Gilbert & Sullivan Operettas for Great Entertainment
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?
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
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
This is the same Iolanthe, but packaged with the other two operettas. A great collection.
How did you do on the Iolanthe quiz?
More about Gilbert and Sullivan
- Gilbert and Sullivan Wiki
This Wikipedia article gives a history of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, their collaboration and some details about the operettas in chronological order.
- W.S. Gilbert Wiki
You will be able to read a more complete biography of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, the librettist, in this Wikipedia article.
- Arthur Sullivan Wiki
To learn more about the life of Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, the composer, you can read his biography in this Wikipedia article.
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