Land I admit it: I have not, for most of my life, been the model even of a die-hard fan of the work of William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Instead, I thought of their Savoy operas as reliquaries of archaic Victorian-era chauvinism, complacent bourgeois sentimentality, one-dimensional expressive gaiety, and overwhelming establishmentism.
That was, at least and lastly, until I got off my big horse of prejudice, and realized how much of a pompous pompous I was by not properly dealing with the miraculous world of meaning upside down. that Sullivan and Gilbert create in their operas. the most satirical.
Some prejudices fall more easily than others: Sullivan’s idea of musical sentimentality is easily overturned upon hearing the precision, economy, and sincerity in how he constructs the dramatic tension of a scene like the end of the first act of The Yeoman of the Guard. He brilliantly mixes the funeral darkness of a procession in minor to scaffolding with a passionate melody in major for Elsie, the wife of the unfortunate prisoner – who luckily for him and for the drama, manages to escape her date with destiny.
Sullivan’s creative conservatism? Once again, easily overthrown: Sullivan explores the limits of the fearless macabre in his Miraculous Music for the Ghostly Ancestors of Ruddigore, and finds manic pleasure in the music he composes for his patter songs, like the modern major general in The pirates of Penzance, in which momentum is given by Sullivan’s exquisite sense of rhythmic and harmonic timing just as much as by Gilbert’s so quadrilateral and animalistic lyrics.
Yet the idea that Sullivan’s music is the soundtrack to imperial dreams of un-British patriotism seems more difficult to dislodge. But that’s only – again – because of my multiple fabric-eared ignorance. The penultimate G&S collaboration in 1893 was a program called Utopia, Limited, a rapier satire on colonial ambition, British parliamentary democracy and the Joint Stock Company Act of 1862. And Sullivan’s music – with his parodies of “Rule, Britannia!” as well as his own previous hits – is the expressive engine that makes satire stick.
The subtlety and savagery of the opera finale, a chorus mocking the hypocritical example set by Britain, “the island that dwells in the sea … Hopefully … it is all it claims to be. to be ! Is that Sullivan’s delirious joyous music makes his spectators applaud at the sight and sound of their own complicity in the colonial misadventure they have just witnessed. It’s like Sullivan and Gilbert are telling us, “You all know how corrupt and crony you are, but you’re going to keep doing it anyway, right? It is indeed a satire which breaks the fourth wall which today appears the most virtuoso, visionary and necessary.
Illustration by Maria Corte Maidagan