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Gilbert & Sullivan Operettas for Great Entertainment

Updated on February 10, 2014

Gilbert and Sullivan Comic Operettas

Do you love theatre, music and clever wordplay? If you do, then these light comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan will be just your cup of tea! The musicals that sprang from the imaginations of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan have been delighting audiences for more than 135 years. Their popularity only increases as time goes by. Rollicking music, clever lyrics, gentle satire, implausible plots, hilarious characters and stunning costumes - what's not to like?

I've chosen some of my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan light operas to share with you. If you've never experienced the fun of watching one of these plays, I hope you will soon. In the Victorian age, theatre-goers had to wait for a Gilbert and Sullivan performance on stage. Today we are much luckier. We can find their works on DVD performed by some of the top theater companies.

If Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, Iolanthe and the others are already old friends, then why not test your how well you know them by trying the quiz I've written for each one?

Image Credits: Thanks to the Gilbert and Sullivan Archives for permission to use these images of paintings by W. Russel Flint.

Do you like Gilbert and Sullivan?

Have you ever watched a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? See part of one and hated it? Know several by heart and randomly sing snatches of the songs?

What is your opinion of Gilbert and Sullivan' work?

See results
Pirates of Penzance
Pirates of Penzance

The Pirates of Penzance

Frederic has finally come of age and completed his apprenticeship - as a pirate! Now he wants to throw it all away and return to civilization. This decision will be much more difficult than he ever imagines, and will bring great danger to the very people who try to help him - the ravishingly beautiful Mabel, the quick-thinking major general who is her father, her multitude of sisters, and the entire police force of the area. Who will deliver them from the pirates' dastardly clutches?

This was my first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. I saw it live in 1985 at the Stratford Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario and happened to be at the very performance that was recorded. I've seen many other versions since, and I have to say that I love them all.

This clip is from the made-for-film version with Kevin Kline, Rex Smith, Linda Ronstadt and Angela Lansbury. Hail Friends Who Plow the Sea is one of the best known songs from this operetta.

The Pirates of Penzance on DVD

Gilbert & Sullivan - The Pirates of Penzance / Hyslop, Tomlin, Carver, Stratford Festival
Gilbert & Sullivan - The Pirates of Penzance / Hyslop, Tomlin, Carver, Stratford Festival

This is the Stratford performance recorded the night I was in the audience so it has a special place in my heart. Brent Carver is a wonderful pirate king as well. You will be astounded by the set as it unfolds before your eyes. The director added a few surprises including an amusing bluestocking scene during the attack on the castle.

 
Gilbert & Sullivan - Pirates of Penzance / Anthony Warlow, David Hobson, Australian Opera
Gilbert & Sullivan - Pirates of Penzance / Anthony Warlow, David Hobson, Australian Opera

Another wonderful interpretation by the Australian Opera. Well-staged and beautifully performed. Stealing the show of course is Anthony Warlow as the pirate king (or is that Captain Jack Sparrow? Hard to tell.)

 
Gilbert & Sullivan - The Pirates of Penzance / Jon English, Simon Gallaher, Helen Donaldson, Toni Lamond, Derek Metzger, Tim Tyler, Craig Schaffer
Gilbert & Sullivan - The Pirates of Penzance / Jon English, Simon Gallaher, Helen Donaldson, Toni Lamond, Derek Metzger, Tim Tyler, Craig Schaffer

If you haven't seen PIrates of Penzance before, do not watch this one first. But once you know the story, the music and the characters and have seen it played straight, you will appreciate this farce. A comedy of a comedy.

 
The Pirates of Penzance
The Pirates of Penzance

DVD Kevin Kline is my favorite pirate king and Linda Ronstadt's singing is sublime. This version was made for video, but is based on the Broadway performance with most of the same actors. Angela Lansbury (of Murder She Wrote) plays the Ruth, the nurse, and Rex Smith is Frederick (or Elvis depending on how you take it).

 

How did you do on the Pirates of Penzance Quiz?

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Mikado
Mikado

The Mikado

or The Town of Titipu

Nakipoo, a wandering minstrel, has arrived at the town of Titipu to woo and win fair Yum-Yum, but his hopes are soon dashed when he learns that she is to be married to the Lord High Executioner this very day. His fate becomes inextricably entwined with that of the town when the Mikado pays a surprise visit. Confusion and complicated subterfuge rule the day, but will someone lose their head at the end of it? And what of Ko-Ko's plans to marry, or Pooh-Bah's unceasing efforts to mortify his pride?

The story is set in Japan and the characters are Japanese. But the intention was always to tweak the tails of the Victorian British audience. As is typical with Gilbert and Sullivan productions, there are some rewrites to reflect current events and local politics, especially in the patter songs. The National English Opera's production, set in the 1920s without a Japanese costume in sight, is a parody of a parody.

The best Pooh-Bah ever, from the Stratford Festival in 1982. I could watch this over and over again. Great song, great performance. Encore!

The Mikado on DVD

The Mikado
The Mikado

For the historical value, this Mikado is well worth watching. Keep in mind that it was made for film in 1939 featuring some of the originals from the D'Oyly Carte Company.

 
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado

This is a recording of the live performance by the Stratford Festival in 1982 so expect theatre, not a production made for film. The Pooh-Bah is wonderful, Yum-Yum exquisite and the Mikado exceptionally creepy.

 
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado

Staged for the National English Opera, this Mikado is not done in the traditional style and therefore probably should not be the first one you watch.Instead of taking place in Japan, it is set in a 1920's seaside resort and the roaring twenties are much in evidence, Charleston and all. Lesley Garrett's soprano voice is a joy to listen to.

 
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado

The Australian Opera's Mikado has lavish sets and an interesting fusion of Japanese and proper British costumes and props, underlining the satire of a play set in Japan but really poking fun at Victorian English society. To my mind, this is best casting for Nanki-Poo. Heather Begg shines as Katisha.

 

How did you do on the Mikado quiz?

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Iolanthe

or The Peer and the Peri

Enter young Strephon, playing merrily on his flute. He has every reason to be joyful future. He is in love with a beautiful shepherdess, Phyllis, and they are to be married that very day. But Strephon has a secret he must keep at all costs, even from his fiance. His mother, who has been banished for the last twenty-five years, has an even more dangerous secret. As affairs begin to unravel, fairies hear the sound of alarm and fly to the rescue. Will their interference make things better or worse? Can there possibly be a happy ending?

I've seen Iolanthe twice, the Stratford Festival performance - love it - and a local theatre group, also excellent. I wish there were more.

(By the way, it is pronounced "Eye-oh-lan-they".)

Iolanthe on DVD

There are not many productions on DVD so unfortunately this is the only one I can recommend.

Gilbert & Sullivan - Iolanthe / Forrester, Donkin, Stratford Festival
Gilbert & Sullivan - Iolanthe / Forrester, Donkin, Stratford Festival

The Stratford Festival did an outstanding job with this stage production. The charming set is unpacked from a crate, and you get lots of glimpses of what's happening backstage and how the special effects are produced. Marie Baron as Phyllis is a joy to watch, and the great Canadian contralto Maureen Forester is tremendous as the fairy queen.

 
Gilbert & Sullivan - The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe (Stratford Festival, Canada)
Gilbert & Sullivan - The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe (Stratford Festival, Canada)

This is the same Iolanthe, but packaged with the other two operettas. A great collection.

 

How did you do on the Iolanthe quiz?

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Here's a first rate opportunity ... - ... to have your say.

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    • Art-Aspirations profile image
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      Art-Aspirations 4 years ago

      @The Philologist: Thanks for the visit and the kind comment. I've seen two different companies do Iolanthe and I loved both of them. Pinafore ... well, it's never been a favourite, but now that I've seen the Opera Australia performance I might just be changing my mind.

    • The Philologist profile image

      The Philologist 4 years ago

      Excellent lens! Huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan, love them all, couldn't pick a favorite, or even three of them. Nice that you put up Iolanthe, though, I think it's among their best and doesn't always get the recognition it deserves... though I did feel a wee bit sorry for the "Pinafore".

    • ismeedee profile image

      ismeedee 4 years ago

      I live in Penzance! My lens about celebrations has some information about the pirates of penzance. This is a fun lens about the operas!

    • BillyPilgrim LM profile image

      BillyPilgrim LM 4 years ago

      Great lens! Thanks xx

    • Art-Aspirations profile image
      Author

      Art-Aspirations 5 years ago

      @Lemming13: I'm so glad you enjoyed this lens. It's great to meet a fellow fan. We seem to be a rare breed!. I love the way that bits of Ruddigore show up in the other productions. It seems to be a tradition. "But it really doesn't matter."

    • Lemming13 profile image

      Lemming13 5 years ago

      I've see three live G & S shows - The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance and The Gondoliers. I've also watched most of the rest on film or dvd. I love the music and the witty lyrics. My favourite is Ruddigore, though that isn't a popular one; it makes me laugh so much. I really enjoyed this lens and the quizzes.

    • TeacherSerenia profile image

      TeacherSerenia 5 years ago

      The only live show I have ever seen is Mikado. I have seen Prates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore on video. I dont beleive I have ever seen any other G&S operas at all. The Mikado is my favourite.I got 60% on the Mikado quiz because I have not seen it for quite some time.

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 5 years ago

      I do enjoy G&S but haven't seen a performance for years - as my results on the quizzes remind me!

    • Art-Aspirations profile image
      Author

      Art-Aspirations 5 years ago

      @Countryluthier: I'm glad you had fun anyway. Thanks for giving it a try.

    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 5 years ago from Virginia

      Sometimes you eat the bear,sometimes he eats you. This lens ate me, nonetheless, it was fun.

    • Mary Crowther profile image

      Mary Crowther 5 years ago from Havre de Grace

      Nicely done lens!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Gilbert and Sullivan have created some amazing music.

    • jadehorseshoe profile image

      jadehorseshoe 5 years ago

      FUN Lens!

    • fugeecat lm profile image

      fugeecat lm 5 years ago

      Gilbert and Sullivan did write great operettas. Great lens

    • cdevries profile image

      cdevries 5 years ago

      Ah! I found the artist's name right at the start. Squid Angel blessed.

    • cdevries profile image

      cdevries 5 years ago

      A nice Lens! Where the beautiful illustrations come from? I haven't seen them before.