Blog

An Ode to the Ag

During the course of my undergraduate career, I stage managed one show after another in the Agassiz Theater, beginning with The Gondoliers in the spring of my sophomore year. Seeing the theater full of people during a performance was always a special experience, but my favorite moments in the Ag were the quiet ones. While the seats were still empty and the dressing rooms not yet buzzing with the sound of actors getting into costume and warming up, I used to turn on the aisle lights and sit on the edge of the stage. In those moments, I always imagined I could feel the theater waiting, wanting to be filled with music and laughter and life.

One of the last visits I made before leaving campus in March 2020 was to the Ag. Fellow board member CRBS turned on the light board, and we made the stage glow purple and teal and amber while we played music, danced, and soaked up our last moments in the theater. Eventually, the others headed off to pack and make plans for their departures. Left alone in the space and not knowing how long I might be away, I turned off the light board and returned to my familiar seat on the edge of the stage. The aisle lights cast a gentle glow, appearing in the darkness of the theater like rows of perfectly aligned stars.

As my time at Harvard comes to an end, so too does my career as a stage manager. I may never again be the one to open the theater, to feel the quiet anticipation that fills the Ag in the hours before a performance. But I will remember that feeling forever.

—AMH

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.

—NAJ

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.

—OMAH

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

Paper Tech

Nothing says committed quite like an 8:30 am meeting, and that’s what the Cox and Box staff were up to Wednesday morning when we would have much rather been asleep. Why, you ask? Well, it was an auspicious day in the life of a show: paper tech!

In a “normal” show, paper tech would take place about two weeks before the show and serve as an opportunity for us to talk through the technical aspects of the show and prepare for any potential problems that may come up during actual tech. Although I’ve previously music directed several shows with HRG&SP, this is my first stint as producer. Cox and Box is definitely a unique project, and paper tech is no exception.

For this online production, we’ve broken up this particular event into two parts. In the first part, which happened this morning, we talked through all of the prerecorded video material that will make up the show, led by Sam Dvorak ‘23, our fearless stage director. This is in preparation for actors starting to record their videos, which they will be doing next week!

Sam has made a shot-by-shot breakdown of each music-video style song, and today we took copious notes on changing backgrounds, green screen positions, where we’ll need more complicated editing techniques, and how many recordings each actor will have to make. Sam, our set designer Isaac Heller ‘23, stage manager Ruth Jaensubhakij ‘22, my fellow producers Clarissa Briasco-Stewart ‘24 and Jasmyne Roberts ‘24, and I talked through each shot, bringing up any potential problems and keeping track of things the actors and video editors will need to know to bring the show to life. Even though it was very early in the morning for a group of college students, I think it left us feeling rejuvenated and excited about the show! Sam’s vision and the hard work of our designers, technicians, cast, and orchestra is starting to really come together, and we cannot wait to share it with you!

So what’s next in the job of a producer? Well, we’re starting to put together audio for the songs, so we’re getting all the individual tracks in and Jasmyne is deftly handling audio editing logistics. We’re also getting props and costumes to actors this weekend, and preparing them for their next audio recording deadline in Zoom rehearsals this week. And since I’m playing viola in the orchestra, I have a track of my own to record before Sunday, so I’d better get practicing!

Once we’ve gotten all the recorded aspects of the show underway (or at least acquired footage from the actors), we’ll turn our attention to the scenes of the show, which will be performed live, and the technology necessary to merge prerecorded songs with live scenes!
If you think this sounds like a significant amount of work, you’d be absolutely correct, and we hope you’ll watch it when we’re finished!

Spring 2021 President’s Welcome

Welcome Back!

It’s been a while since we’ve last been able to see each other, but despite the pandemic, HRG&SP is still going strong. I am happy to announce that our spring show will be an extended version of Cox and Box; or, The Long-Lost Brothers, a one act comic opera with original libretto by F. C. Burnand and music by Arthur Sullivan. While not explicitly in the G&S canon, we found Cox and Box to be a show very much in the same style, and one much better suited to virtual performances.

The original cast of Cox and Box consists of three people, which was not very conducive to our organization, which regularly employs a cast of 15-30 people. As a result, I took it upon myself to weave ensemble characters into already-existing scenes, and to add a side plot starring Penelope Ann and her lover, Knox. This work allowed me to delve deeply into the 19th century writing style of the original work, and had me working very closely with our director to reshape the plot.

Being able to add my work to cox and box was both an amazing and humbling experience, and an experience that I would love to share with all of you. Cox and Box will run from April 29th to May 8th; see our “Happening Now” page for performance times, and check back later in March for ticketing information. As always, I would like to take a moment to thank our lovely patrons–it is because of you that we were able to put on Ruddigore this fall, and it is because of you that we are able to continue our work in this virtual environment, with Cox and Box this spring.

If you would like to lend HRG&SP additional financial support in advance of our show, please feel free to donate on the “Patrons” page of our website.

Thank you all so much for your support, especially during a year such as this one.

Ria Dhull ‘23
HRG&SP President

Adaptation: A Time-Honored Tradition

Adaptation is a time-honored theatrical tradition. Writers have always taken dramatic material that speaks to them and transposed it to new times, places, media, and structures to better speak to their audience and emphasize the message the original work sought to convey, “haul[ing] its themes and ideas into the present day,” not just in the onstage setting, but also in the dramatic context and the way in which the audience relates to the work (Lane 160). Lane finds adaptation to be an essential part of theater, which he sees to be “stealing and borrowing from existing narrative sources to create new ones” (Lane 157). Though some adaptations work better than others, the act of adapting theatrical works is an essential part of keeping them alive. When a work has become a true cultural icon, it is recognizable and enjoyable even outside of its original form.

Greek dramas are some of the most frequently adapted and continue to elicit emotional reactions from contemporary audiences despite the fact that they are, chronologically speaking, quite out of date. Changing words, languages, characters, and settings does not alter the essence of these works–their message can be kept the same and therefore resonate with an audience of today in the same way the original does in its own context (Foley). Adaptations range from serious, thoughtful engagements with the text and meaning of a work–like Yup’ik Antigone, communicating a “stirring defense of traditional Inuit mores”–to the “irreverent reverence” (perhaps a little more towards the irreverent) of Oedipus for Kids! (a work that is distinctly, absolutely not for kids) (Jain, Varod). Each adaptation provides a fascinating perspective and commentary on the original, on the performance history of the genre, and on the context in which the new work was created–regardless of whether the adaptation is successful. 

The tradition of adaptation continued as the development of Western theater did, most famously with Shakespeare.  The musical West Side Story is clearly a reworking of Romeo and Juliet–scholars like Nigel Simeone draw nuanced connections between bookwriter Arthur Laurents’ paring down of the story and Shakespeare’s work complicating the plot. Laurents worked to “keep those…essences of Romeo and Juliet” that the audience needed to tie the two stories together, ensuring that it was recognizable both as the art form and as Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare himself probably adapted Romeo and Juliet from a “fifteenth-century Italian novella” of the same name and a verse adaptation of that novella by Arthur Brooke (Lane 157). Without constant updating of the story, paring down of the characters, and restructuring to make the novella work as a play, the play work as a musical, and the musical work as a 1996 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Romeo and Juliet would likely not have embedded itself as solidly in the contemporary public conscious or even be seen by people who didn’t consider themselves the target audience for a standard Shakespeare play but might have been more likely to watch a movie version. 

It’s not just Shakespeare. More contemporary writers from Chekov to Ibsen find their work rewritten as operas, as translations into modern speech patterns, and placed in new locales and times. Even Oscar Wilde, a contemporary (and acquaintance) of Gilbert & Sullivan, is frequently re-staged, rewritten, and inserted into other works, like the play Handbag, in which the characters from The Importance of Being Earnest interact with a modern cast of characters living their own story (Lane 159). Playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs find themselves moved by these and other classic works and are inspired to “honou[r] traditions of the past while envisioning possibilities for a new future” (Jain). Reworking a piece of art becomes a new way for the writer, the directors, the designers, the actors, and the audience to engage with it and connect to the most essential parts of the work that draw them in. It can help “discover new aspects of the story” and solidify people’s love for the art in question, as well as drawing in an audience that might never have felt the original work was written for them (Jain). 

We’ve seen some of these adaptive practices emerge with Gilbert & Sullivan’s works over the years–not just in HRG&SP, although we’ve done our fair share of changing locales and exploring creative visions. Productions across the globe experiment with settings, casting, added text, and more. A recent example is the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s 2018 production of Princess Ida, which returned to the original Tennyson text to clarify Gilbert’s ambiguous potential critique of the education of women, a belief no longer compatible with contemporary society. Speaking of Ida, Gilbert’s libretto & lyrics, including the blank verse of the dialogue, is a direct adaptation of a Tennyson poem, The Princess, which was highly popular at the time and influenced not only Gilbert’s plot, but also the structure of the show and the choice of speaking convention (blank verse is unusual compared to his other operatic collaborations). A 1992 version of Ida at the English National Opera set in a Japanese theme park led to the following review:

“I can hardly bear to think about Ken Russell’s production… I can’t recall three hours in a theatre which have left me feeling more dismal… the tit-and-bum vulgarity, the pathetically witless sexism of the staging pushed the proceedings beyond any redemption.” (Christiansen). 

Princess Ida is far from alone on the list of Gilbert & Sullivan shows to have received the adaptation-of-a-classic treatment. The Hot Mikado, an early jazz adaptation of Mikado, received a completely new score including elaborate dance numbers and featuring an all-Black cast. Mikado also became part of the play The Mikado Project, in which an Asian-American theater company grapples with the work. HMS Pinafore has been recreated with a “jazz score,” as a completely different musical under the name Memphis Bound, and set in locations as far removed as the fictional universe of Star Trek. Pirates has been turned into a ballet, a reorchestrated Broadway revival, and a very 1980s movie adaptation. The creators of the children’s show Veggie Tales! wrote a Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired episode entitled Lyle the Kindly Viking, which is not only immediately recognizable as a Gilbert & Sullivan show, but contains all the essential elements of one reworked for the purpose of a Biblical children’s show with talking vegetables. The play Mr. Burns takes inspiration not only from the form of Victorian light opera, but even includes music from and references to G&S in its dialogue. I know that when I’m reading, researching, or listening to music, I’m excited to see a Gilbert & Sullivan reference, hear a snippet of Sullivan’s music captured for a new purpose, or come across someone who was inspired by their work. Not only is it nice to “get” the references, it’s also thrilling that something so time-period specific (their work isn’t called “Victorian light opera” for nothing) can live on in the minds of scholars, writers, and artists today. 

Those of us who love G&S should find relief that by the adaptation measure, Gilbert and Sullivan have solidly entered the realm of the classics. We can rest assured that their legacy will be preserved and continue to draw the love and appreciation of fans, and that their work will continue to be adapted for the future in ways that we may enjoy or find confusing (or both). We can grumble about the versions of their work we don’t like and discuss why, but at its heart, meaningful theater is the process of adapting common truths, stories, and work to communicate things that matter both to the performers and creative team, and to the audience. We can look at the long history of adapting the classics for reassurance that no matter what new Gilbert & Sullivan creation comes along, their original work will not sink into obscurity–no one has forgotten Romeo and Juliet since the animated children’s movie Gnomeo and Juliet came out. Rather than shorten the lifespan of the works of G&S, change, from restructuring to rewriting, ensures their longevity as the inspiration for new generations of theater.

References:

Allen, Brooke. “Adapting the Classic.” The Hudson Review, vol. 66, no. 4, 2014, pp. 694–700. 

Bull, John. “Add-Aptation: Simon Stephens, Carrie Cracknell and Katie Mitchell’s ‘Dialogues’ with the Classic Canon.” Journal of Contemporary Drama in English6.2 (2018): 280-99. 

Christiansen, Rupert. “Princess Ida.” The Spectator, 28 November 1992. 

Crystal, Ben. “‘Gnomeo and Juliet:’ A Tragic Take on Shakespeare’s Tale of Woe.” The Atlantic, 14 February 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/02/gnomeo-juliet-a-tragic-take-on-shakespeares-tale-of-woe/71198/

Foley, Helene P. “Modern Performance and Adaptation of Greek Tragedy.” Barnard College, Columbia University. 1998. https://classicalstudies.org/sites/default/files/documents/FOLEY98.pdf

Jain, Ravi. “In adapting a classic, honour tradition and break the rules; When imagination is let loose, the old and new come together and speak to the present moment.” The Toronto Star, 17 October 2017. https://global-factiva-com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/ga/default.aspx

Lane, David. “Adaptation and Transposition – Reinterpreting the Past.” Contemporary British Drama. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010, pp. 157–187. 

Varod, Gil, Kimberley Patterson, and Robert J. Saferstein. Oedipus For Kids! Samuel J. French, 2009. 

Washburn, Anne. Mr. Burns and Other Plays. Theatre Communications Group, 2017. 

Fall 2020 President’s Message

HRG&SP patrons, friends and community, 

It has been a wild few months. For the second semester in a row, we have been unfortunately kept out of our beloved Ag Theatre. As the pandemic persists and worsens around us, it is unlikely that we will be performing in our theatrical home any time soon. 

While this is disappointing, it does not mean that we won’t be making art and sharing it with all of you! As you may have seen, we’ve been preparing selections from Ruddigore; or, the Witch’s Curse this semester and are ready to share them with our patrons. 

On December 27, we will be holding a Zoom webinar where we will play for you the videos of us singing Ruddigore songs. Find more information about this in the Happening Now section of our website! It will be a fun time with some of your Ruddigore favorites like “My Eyes are Fully Open,” “Happily Coupled Are We,” and “When the Night Wind Howls.” This (successful) experiment in virtual theater was music directed by Colton Carter and Mary Reynolds, two familiar personages who have held the HRG&SP’s conductor baton in previous semesters. Ruddigore was produced by Clarissa Briasco-Stewart, Will Evans, and Ben Topa. We are excited for you all to see our hard work and enjoy some beautiful music.

I am also pleased to announce that next semester we will be putting on a virtual performance of Cox and Box by F.C. Burnand and Sir Arthur Sullivan! This is Sullivan without Gilbert, but it is still a delightful farce with fabulous music. The HRG&SP has performed it before, and we’re happy to put it on again via a new medium. This virtual production will be produced by four dedicated, energetic, and capable Board members: Mary Reynolds, Clarissa Briasco-Stewart, Jasmyne Roberts, and Emma Kay. More details will follow in the coming months, so keep your eyes open for more information about this and other future projects. 

Beyond these artistic adventures, the HRG&SP has spent this semester growing closer as a community. Even without the promise of free food, our weekly online social events have been drawing crowds of undergraduate community members. I am very gratified by the continued strength of the friendship, solidarity, and support exhibited by our members. The pandemic may have taken away our ability to be together physically, but we have remained unified. This is perhaps the HRG&SP’s greatest achievement of the past year. 

As we face the spectre of perhaps another year without in-person performances, I want to thank all of you, our patrons, for remaining interested in G&S and supporting us in our time without revenue or in-person events. 

If you wish to keep us going for the remainder of this crisis, you can donate through Givebutter, Paypal, or by sending a check to:

Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players
P.O. Box 382143, Harvard Square
Cambridge, MA 02238.

Thank you again for all of your generous support. We wouldn’t still be going strong through our sixth decade without you. 

Dutifully yours, 
Ross Simmons ‘21
HRG&SP President

Ruddigore: A Small Ray of Positivity in Virtual Theater

Recently, a fellow board member (AMH), commented, “If you’d asked me four years ago ‘What will you definitely do senior year?’ I would have confidently answered ‘Go to class’.” If you’d asked me four years ago, “What will you definitely do senior year?” I would have said “Sing in choir.”


Both of us turned out to be drastically wrong. AMH is learning remotely, not walking the cobblestone streets of Cambridge or sitting in seminars with her fellow Harvardians, and I’m in my apartment, singing in my room by myself instead of in a performance hall with large groups of people. In fact, the closest I come to choir these days is running rehearsals for our virtual Ruddigore project from my dimly lit basement. 

It takes a special group of people to willingly spend even more hours on Zoom and Facetime when it seems like every class, event, and other obligation is online, and the Ruddigore cast & orchestra are just that special. It’s been a joy to get to hear their voices in rehearsal and as we started the editing process for their final recordings this week–we know you’ll love hearing them just as much when we’ve finished.

Although their voices are beautiful, what I appreciate most of all about the Ruddigore group (and the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players more generally) is our ability to have fun together. We’ve gotten used to seeing each other’s faces on a screen instead of in person and keeping up our witty banter (well, we think it’s witty, anyway) in Zoom chats.

However, it’s less easy to translate group music rehearsals to a virtual format–because of the current limitations of technology (and the way individual internet signals are directed all over the globe), it’s not possible to sing in sync with one another. It ends up sounding like a horrifying cacophony of everyone trying to both stay in time and listen to each other, and no one wants that. 

From a music director perspective, that means our rehearsals this year have been more…silent than usual. When we’ve rehearsed our group numbers, all but one person have to be muted for us to sing “together,” so cast members take turns bravely singing in front of everyone, while the others sing along from their respective homes, unheard by the rest of us. The cast has MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, tracks that include the piano reduction of the full score so that they could practice for their recording alone, and so they can play it while they sing aloud for everyone in rehearsal. We’ve relied more heavily than ever on our trusty producer google drive to hold part tracks (recordings of each individual line to practice with), notes about rehearsal, sheet music, piano tracks, and everyone’s audio and video recordings for editing purposes. (As a side note, if you want any of our practice materials for your own amusement or singing along to G&S in your home, reach out to us at hrgsp.president@gmail.com).

I know I can’t wait until the day when it’s safe for HRG&SP shows to crowd into a room in the Lowell Lecture Hall basement and music directors to plunk out notes while everyone gathers around the piano to sing together, and to come see the wonderful productions the classes after us will put on, but I also realize that longing for that tends to make us fall into bittersweet nostalgia, so I’ve also been trying to keep an eye out for things that are positive about our virtual recording projects. We’ve been able to further our record-keeping efforts, maintaining materials digitally instead of our physical storage spaces; we’ve created comprehensive accompaniment tracks and practice tracks for all the shows I’ve music directed for HRG&SP that can be used in the future & have figured out productive ways to organize them now that Google Drive really matters (this is not sponsored content!) We’ve bene able to reconnect with organization alumni and current undergrads who are spread across the world and with whom we might have lost touch otherwise; we’ve utilized the strengths within our community by encouraging cast members to get involved with the production side by coaching acting, helping create visuals for video recording, and editing video and audio into a final product. Although a virtual semester full of virtual theater pales in comparison to our treasured times spent in the Agassiz theater surrounded by friends hard at work, we have certainly picked up some useful knowledge that we can employ when it’s safe to gather together in Radcliffe Yard again.

–MLR

Reflecting on Virtual Wine & Cheese

Last fall, I returned to my dorm from a late-night rehearsal for our Fall 2019 production of Pinafore to find a letter slipped under my door. The neatly-addressed envelope contained a card embossed with the HRG&SP logo, inviting me to the organization’s Wine & Cheese celebration. The annual event offers an opportunity for HRG&SP community members to break out their cocktail attire and enjoy an evening of refined revelry with friends from productions past and present.

As a member of the Board and the Wine & Cheese committee this fall, I struggled to imagine how we might capture the spirit of the event in a virtual format. Replicating the energy that comes from sharing the same physical space seemed a daunting task. Yet my wonderful fellow committee members kept the faith, and we began to adapt the event for Zoom. Hand-addressed envelopes were replaced with Paperless Posts, and breakout rooms allowed attendees to move between conversations within the call. Rather than making group grocery store runs to pick up absurd amounts of cheese, we all arrived on Zoom with our own favorite varieties. When all was said and done, a tenacious few remained on the call until well past 3:00 AM.

Virtual Wine & Cheese reminded me of what is most important about the event. While I love putting on a cocktail dress and munching on fresh fruit in the Signet, I have always most enjoyed having an evening dedicated specifically to spending time with other HRG&SP community members. It is an opportunity to reaffirm our bonds and to enjoy each other’s company, putting aside the stress of midterms and the chaos of the semester. While fancy invitations and cheese boards are lovely, Wine & Cheese 2020 has proven that all we need to enjoy the event is each other (although a block of apricot Wensleydale certainly does not hurt).

Life’s a Pudding Full of Plums, Care’s a Canker that Benumbs

When anyone has the impertinence to ask why the Met puts on The Magic Flute every
Christmas (with its song, and—note–dialogue sections in English no less for the benefit of
youthful audience members) and yet has never staged a Penzance or Mikado, the stock reply runs something as follows: Gilbert and Sullivan can never join the ranks of serious “opera” because it is too light–too satirical, nonsensical, and altogether frivolous. Feigning temporary ignorance of the comic favorites that regularly rock the famous Lincoln Center stage (The Marriage of Figaro for one), we are faced with an interesting question: is G&S really as frivolously shallow as all that? I think not, and the coronavirus has proved it to me.

I was leading my regiment from behind and dreaming of polishing off batches of political dispatches in a distant island kingdom long before “Armageddon,” as we quickly took to calling it, struck the Harvard world in March. In the ensuing weeks and months, however, as I adjusted to life at home, classes on Zoom, and an entirely unpredictable future, one number from the Gondoliers surged into my consciousness with a unique affective power: the Act One quintet with Don Alhambra, the Duke and Duchess, Casilda, and Luiz. (“Try We Life-long”)

The plot, so to speak, has just thickened, with all the stereotyped ingredients of Victorian melodrama. Don Alhambra, having just revealed to Casilda that he does not know which of two gondolieri is her betrothed, reassures her in a recitative section with a typical touch of Gilbertian humor: “Submit to Fate without unseemly wrangle./ Such complications frequently occur.” Following this ludicrously laissez-faire pronouncement, however, Gilbert suddenly pivots. The following “Try we Life-long” is on an entirely different note, arguably among the most “serious” numbers in the canon. Yet what, you may say, of the truly heartrending numbers, such as Fairfax’s “Is Life a Boon”? There is an intriguing and important irony here. “Is Life a Boon” sets out to be a grand operatic tenor aria, or at least draws heavily from that tradition. And yet, in a Gilbertian world seriousness cannot help sabotaging itself. The emotional weight of Fairfax’s opening lines is subsequently undermined by lyrics such as “What kind of plaint have I,/ Who perish in July?,” which for all Sullivan’s efforts cannot escape the hint of a tongue in the cheek.


The irony, then, lies in the realization that if at the end of the day the heartrending cannot escape the funny, artful wit can be more heartrending that the heartrending itself. The intricate alliterating and rhyming verbiage of the quintet mirrors our attitude as we “hop and skip to Fancy’s fiddle.” We must make the best of life, dancing and singing with wild abandon in the face of uncertain Fate and especially of death, a word which Gilbert uses with startling directness at the end of the preceding recitative. (“Death is the only true unraveller.”) Here for once the comic genius is playing the ultimate joke on itself, turning the very fact of its satirical brilliance into something deeply tragic. Satisfied with the verbal veneer of lightheartedness, Gilbert is free to issue his most profound reflection on the human condition, a distinctively Victorian reworking of an age-old sentiment: if there is no resurrection, says Paul in the New Testament, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”; human life is like the waters of the mighty Yellow River, says the medieval Chinese poet Li Bai, flowing into the sea and never returning. Our only solution is to “never let our golden goblets sit empty as we drink under moonlight.” The most famous incarnation of this in formal “opera” is undoubtedly the Brindisi in La Traviata.


Showing yet another example of the mysterious creative telepathy between two very different men, Sullivan’s music catches the tension perfectly. Playing on the aural idioms and emotional range of the madrigal, it starts off with “try we lifelong, we can never…” on a romping, energetic note. “Life’s a pudding full of plums” begins to introduce more serious strains, “Set aside the dull enigma” burns with renewed determination, before more sober elements take back over for a haunting, elegiac climax with “String the lyre fill the cup/ Lest on sorrow we should sup.” “Hop and skip” is back to the energy and cheer of the opening, while “Life’s perhaps the only riddle” through the end finds the same middle ground as the words: older, wiser, artfully bridging sorrow and optimism.


Countless times over the past seven months I have been indescribably comforted by “Try We Life-long.” Life at Harvard was indeed a pudding full of the richest plums, full of singing and laughter and long, engaged conversation over dining-hall dinners. Care struck with a sudden vengeance. Yet we must keep singing, both literally (ask my parents and brother), and in our hearts. As always, Gilbert says it best:

String the lyre, fill the cup,
Lest on sorrow we should sup.
Hop and skip to Fancy’s fiddle,
Hands across and down the middle —
Life’s perhaps the only riddle
That we shrink from giving up!
Life’s perhaps the only riddle
That we shrink from giving up!
Then take it as it comes,
Take it as it comes.
String the lyre, fill the cup,
Lest on sorrow we should sup.
Take life as it comes!