties of the class system are deftly ridiculed in works such as Iolanthe and HMS Pinafore, the absurdities of cultural and political trends are revealed in all their passing folly in Patience and The Gondoliers, while Britain’s aspirations in as a global superpower have never been so skillfully skewered as in their penultimate work, Utopia, Limited. If operas illuminate the way we still like to see ourselves, it’s in a distinctly bilious yellow. All they need is the crusted layers of stale tradition to be scraped off to shine again in all their original glory.
Yeomen is surely their most humane and richly textured work. When it was written in 1888, the musical world’s most famous partnership was at the height of its powers; yet creative tensions that had been kept at bay for long years of success are resurfacing. Sullivan, whose soul longed for a libretto that could serve his larger musical pretensions, argued for something more than satire and absurdity. Gilbert responded by abandoning his normal taste for the upside down by writing a play grounded in real life, real characters, and with real human emotion. The result was not just Gilbert’s most nuanced dramaturgy, but some of Sullivan’s greatest music. Libretto and score merge perfectly in an operetta which in turn amuses, refreshes and moves the sensitive chords.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. No less a lyricist than the great Johnny Mercer wrote ‘We All Come From Gilbert’, while Sullivan’s influence has been acknowledged by composers from Noël Coward and Ivor Novello to Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. You can find their words and music embedded in every layer of popular culture, from episodes of The Simpsons to The West Wing; while even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 hit musical Hamilton contains a reference to “A Modern Major General”.
• English National Opera’s new production The Yeomen of the Guard opens on 3 November at the London Coliseum.