As I started listening to songs from Iolanthe and watching recordings of the show over the summer in preparation for my role as creative producer, I noticed some striking parallels to another production. Last year, I played oboe for the pit orchestra of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro with HCO (Harvard College Opera). Several plot points are very similar: in both shows, two protagonists – Phyllis and Strephon in Iolanthe, Susanna and Figaro in Marriage of Figaro, want to get married. Both couples are obstructed by a lecherous man (or men) who uses his power and status to try to get his way. Both shows make a statement about politics and the aristocracy. Similar oedipal jokes even appears in both: Strephon is seen embracing his mother, Iolanthe, and the crowd mistakes her for his lover, whereas Figaro’s mother Marcellina attempts to marry Figaro before finding out that she is secretly his mother (which similarly outrages Susanna until Figaro explains the situation to her). 

These parallels struck me as a funny coincidence, but got me thinking about deeper questions. What is opera; can it be defined? What is the difference between opera and musical theater? In particular, is Gilbert and Sullivan opera or musical theater – or somehow both, simultaneously? Are there certain plots, such as this Marriage of Figaro/Iolanthe-esque plot, that tend to be more operatic or more musical-theaterish? As creative producer for Iolanthe (as well as a pit orchestra musician), these questions have come up in discussion with Arhan Kumar, our wonderful Music Director, and others. Deciding whether we want to code Iolanthe as opera or not has real implications for concrete decisions: do we make cuts to songs, and where? Do we want the singers to have mikes or not? What are our priorities during the audition and casting process? 

My personal opinion is that Iolanthe, possibly of all Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, is the most operatic. The music is carefully orchestrated, with a rich system of leitmotifs and quotations from other famous composers, such as Wagner. The complicated overture, 20 minutes of continuous music during the Act 1 finale, and traditional pit orchestra with full wind, brass, and string sections surely belong to the world of opera. Many of the parts are quite virtuosic for the singers, and many fall into a standard aria-recitatif pattern that is harder to find in pure musical theater (whatever that is). As Arhan also pointed out to me, a lot of the upper voices (Phyllis, for example) spend a lot of time in their upper octaves. There is some musical theater that takes its singers quite high, but unlike opera, musical theater doesn’t usually sustain long high passages throughout the performance. There are musical theater-esque aspects to it, for instance, the number of songs in strict verse-chorus form is high. But overall, I see Iolanthe as belonging to Team Opera (not that it’s a competition…) 

I’m still left with many questions. Where do other Gilbert and Sullivan shows fall on this sliding scale? If Gilbert and Sullivan is opera, why do major opera houses like the Met tend not to perform them? I hope to continue exploring these questions throughout my remaining time with HRG&SP, and I’m so, so excited for all of the talent that our amazing cast, staff, crew, and orchestra will bring to the stage of the Agassiz Theater in just a couple of weeks!

— DW

2 thoughts on “What Kind of Music is Gilbert and Sullivan? 

  1. Where else but in Gilbert & Sullivan will you find “minus eight” used in a rhyme? This math is much too advanced for grand opera.


  2. My understanding has always been that G&S is part of the genre called ‘light opera’ or ‘operetta’. It is characterized by a much more extensive spoken libretto between musical numbers than full opera has, by a tendency to embrace light comedy and elements of farce as crowd-pleasers, and by slightly less-challenging vocal and orchestral scores than are found in classical opera. As well, Victorian operetta is seen as the parent or step-parent of musical comedies such as developed on Broadway in the 20th century, so that many today who are more familiar with musicals than operas see G&S simply as Victorian musical theater.

    One feature of G&S that pushes it up the scale of high art is Sullivan’s scores, which famously take Gilbert’s spoofy words to places Gilbert’s words don’t always seem to want to go. Sullivan is the reason that G&S so resembles full opera; as musical critics often note, one can find instance after instance where he is ‘spoofing’ or ‘quoting’ (take your pick) bits of music from the classical repertoire, which he knew perfectly as did some of his audiences. And as we know, he and Gilbert fought furiously over how the words and music should relate – opera style vs. musical comedy style – and most fans feel they usually landed in the right spot by opening night.

    So G&S is opera, all right, but light opera. Thus, no performances at the Metropolitan Opera and likewise no ‘revivals’ on the Broadway stages of midtown Manhattan. But if I remember from my years in NYC in the 1980s-90s, New York City Opera was more of a “people’s opera” than the Met was, and famously staged a few G&S revivals as well as a few Broadway revivals from time to time. It’s a spectrum not a set of closed rooms, and G&S wanders up and down its space on the spectrum from edge to edge.

    Best of luck with Iolanthe! And yes, that Act I finale is really something. Nice thoughts on ‘Figaro’, as well… thanks for your post.

    John Magoun ’78


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