Why Gilbert & Sullivan is not such fun any more

Why Gilbert & Sullivan is not such fun any more


norman lebrecht

November 01, 2020

From our pal Tim Page, in Belgrade:

A dear friend was bemoaning the fact that he’d likely never see a professionally staged performance of “The Mikado” again. Satire is terribly out of favor just now — to the point where I wonder whether younger generations will read Petronius, Swift, Fielding, Dawn Powell, Waugh and Pynchon — but I think there is another reason why the Gilbert and Sullivan canon is rarely presented today

Compare the earliest recordings of the Savoyard operas with the later ones, which continued up until at least the 1990s. Speaking generally, the later recordings are more musically assured, have better sound, and explore the more serious aspects of the works with deeper intensity.

What they lack is madness. It is as though somebody had remade Marx Brothers or Three Stooges films with leading contemporary actors replacing the originals. I’ve come to a point where I want to hear no other version of “The Gondoliers” (to name the fastest, fizziest Gilbert and Sullivan opera) than the 1927 recording, with Henry Lytton, Leo Sheffield, George Baker, Bertha Lewis and Winifred Lawson falling all over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, sharing and behaving by the rules of the same loopy planet. Several of these artists worked with Gilbert (who died in 1911) and a few went back all the way to Sullivan (1900).

I feel the same way about the best of the Carlo Sabajno and Lorenzo Molajoli conducted recordings of late 19th century and early 20th century Italian operas. Knowing the world that Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni inhabited and sometimes working with their singers gave these performances a startling authority: it sometimes feels as though the characters *themselves* are singing, rather than hired sopranos, tenors and basses. This music, however, has become a part of the standard classical repertory in a way that perhaps nothing written in English but “Messiah” has, and we have grown accustomed to many different approaches and casts of international superstars.

Gilbert and Sullivan, however, belong to the British Empire, which had many attributes and terrible faults. The operas are the representation of an inspired, provincial and eccentric island (I say this with deep affection) that was then running much of the world. They belong to a a certain time and place, which is no terrible thing in itself, but it is damned hard to recreate now. You might as well try to book Harpo at Lincoln Center.

Your thoughts?


  • Paul Dawson says:

    This brings to mind the dire situation of D’Oyly Carte in the early 80s. The Arts Council refused funding. At a benefit performance of Pirates in London, Valerie Masterson – who had cut her teeth with them – sang Mabel and gave a showstopping performance of Poor Wandering One. Alas, this had the unfortunate side effect of underlining the rather lower quality of the rest of the cast.

  • papageno says:

    The same can be said about Mahler performances that have been ‘cleaned up’ over the decades. You no longer hear those long swooping, sliding string portamentos that are on old recordings (Adagietto by Mengelberg, Walter… but not Abbado or Levine). Mahler wrote “seelenvoll” over those long straight lines for a reason and they stopped being observed as of circa 1970’s.
    Thank God for gramophone recordings.

    • LydiaWahlberg says:

      Mahler, Mahler, Mahler! Why is he always mentioned. Do the classical experts think he is the greatest composer of all time? Does everyone have to all in line with them? I don’t because you can’t name the greatest composer of all time. It is too subjective.
      Enough of Mahler.

      • papageno says:

        Looks like Lydia got vaccinated and is immune to Mahleria.

        • BrianB says:

          In this covid era, a lot of Mahler is uncannily expressive of what a lot of people are feeling now. Six, Nine and Das Lied especially.

        • William Safford says:

          A better approach would be to sip a Gin and Tonic and luxuriate in the Mahlerial infection.

      • MacroV says:

        You’re kind of missing the point here. Mahler wrote and was played in a certain style of the place and period, but is played much differently know by people with no connection to that time and place, and something is lost as a result, even while the technical standard is much higher. It doesn’t matter how great you may think Mahler is or isn’t. The same could probably be said of Beethoven but that was so long ago nobody is really sure how they played him and there are, alas, no recordings. While there are plenty of recordings from conductors who knew Mahler or grew up in that time and place.

        • BrianB says:

          “While there are plenty of recordings from conductors who knew Mahler or grew up in that time and place.”
          And they’re all often radically different from each other!

      • Geezer says:

        Agree, I see no point in Mahler at all, why compose a “Resurrection” symphony as a Catholic convert but never attend Mass or become a real Catholic.

        • BrianB says:

          Never mind all that; assessment, analysis and a critique must be confined to the work itself. That;s why we are so lucky that we know so little about Shakespeare’s life. Otherwise, we’d be getting “analyses” along the lines of of such and such a passage or play explained by the fact that his favorite cat died that week.

      • mikhado says:

        It’s a cult.

        • Geezer says:

          No Mahler was a con artist, he was not a real bona fide Catholic, he converted only to get the conducting job at the Hofoper.

        • Doc Martin says:

          What is a cult? No it is a faith not a cult. A cult is what you have in USA, a Trump cult or KKK for example, Catholicism is not a cult. Try to keep up and read a book or better the KJB or Book of Common Prayer.

        • Marfisa says:

          Did you mean a Mahler cult? SD’s layout can it difficult to know what is being responded to (an automatic @name would be very welcome).

      • William Safford says:

        It is always both a treat and a workout when I get hired to perform Mahler. I also enjoy the opportunity to listen to Mahler’s music in the audience, for that matter.

        His music is tremendously rewarding for the performer as well as the listener.

        There are some composers where you put in an enormous amount of effort but you don’t really feel that you get a lot out of the end result.

        With Mahler, the effort is rewarded with glorious music.

        It’s okay not to care for his music. That’s a matter of taste. But the reality is that his music has found a place in the canon, for what I consider entirely valid reasons.

  • Simon Dearsley says:

    In the professional arena I agree but having stood at the front of many productions in the amateur world, the goons are very much around, and the Marx brothers continue to run riot. Pirates of Penzance, the pirates played as gay new yorkers made for endless double entendre and side splitting rapture. Ruddigore as a Brian Rix farce. A poignant Yeoman of the Guard revealing Gilbert’s Ruskin-like tendencies to find the unblemished and immature woman. Gondoliers with a slice of ‘The Sopranos, bought Gilbert’s genius with text to the appreciation of audiences every night. I agree something has been lost since their original crazy innovative performances, but in the amateur world I have been thrilled by the amateur director bringing the text to light in away that remains, crazy, haphazard unfinished but puts the texts right in front of Sulivan’s music. Often casting actors not singers, but obviously actors who could sing. I love my collection of the earliest recordings, they sparkle on my shelves, even when they are not being played. The amateur wins this hands down, often with performances that could stand up in any professional theatre, as the level of entertainment and infectious joy is communicated perfectly, and without any hesitation. I wish the world of professional opera had more passion and utter delight in its art, rather than superstars, whose stress is sadly evident at a deep level to the listener.

    • Thomas Dawkins says:

      I have also conducted a few Gilbert & Sullivan operas with high-level amateurs, some of whom were professionals who decided that they enjoyed doing something lighter and so were willing to do a show without pay. The biggest problem is the same as we get with a lot of grand opera: directors and singers not trusting the libretto and the notes and thinking that the audience will need “help” to get it. I’ve seen some modern concept productions that have worked very well and some that have been absolutely terrible. I did “Iolanthe” in a small black box theater with piano and no chorus; the principals sang all of the ensemble parts as well. It was in modern dress, done on a low budget but with great care and the wall of sound created by just ten professional singers at the end of Act I was fantastic.

      I think the best example of a real operatic recording of Gilbert & Sullivan is Sir Neville Marriner’s “Yeomen of the Guard” with Sylvia McNair, Bryn Terfel, Sir Thomas Allen, Kurt Streit, Robert Lloyd, Neil Mackie and Anthony Michaels-Moore in cameo roles. It has all the spark but also all the voice.

      • msc says:

        Mackerras’ recordings with the W.N.O. are similar: Mikado with Rolfe Johnson, Richard van Allen, Marie McLaughlin, and Felicity Palmer; Pinafore with van Allen and Palmer, Thomas Allen, and Michael Schade. And Mackerras conducts beautifully, of course.

      • Johan says:

        You need to PAY for talent otherwise you have nothing to complain about.

        When conductors start doing shows “gratis” soon due to all of the house closures we’ll all be better off as there are too many ordinary ones who can now “do it for the sake of art”. Good luck supporting YOURSELVES now.

    • Charles Clark Maxwell says:

      >>> I wish the world of professional opera had more passion and utter delight in its art, rather than superstars,

      Yes, well said !

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Sadly, G&S has even fallen out of favor with local amateur and school groups. When a show does get an outing, it’s usually hammed up and mocked. Maybe the shows are a product of their time and place and have lost significance, but there’s still a lot of great music, wonderful tunes and sense of joy that a lot of contemporary composer/librettists could learn from. Non-professional orchestras should look to the Sullivan overtures; they’re fun, lively and great pops music.

  • William Safford says:

    This makes a strong argument for taking some emphasis off of the canon, and promote new music and stage works.

    One wonders what the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Verdi, or Brahms would think of today’s performances of their music.

    Even putting aside the fact that most modern instruments are substantially different from in their day, as are approaches to vocal training, how far have interpretations drifted from what they expected to hear?

    If something as basic and relatively recent as Gilbert and Sullivan has drifted away from the original intent, imagine how far so many other works have!

    Of course, the counterargument can be made, summed up in two words: so what?

    Instead of pursuing that debate, I’ll just observe that we can perform new works, and work with the creators to create together a unified performance, from the composer through the performer to the listener. (The allusion to the book by Roger Sessions is intentional.)

    I worked earlier this year with a composer on one of her compositions. She and I went back and forth on a whole bunch of minutiae. She had clear ideas of what she wanted; she helped me understand what she wanted, and I helped her with how to notate it for my instrument. I did my best to perform it the way that she envisioned. It was a rewarding experience.

    • Garech de Brun says:

      Audiences in UK/Ireland, do not attend concerts to hear “new music”, they come to hear old favourites, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert etc.

      In the last 20 years has anyone on planet Earth composed a symphony, a Mass, a concerto, a sonata, an opera, oratorio or quartet, which is recognisable as actual music and does not resemble the sound of a cement mixer or bilge pump running out of Diesel? No.

      • MacroV says:

        Absolutely. I can think of a half dozen by John Adams alone. But alas, even a lot of well-received pieces don’t always get enough repetitions to gain traction.

        • William Safford says:

          “But alas, even a lot of well-received pieces don’t always get enough repetitions to gain traction.”

          Is that why minimalists use so much repetition? 🙂

          But seriously, that’s valid.

          Of course, it also leads to the issue of balancing the performance of brand new works with recent works. Would it be better to normalize the emphasis of world premieres over repeat performances of recent works, or the other way around? I don’t have an answer for that.

          I’m just glad that some new works also get performed in addition to the canon.

        • Sisko24 says:

          Your last sentence is the nub of the problem for me. I don’t know of anyone, except Levine when he was in Boston, who would repeat premieres or other works from season to season. ‘New music’ requires repetition not just so listeners/audiences can become familiar with the works, but also so that they may become familiar enough to judge if they like or don’t like the work. Hearing a new piece once may not be enough to allow a fully formed opinion to take hold. I regret that too many institutions deem otherwise.

      • William Safford says:

        “Audiences in UK/Ireland, do not attend concerts to hear ‘new music’”

        That’s their loss.

        “In the last 20 years has anyone on planet Earth composed a symphony, a Mass, a concerto, a sonata, an opera, oratorio or quartet, which is recognisable as actual music and does not resemble the sound of a cement mixer or bilge pump running out of Diesel? No.”


        If you define new music as bilge, then it’s bilge. That’s tautological.

        If you open your ears to new and fresh music, then much of it is worthwhile music.

        I have heard good new music. I have commissioned good new music. I have performed good new music.

        All music was new at one time. This revulsion at new music is a relatively recent phenomonon, one to be lamented.

      • AnnaT says:

        You clearly need to do a lot more listening.

        • Stuart says:

          No amount of listening will overcome a closed mind. So much wonderful music has been composed since 2000 – it is their loss if they think it is all the sound of a cement mixer or bilge pump running out of Diesel. Obviously they haven’t listened to much (if any) of the music composed during the last 20 years. Pure prejudice.

      • Bass One says:

        Go back just a tad further and you have the music of George Lloyd e.g. A Symphonic Mass and Symphonies 11 & 12.

  • Garech de Brun says:

    “Gilbert and Sullivan, however, belong to the British Empire, which had many attributes and terrible faults. The operas are the representation of an inspired, provincial and eccentric island (I say this with deep affection) that was then running much of the world.”

    This ridiculous revisionism is worse than cov-19, we ignore it completely and perform Sullivan in Dublin.

    Ivanhoe is undoubtedly his best work, once he got away from Gilbert!

    Here is some Ivanhoe.

  • Mike Gibb says:

    Have a look at the work of Opera della Luna, directed by Jeff Clarke.
    For example in Orpheus in the Underworld, Public Opinion is a box-ticking Arts Council assessor; John Styx consigned to hell for taking Greece into the euro

  • Stuckist says:

    Amazing what the results can be when singers are a)chosen for their distinctive voices and expression rather than looks/ generic movement capability b) not required to do all their acting in rehearsals being obsequious to the stage director c) not seen as tools in a brechtian project to produce a socialist revolution by alienating the audience (I’m sure it’s coming any day soon folks) but encouraged and expected to give the best possible performance of music-drama that is a proven success in the theatre if done well and able to focus on doing *that*.

    Opera is a whole. You can’t force change to one part and expect standards in the other ones to stay

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Part of the problem, it seems to me, is something that bedevils appreciation of much art from earlier eras: the increasing reluctance to make allowances for greatly changed norms. One needn’t approve of outmoded and presently unacceptable standards to appreciate, say, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn despite his use of the n-word, but one requires an understanding of the different norms of Twain’s day. And so it is with G&S, in cases such as The Mikado, whose Asian stereotypes (used to satirize regressive aspects of British society of the time) present difficulties for many today. Some works seem more immune to this effect — so far: e.g., Marriage of Figaro with its jus primae noctis (justly satirized as it is), or Die Meistersinger with the dark side of its adulation of “holy German art”.

  • Tom Moore says:

    The fundamental question here is Silliness. One can only be truly Silly in a universe where something is absolutely Serious. G&S shares the same space as does the Ministry of Silly Walks. There is no longer a British Empire, nor indeed any Empires. On a more prosaic level, the number of people who could appreciate both the texts and the music these days is minuscule. Fifty years ago, there were plenty of amateur G&S productions in the USA – many colleges and universities had companies that did nothing else, and even suburban towns had ongoing Savoyard troupes. It would be worth doing a history of these performing ensembles. I don’t know exactly when they died off,.

    • Sean says:

      Ian Bradley takes just this approach in his fascinating book, “Oh joy! oh rapture! : the enduring phenomenon of Gilbert and Sullivan” (2005)

    • MWnyc says:

      No longer any empires?

      I have to differ with you there. Though they may not have anyone with the formal title of emperor sitting on a throne, Russia and China are empires now as surely as they were 150 years ago.

      What we no longer have (except for a few small island territories) are overseas empires. We’re back to the way things were throughout history before 1500: empires are conquered mostly by land rather than sea, and they’re mostly contiguous.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    I’ve always found G&S ever so slightly fey but have appreciated the wit and satire very much. People HAVE taken them seriously for decades and that was always amusing to me. I think the problem is that they ended up in the hands of amateurs who regarded it as ‘classical music’. In short, it became self-parodying.

    And you’re so right; satire is off limits – just as it was when the Bolsheviks came to power.

    • V.Lind says:

      You’re older than I thought.

    • Kiss my Arts says:

      Why do you always have to dig at the left. The right are just as bad. Besides there are no Bolsheviks, Stalin had them all shot and Russia has embraced Mammon with gusto, just ask Bojo, his party is awash with Russian dosh.

  • Ken says:

    Tim is perfect here.

  • Cornishman says:

    My problem is always that Gilbert seems long past his sell-by date, but that Sullivan – for all that he was much inspired by Gilbert – doesn’t. Some, maybe even most of the tunes are wonderful, and need preserving in one form or another. Maybe it would be good for professional orchestras to take up the excellent Sullivan/Mackerras ‚Pineapple Poll‘ again, or for a contemporary composer/arranger to find some other way to enthuse new audiences for the music without weighing it down with the – I agree – often problematic imperial baggage.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Having produced G&S myself, the secret is that everyone should have fun when they are performing. This does not mean goofing around necessarily – good comedians take their work seriously! But really enjoy the experience and share it with the audience. Sullivan did not write great music but it has the advantage that it is easily accessible both to perform and to listen to and with Gilbert’s words can be great fun!

  • AndrewB says:

    Plenty of folks attend the big Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Harrogate each year. Companies both amateur and professional present not only the well known G and S canon , but lesser known works by Sullivan such as Rose of Persia to enthusiastic audiences. This contrasts with the many UK amateur operatic societies which present musical theatre, but just occasionally might ‘ rediscover’ a G and S.
    The references may initially seem dated , but there is still a lot in these works that reflects current political and social attitudes in the UK, even if empire is a thing of the past.
    A few years ago The Mikado was translated into French and the operetta toured with success. I believe the production originated from the Opera in Tours.

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    It is axiomatic on SD, and in the classical music world in general, that things are not what they used to be, and never were. No living artist is as good as a dead [or at least long-retired] artist of the writer’s choosing, no modern recording is as good as something available only on a 78 RPM single from 1910, and classical music is of interest only to people in their 70s and above. Our only hope- and that is a faint one- is that people in that age range are being manufactured at an increasing rate as time passes. I should point out, however, that everything I just wrote has been true for time immemorial.

    • William Safford says:

      “I should point out, however, that everything I just wrote has been true for time immemorial.”

      I was all set to point this out, but you beat me to the punch.

      We can find quotes from over a hundred years ago, of people complaining that music just wasn’t the same then, than it had been in the good ole’ days.

  • Phillip says:

    Their works are simply bad music and foolish theater. That is the reason of their oblivion.

  • Ernest Davis says:

    First, as far as I can tell, Gilbert and Sullivan is performed a lot all over the place (or was till Covid). There’s the Amore Opera in Manhattan; the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Sydney; and Googling I find Gilbert and Sullivan Societies in Houston, Austin, Maine, Victoria, London, Cape Town, Manchester …
    Second, I don’t see that satire is at all dead. Check out Saturday Night Live; or Randy Rainbow; or Seth Myers, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert etc.

  • david hilton says:

    If the French can do Offenbach (as the Opéra Comique does so splendidly), the Brits can do G&S.

  • B. Guerrero says:

    I believe you may be over-thinking this a tad. G&S is culturally dated. Even if younger audiences did understand the rapid paced satire, they wouldn’t get many of the cultural references. Musically, G&S is going to feel alien to the majority of a generation been brought up on modern rock, club music (i.e. electronic) and rap. It’s future appeal will be quite narrow. That may be a shame, but hardly unexpected.

  • Rachel Ehrenberg says:

    I, for one would have been first in line for Harpo at Carnegie Hall. Maybe with a Chico cadenza or two.

  • Emil says:

    My thoughts is that I was a member of a G&S society at a major British university recently, that the society is still vibrant, that they’ve performed at the Edinburgh Fringe to sold-out audiences every year (and were booked this year before the cancellation of the festival), and that the reactions among performers and audiences are as enthusiastic as ever. I just think that it doesn’t translate well to recordings, as you miss that spontaneity (in the same way as a Mozart opera can have the audience in fits of laughter in the theatre, but will not have the same effect on disc).
    So, in my view, the news of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

    PS: Yeah, they performed the Mikado at the Fringe.

  • Norman- you are spot on. That G&S ship has sailed on the Sea of Irrelevancy.

  • Stuart says:

    I was introduced to G&S 50 years ago and participated in a number of productions both in high school and with an amateur group conducted by Frank Miller (CSO principal cello at the time). I don’t listen to these works much anymore but agree that you cannot go wrong with the 1926 and 1927 recording of The Mikado and The Gondoliers conducted by Norris. It is my early interest in G&S that led me to more than 50 years of opera and concert going, and listening to a broad range of classical music. Yes, Gilbert’s work is dated and Sullivan is only occasionally at his best. What is fun these days is to acquaint yourself with some of their works with other people: Gilbert’s The Mountebanks, Sullivan’s The Beauty Stone and Haddon Hall. But not Ivanhoe which is an utter bore. John Andrews has made a number of good recordings of Sullivan. Of the G&S works, besides the two mentioned, the Sadler’s Wells Ruddigore conducted by Phipps is wonderful. All great on disc though I don’t expect to see these works much on stage anymore.

  • Alan says:

    Seriously the idea of a Marx Brothers revival with, say, Sir Ian McKellen as Groucho and Dame Helen Mirren in the Margaret Dumont role, is the best idea I’ve heard this year. Now, who for Harpo?

  • Vance Koven says:

    People who think that G&S are not relevant are just not paying attention. Gilbert was one of the sharpest and deepest social critics who ever put pen to paper; all you have to do is look past the specifics of the societies his stories were set in to see the bigger picture. Patience is social satire at its finest, but of course the thrust of what Gilbert was saying would discomfort a lot of the people regnant in current culture. Iolanthe is brilliant political satire (and has, I think, the best–or maybe second-best after Yeomen–Sullivan score. And throughout the canon is the drumbeat of scorn heaped on the British class system that, amazingly, still has influence on how the country operates.

    Mikado, of course, is now a special case because the cancel culture has seized on it. Still, it has a lot to say about how to speak truth to power.

  • Marfisa says:

    Why has nobody yet mentioned Anna Russell?

  • William Vestal says:

    yes, but would anyone hear him?

  • Nick2 says:

    G&S operettas were successful in their day because the audiences both appreciated the satire and I expect most understood it, and they could hum the tunes? Few realise the satirical references nowadays and those tunes are basically incredibly corny. As a teenager who took part in three, I did enjoy them then even though I did not understand what they were really about. But that was many decades ago. When I hear the music now, I just cringe. I would far prefer to hear music from older musicals than almost anything from a G&S operetta.

    • William Safford says:

      It might be fun to go through the G&S oeuvre, and see if there is a correlation between the corniness of the tune and the incisiveness of the lyric set to it. I wonder if some doctoral student has already done so.

      You see that sometimes with other artists. For example, when you hear a banal or catchy tune in a Frank Zappa song, it’s almost guaranteed to be associated with a particularly scathing and/or ribald set of lyrics. He generally saves his complex melodies for instrumentals.

  • DanCello says:

    Satire is not why we don’t need to hear Mikado again.

  • Graham says:

    Denying universality to WSG is a mistake. His satire relates to Everyman and all the world. There Lived a King; I Am So Proud; I Have a Song To Sing; Is Life a Boon; The Paradox song; Ghosts’ High Noon; and several others have zero connection with British eccentricity and former Empire. The piece completely misunderstands Gilbert.