What Kind of Music is Gilbert and Sullivan? 

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

Fall 2022 President’s Welcome

Hello, and welcome back!

Our warmest greetings to all of you, near and far! It is with great pleasure that we announce our fall production of Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri! This happens to be my personal favorite G&S show, and I am absolutely thrilled to be bringing it back to the Agassiz stage with our amazing cast, crew, and orchestra. More information can be found on the “Happening Now” page. 

We have many exciting developments underway at HRG&SP this semester. Our directorial team has decided to pursue a new direction with the sound world of our show as compared to previous semesters, leaning into a more operatic sound. That being said, our cast members’ musical backgrounds range from opera to musical theater to a capella; and speaking as a habitual cast member myself, I’ve found that one of the greatest things about a G&S cast is everyone’s differing areas of expertise—it makes for a fantastic learning environment! In addition, we are quite eager to strengthen our undergraduate community through our weekly social event, UNOs. Whether you come every week, we haven’t seen you in a while, or you’ve never been, you are always welcome at UNOs!

Lastly in the string of exciting announcements, we are happy to be making a full, in-person return to our traditional social events, such as Wine and Cheese, the Milk and Cookies matinee, and the Alumni Night reception. It has been too long since we have been able to engage with our community to the pre-pandemic extent, and we couldn’t be more excited to deepen these connections once again. 

We hope to see you at the Agassiz Theater this November! Tickets will go on sale at the Harvard Box Office shortly before opening night. If you wish to buy tickets before the general public, you can do so by becoming a patron. We will be mailing a special order form to our patrons in the next two weeks, so be sure to join our mailing list soon to get the patron letter and order form. You can find it under the “Patrons” tab, where you can also make other donations. We are deeply grateful for your support. 

Olympia Hatzilambrou
HRG&SP President

“The Times They Are A-Changin'”: From The Mikado to The Milk Made

As you may have noticed, The Milk Made was not written by Gilbert and Sullivan. It was commissioned by the HRG&SP board in 2020 and written by two Harvard undergraduates in 2021. Only five other times in HRG&SP’s sixty-five year history, and twice within the last two years, have we mounted a production outside the fourteen canonical G&S shows. So why put on The Milk Made, and why now?

Our company has the “Big Three” G&S shows—H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado—on a four-year rotation. We did Pinafore in fall 2019 and Pirates in fall 2021, and now it’s just about time for Mikado to make its next appearance. HRG&SP’s 2016 production, however, was met with widespread protest, and Gilbert’s text makes it easy to see why. Written in the heyday of Orientalism, an artistic movement that made superficial imitations of Asian cultures, Gilbert leans heavily into stereotypes depicting Japanese people as submissive and emphasizes Japan’s cultural “otherness” from England. It is no surprise, therefore, that despite significant changes to the aesthetic setting compared to more traditional productions, our 2016 Mikado was unable to make itself palatable to our contemporary audiences. For this reason, our company has decided not to produce The Mikado again for the foreseeable future. In the spirit of providing more respectful Asian representation, we encouraged our writers to use this Rewrite Project as an opportunity to explore their own cultural identities—an opportunity which our librettist, who is herself Chinese, decided to take. I think The Milk Made is a great example of how themes unrepresented in traditional G&S shows can fuse seamlessly with the classic G&S comic spirit, a feat which I’m very proud of our company for accomplishing. 

I make no judgments about whether The Mikado was problematic in its time. Historical reception of the show and its characterization is a complex topic that I am woefully ignorant about, and it would take much more than a blog post to address it. But the fact remains that its words are insensitive to modern ears, and as the times change, so must we. 


Spring 2022 Presidents’ Welcome

Hello, and welcome back!

Despite the occasional snow flurry, campus is starting to warm up as we approach spring, and the theater community is as busy as ever. We are excited to announce that our spring show will be the culmination of our year-long “Rewrite” project (details of which can be found on our “Happening Now” page): The Milk Made; or, The Friend of Anarchy! Featuring a completely original libretto and lyrics, The Milk Made showcases familiar aspects of Gilbert & Sullivan’s canon, including Sullivan’s timeless music, along with a more modern setting and characters. A synopsis of the show is available on our “Happening Now” page. Our student writers, LyLena Estabine and Mira-Rose Kingsbury Lee, have been working tirelessly since the spring of 2021 to create a story that is entertaining, heartwarming, and full of dairy-related humor.

The Milk Made will run from March 24 through March 27. Tickets will go on sale at the Harvard Box Office shortly before opening night. If you wish to buy tickets before the general public, you can do so by becoming a patron. We will be mailing a special order form to our patrons next week, so be sure to join our mailing list soon to get the patron letter and order form. You can find it under the “Patrons” tab of this website. 

We are planning to perform the show live and in-person at our historical venue, the Agassiz Theater. Unfortunately, due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, our actors and musicians will have to perform while wearing masks, and we will have to impose restrictions on audience capacity and vaccination status. We are working closely with the Office for the Arts at Harvard to monitor the COVID-19 situation on campus, and we’ll release more information about any COVID-related restrictions as the show approaches.

We have an excellent cast, crew, and orchestra, including both new faces and old friends, and we look forward to seeing them shine onstage, backstage, and in our orchestra pit in March. We hope you can join us for the debut of our long-awaited original production!


Clarissa Briasco-Stewart & Olympia Hatzilambrou
HRG&SP Co-Presidents

A Row of Theater Seats

Hi! I’m Sophie Kim ’24, and I’m a sophomore in Lowell House. I’m the Technical Producer for our upcoming production, The Pirates of Penzance, and an HRG&SP board member. I’m a performance poet, playwright, and lyricist/librettist.

This is my first semester of in-person college and in-person theater at Harvard, and I have to say, it’s off to a great start! As someone who’s primarily a writer/performer, and spent last year co-writing a musical that premiered virtually, taking on the role of producer this semester has taught me a lot. There’s something so exciting about looking around the room during a production meeting for Pirates and seeing all the amazing, talented people who are making this production possible. Getting to see designers talk about their ideas has given me even more respect for designers’ ability to imagine entire worlds, just from a script. I’m so excited to see what our wonderful actors bring to the stage, and to help contribute to making the production happen. 

Since the start of the semester, I’ve really started to notice what I had missed about in-person theater: the coffee runs during auditions and callbacks, the laughs in rehearsals, sitting around a table together envisioning something that none of us could do alone. I don’t think I really realized how much I loved the collaborative aspect of theater until that ability to collaborate was challenged. In my last post, I wrote about walking past Farkas Hall, not able to go in yet. Just standing on the outside, waiting. I’ve now seen the inside of Farkas (it’s beautiful), and the Agassiz Theatre, and the Loeb Drama Center. Of course, it’s not necessarily about the place itself, but the people who make the place a home. And now, we can sit in a row of theater seats together and think, This is it. We’re home.


Fall 2021 President’s Welcome

Hello, and welcome back!

First, a sincere thank-you for your continued support through (more than!) a full year of remote theater. Despite the exciting opportunity for innovation offered by virtual productions, I believe I speak for everyone in our community when I say that it’s good to be back.

The weather is slowly getting colder here in Cambridge, where students have once more returned to Harvard’s campus to attend in-person classes. HRG&SP has also returned, and I am excited to announce that our fall show will be a full production of The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty! Featuring songs such as “I am the Very Model of the Modern Major General,” “Poor Wand’ring One,” and “I am a Pirate King,” this operetta is a landmark in the history of music and one of our favorite Gilbert and Sullivan shows.

The Pirates of Penzance will run from November 11 through November 14. Tickets will go on sale at the Harvard box office a few weeks before opening night. If you wish to buy tickets before the general public, you can do so by becoming a patron. We will be mailing a special order form to our patrons next week, so be sure to join our mailing list soon to get the patron letter and order form. You can find it under the “Patrons” tab of this website. 

We are planning to perform the show live and in-person at our historical venue, the Agassiz Theater. Unfortunately, due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, our actors and musicians will have to perform while wearing masks, and we may have to impose restrictions on audience capacity or vaccination status. We are working closely with the Office for the Arts at Harvard to monitor the COVID-19 situation on campus, and we’ll release more information about any COVID-related restrictions as the show approaches.

We have an excellent cast, crew, and orchestra, including a record number of new G&S players, and I look forward to seeing them shine onstage, backstage, and in our orchestra pit in November. I hope you can join us for our return to in-person productions!

Clarissa Briasco-Stewart
HRG&SP President

Premiering Now: Cox and Box!

Hello! My name is Ruth Jaensubhakij, and I’m part of the new HRG&SP board class, as well as the stage manager for Cox & Box — our virtual show that opens tomorrow! It’s been a huge honour to be a part of this project, and I can’t wait for the world to see what we’ve put together. For today’s blog post, I’ll be giving you a little bit of insight into what the process for creating this show looked like, and hopefully this will get you excited to come and see it!

In my opinion, the most unique part of this production is that we’re incorporating both live and pre-recorded elements. Since Cox & Box is a musical, the directors, producers, and incredible staff of audio and video editors have put together 10 ‘music videos’, which will play in between acted scenes that take place live on Zoom. We’ve included sound effects, a life-like virtual set, and full props + costumes to make the experience as immersive as possible — all while our cast performs from their homes and dorm rooms! We’ll then put all of these elements together in OBS Studio, which we’ll use to stream on YouTube. It’s a complicated setup with many moving parts, but with the help of many people, including sound/hair/makeup/costume/prop/set designers, audio/video editors, and of course our cast, it’s all come together beautifully.

The rehearsal process for Cox & Box was also very unique. Unlike most live shows, where the music and acting rehearsals would follow roughly the same timeline (to culminate in a tech week right before the show), for Cox & Box the music part actually took place much earlier in the process. The cast kicked off rehearsals by learning — and immediately recording — all of the songs in the show. Our fantastic music director, Veronica Leahy, was running Zoom rehearsals and coaching the cast through the recording process; at the same time, our fabulous stage director Sam Dvorak was teaching the cast staging for the videos. By March, drafts of all the audio mixes had been put together, and the cast began the arduous video recording process. This often involved shooting several takes of dozens of different shots within a single song, and many of our cast members recruited roommates, family members (including pets), and significant others to help! Producers and designers worked extremely hard to ensure that green screens, costumes, props, and makeup were all ready by this stage — far earlier than for a typical show. Then, our team of editors put together drafts of audio mixes and videos, using background images of the virtual set (rendered entirely in Blender) to make it look as though actors were actually in the space.

While all this editing was happening, the cast began to buckle down on rehearsing dialogue and staging for the live scenes. With the help of Zoom’s virtual background feature, we were able to make it look as if characters were all in the same room, and thanks to stage director Sam Dvorak’s creativity and the magic of duplicate props, we spent many hours practicing passing props back and forth between laptop screens. When it came time for tech week, the sound team brought in a host of sound effects ranging from doors slamming to bacon sizzling, and the producers worked tirelessly to ensure that all videos and live scenes would be captioned. 

As for me, as stage manager my job during the show itself is to run OBS Studio — capturing Zoom videos and putting them into different configurations, transitioning between scenes, playing videos, running captions, etc. — and stream it all to YouTube. I’ve personally learnt a lot from the process, and though we’ve had many hiccups and technical difficulties along the way, I’m constantly amazed by what our team has put together! Everyone, from cast to designers to producers to staff to directors, has put in so much creativity and effort to make this show great. 

But what does all of it actually look like? You’ll have to come and watch the show to find out! Check out the HRG&SP President’s channel on YouTube under ‘upcoming streams’, and join us at 8pm Eastern on the 30th of April or the 1st, 7th, and 8th of May. We can’t wait to see you there!


A First Year’s Experience with Virtual Theater

I’m a first year, and I came to Harvard to make theater. More specifically, theater was the only thing I cared about, and I planned to spend more hours in a black box than my own dorm room. I looked forward to highlighting and dog-earing a new script, to standing on spike marks and looking up at the lights, to tripping over my own feet in the darkness of preshow. To weird vocal warmups. To dancing backstage with my friends while the lead belted out a solo. To creating a moment that would never last. As it turned out, I didn’t get to do any of those things. 

I’ve seen the outside of the Loeb (it was big and shiny). I saw the inside of Farkas Hall (on my friend’s Instagram story). Google Images has given me a better tour of this campus than anyone I know. A few nights ago, I was in Harvard Square, walking home to my off-campus apartment, when I came upon the red backlit sign of Farkas. It was around 10pm. I stood on the steps. The glass doors were locked (I did try the handle; couldn’t help it.) The lobby was softly lit, and the sunburst over the entrance and the words THEATER, DANCE, AND MEDIA glowed. 

I tried the handle because I wanted to pretend I could go in. I wanted to pretend that, despite the pandemic, despite stages going dark, I could still call a theater home. I hope Farkas, and the Loeb, and the Ex, and all those fun buildings I’ve only heard about, will become home, someday. Not today. 

But for now, home is my friends. People I’ve laughed with during late-night zooms (like Schwenck!), my Froshsical creative team (we wrote a musical about funnel cakes and friendship!), and upperclassmen who’ve been kind enough to reach out and give me and my fellow first-years advice about creating art, all the while dealing with zoom school, thesis-ing, and impending graduation. I’ve watched friends direct virtual shows about Shakespeare plays, act in cow costumes, perform original songs about names, and so much more. Every time I see the chat light up with excited messages from the audience, I feel a bit better about this whole virtual theater thing. We’ve found ways of connecting with each other and creating art, even when it seemed impossible. Some things are still impossible, like standing behind a curtain waiting for the veil to lift, or hearing the first note from the orchestra shiver into an expectant theater. But this year was special, in its own ways. This year, I learned what home is: the spaces I create, and the art that I make, with the people I love.


Gilbert and Sullivan.mp4

Video was never a medium I considered for 19th century operetta. Not just because it’s really old, but because video was always something that was either for TV and movie studios with high budgets or for casual posts on social media, not for theater, which was in between. Sure, there would always be a recording of our stage performance, but it was only a way to remind ourselves of the real thing, the 3-dimensional set, the textures of the costumes and the laughter of the audience.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were scattered across the globe and we had to merge these two worlds, the world of video and the world of theater, together. For our virtual fall production of Ruddigore, we fashioned together costumes from our own outfits, recorded the music to meticulously constructed click tracks, took out our cell phone cameras, and recorded our performances. Once the acting and singing was over, the fate of the performance was in the hands of the audio and video editors.

Under the supervision of our amazing Technical Producer, Clarissa Briasco-Stewart, the audio and video editors spent hours arranging the recordings into a finished product, lining up the recordings so people would appear to be singing at the same time, making audio sound nicer and videos look better, and adding special artwork and effects. As a video editor, I got to see the production come together in a special way. Though the actors and instrumentalists were in different locations around the world, I got to see them singing and acting together for the first time.

Even though I still miss in-person theater, it is really special to get to use video to tell these stories. While editing, I get to choose how someone enters the screen, how bright their room appears and how much of them the audience sees, even after they’ve finished their performance. What we lose in spontaneity, we gain in control. Our video isn’t confined to a constructed environment on a stage and our backgrounds aren’t limited to what we can build and paint to scale. I’m excited for how we will continue to use this medium’s features to create new versions of these old shows, (like this spring’s production of Cox and Box!) until we finally get to go back to a physical theater.


Looking Forward, Glancing Behind

This week, Harvard undergraduates got an email from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean that confirmed that we would be returning to campus in the fall. While we don’t exactly know what this means for theater yet, I remain hopeful that we’ll be putting on shows in the same physical space once again. There are a lot of reasons I’ve sorely missed in-person theater this year. Boxes of greenscreen setups, lights, and costumes are piled in my room; the perpetual fear of spotty internet connection clouds every performance; and the prospect of staring at yet another Zoom screen has often made me dread going to rehearsal. But what I definitely miss the most are the unscheduled moments, where we just get to be together, share snacks, exchange hugs, and perhaps burst randomly into song. These opportunities for connection are not only a great boost for my currently lacking social life, but an integral part of the art-making process. And that brings me to the story of how our spring 2021 show, Cox and Box, came to be.

Sir Arthur Sullivan and F. C. Burnand met at a party of musicians and artists hosted by a mutual friend. At the time, Burnand was already quite an experienced writer of satire, burlesques, and comic opera. Sullivan, however, had composed much more “serious” work, including a symphony, several settings of Shakespeare, and liturgical music. It was only when Burnand invited him to one of his own parties that Sullivan made his first foray into operetta. Often the partygoers at the Burnands’ would write, perform in, and/or watch small amateur productions, one of which was an adaptation, which Burnand proposed he and Sullivan write, of John Maddison Morton’s farcical play Box and Cox. It was only ever meant to be performed for and by a small group of friends, all as a way to have some light-hearted fun through making art together. But it was so well-received that it made its way to a three hundred-performance run at the Adelphi Theater, eventually spawning another professional Burnand-and-Sullivan collaboration and starting him off on the path to becoming England’s most influential composer of comic opera.

In my experience, it is situations like these from which some of the best art comes—gatherings of passionate people, bonding over what they can create together, encouraging one another to challenge themselves and grow, and building community and friendship along the way. Though we at HRG&SP are very lucky to have opportunities to connect despite being physically so far apart, I can hardly wait for the day when those opportunities are a little easier to come by.


Hibbert, Christopher. Gilbert & Sullivan and Their Victorian World. American Heritage Publishing Company, 1976.