30 Days of Opera Tidbits Day 2: G&S and Character

stampContinuing my ( occasional) posting on bite-size intros to opera, today a quick consideration of Gilbert and Sullivan. This refers to a collection of comic operettas written by Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert over about 25 years in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Very topical in their time, these tuneful pieces sent up everything from the “aesthetic” movement of Wilde et al, “A languid love for lilies does not blight me!” confesses the faux aesthete in Patience to  the do-nothing politicians that seem to plague any era, “The House of Peers, throughout the war/Did nothing in particular, And did it very well” (From Iolanthe).

There are all kinds pleasures big and small in the G&S oeuvre worth pointing out, but I’ll keep it to a couple that relate to opera directly, first in re the old debate about words and music. G&S provides an object lesson of how both can work together, a requirement for a successful opera, which is, despite its reputation a theatrical not a purely musical form. There is probably not much profit in trying to analyze of why or how exactly it works (in G&S no less than in Mozart and DaPonte), but somehow when the wedding is successful you hear the narrative, dramatic, and expressive, ideas of the music realized in the words, and vice versa. The whole gains moral force some how. There is also the need for attention to the sounds of the words as a aspect of the music in itself, something which Gilbert managed, while also managing to let off quite a lot of comic firecrackers.

In capsule: in opera, ideally words and music work together, melding meaning as well as sound.

Then to character: The other thing that G&S shares with opera is the use of an aria to introduce and illuminate a character. (This is not unique to opera, Shakespeare has “aria” like introductions for some characters, and movies and plays introduce characters, whether simple ‘types’ or more nuanced. Sondheim’s <em>Into the Woods</em> does this almost schematically, something thrown into unfortunate relief by the recent film.)

However, opera gets some special kung-fu from the opportunity it offers a protagonist to come out on stage, say “welcome to me!” and proceed to show his or her vocal and theatrical stuff. To wit (chosen from many good examples):

Kevin Kline in the Public Theater’s production of The Pirates of Penzance from the late 70s; he certainly offers a winning self-introduction!

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