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Page 4: An Appreciation of Gilbert and Sullivan (in 14 parts)

George Cook in The Mikado about 1920

George Cook plays Nanki-Poo
"The Mikado" about 1920

by Alan D Craxford (Newfloridian)

WS Gilbert

W.S. Gilbert

Sir Arthur Sullivan

Arthur Sullivan

Gilbert and Sullivan – two names that encapsulate the very meaning of Englishness of a by-gone era. The words and music of their comic operas have become interwoven in the very fabric of the life of this country. The tunes and lyrics are so familiar that listeners will know them even if they cannot put a title to a particular song. The entrepreneurial mind behind the productions was Richard D’Oyly Carte who was instrumental in bringing the librettist and composer together and also for building Savoy Theatre (and the hotel) in the Strand in London which become the home of the operettas. The guardianship of this heritage is now vested in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company which has been synonymous with great performances, recordings and generations of dedicated performers since the late 1800s.


George Cook as Nanki-Poo

George Cook as Nanki-Poo

I have enjoyed the works of Gilbert and Sullivan for many years. There was an appreciation of the music woven into the fabric of our family decades before I happened along. My grandfather, George Cook (1883 – 1968) was a leading light in the local amateur dramatic society in Leicester in the 1920s and early 30s. I am told that he had a fine tenor voice and was on the edge of pursuing a professional career. I have photographs of him in costume from a number of staged productions. That love of the operettas came down through my mother to me.


Found with his album and other loose photographs was an intriguing programme for 'The Mikado' dating back to a performance by the same Society twenty years before. It is impossible to be certain but the fact that he had preserved this programme leads me to believe that he was in the audience during this week in April 1904. I like to think too that it was the spur that led him into performance himself.

"THE MIKADO, 1904"

The Mikado: Carl Rosa Opera

The Carl Rosa Opera perform "The Mikado"

I have seen all of the popular operas – some by the D’Oyly Carte Company, some by their great rivals the Carl Rosa Opera Company. Indeed it was an attendance at their production of “The Mikado” at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle upon Tyne last week that spurred me to add this article to the site. I have seen alternative interpretations of some of the titles. I have the complete set of the CD recordings and the DVD series along with the full set of the libretti for reference.

Ruddigore libretto

Sullivan Libretto

In more recent times my daughter and step-son have developed a similar keen interest in Gilbert and Sullivan. Richard came home from a school concert, full of the lines of “A Policeman’s Lot” not knowing exactly where it has come from. Since then we have taken them to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle whenever there has been a production in the calendar (we have not kept their horizons narrow on G&S alone and they have also seen “The Magic Flute” and “Orpheus In The Underworld”). As a family we have taken day trips to the Savoy Theatre in London. Richard in particular has continued to borrow from my CD collection and he will usually know before we do when another performance is brewing.

Consumer reviews

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of reviews that were posted on two web-based consumer opinion sites (ciao.co.uk here in the UK and epinions.com in America). My intention was to write a review of each operetta and post the reviews in the order in which they had been composed. There were obviously some inconsistencies in this arrangement (“Trial By Jury” – the first operetta - is too short to stand alone and is paired with “Yeoman of the Guard”) and one omission (“Thespis” was the first G&S collaboration but has been lost to antiquity).

George Cook as Marco, The Gondoliers about 1920

George Cook as Marco; "The Gondoliers"

If you are wondering what this all has to do with genealogy and family trees, it is fitting to recall that Poo-Bah (the 'Lord High Everything Else' from The Mikado) was very fond of reminding everyone of his ancestry: "I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable." I am dedicating this section of the site to the memory of my grandfather and also to the pleasure that these works by two gentlemen still give today. I have enjoyed my in depth studies of these two pillars of Victorian England and the treasured legacy that they have left behind. I have also enjoyed the discovery of works that I had never heard before.

I have listed the operas in the order that they were written and first performed. The title of each review is a direct quotation from the opera in question. All that remains for me to do now is to add the illustrations to the text of Orpheus.

I hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as I have had putting them together.


CD cover

The CD

Perhaps the period of greatest acclaim was in the years between the late 1950s and the early 1970s. This was the era of such soloists as John Reed, Donald Adams and Valerie Masterson. During that time the full catalogue of operettas (and some incidental music) was recorded by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company with several different orchestras and conductors and was released on vinyl at the time on Decca’s London label. These were reissued as two-disc CD boxed sets in the mid 1980s. Now, Decca have carried out a digital remastering of the whole range and released them again in April 2003 on their “Grand Opera” label. These recordings are probably the definitive interpretations and the series the most complete set of the operas in existence.

There are some arguments about the content of each individual opera. Some feature the full (sung and vocal) libretto; others are missing the spoken parts. For my part I don’t think this matters unduly on CD and does not detract from the beauty of the music and the sense of the work.

I have also posted a review about "Orpheus in the Underworld" by Jacques Offenbach. This is a fairly recent recording by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Both Gilbert and Sullivan were firm admirers of this adoptive Frenchman. Orpheus really is a treasure and worth going out of your way to see. I have just received a copy of the Company's "Die Fledermaus" (Johann Strauss) recorded in the mid 1990s and sung in English. I hope to post a review of that in due course.


'Pirates of Penzance' from The BBC DVD collection


To my knowledge there is not a full set of video recordings of the operas. This particular collection, featuring the ten full length operas, is the nearest to that goal. It was produced back in the 1980s by George Walker, originally for screening by the BBC. They have been available on VHS tape since that time but they were remastered and reissued on DVD during 2002. Admittedly at the moment they are only available in Region 1 format in America (one retailer in Newcastle has told me that he could obtain them from the US as a special order) but there are rumours that a release may be imminent in the UK next year.

They feature the London Symphony Orchestra, a professional operatic choir, a number of D’Oyly Carte stalwarts and a number of guest artists. These include Keith Michell, Frankie Howerd, Vincent Price and William Conrad. The DVDs are available singly, as a box of five ‘Most Popular’ or a box of the full ten titles.

The first version of this article originally appeared on CIAO on March 27th 2003 and later on Epinions in America. Both sites have long since closed.

Access to the Ciao web site

CIAO: The Consumer Community

Access to the epinions web site

Epinions: A Shopping.com community

Please contact us

email If you have any questions or comments about the information on this site in general, or you have further information regarding this article, please Get in touch by leaving a message in our Guestbook. If you don't want the message to be added to the Guestbook, just say that in your text. We look forward to hearing from you.

The operas

Sorcerer CD: Access the review THE SORCERER
"Love, The Housemaid, lights her kitchen fire"

HMS Pinafore CD: Access the review HMS PINAFORE
"Ring The Merry Bells On Board Ship"

Pirates of Penzance CD: Access the review THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
"A Paradox, A Paradox, That Most Ingenious Paradox"

Patience CD: Access the review PATIENCE
"I Am Blithe and I Am Gay"

Iolanthe CD: Access the review IOLANTHE
"She’d Meet Him After Dark Inside St James Park And Give Him One!"

Pricess Ida CD: Access the review PRINCESS IDA
"Man’s A Ribald, Man’s A Rake; Man Is Nature’s Sole Mistake"

The Mikado CD: Access the review THE MIKADO
"O ni, bikkuri shakkuri to"

Ruddigore CD: Access the review RUDDIGORE / COX AND BOX
"Then Is The Ghosts' High Noon"

Yeomen of the Guard CD: Access the review YEOMEN OF THE GUARD / TRIAL BY JURY
"What A Tale Of Cock; What A Tale Of Bull!"

The Gondoliers CD: Access the review THE GONDOLIERS
"When Everyone is Somebody, Then No-one’s Anybody!"

Utopia Limited CD: Access the review UTOPIA LIMITED / OVERTURES
"King Tuppence: A Good Deal Less Than Half A Sovereign!"

The Grand Duke CD: Access the review THE GRAND DUKE
"Fill The Bowl With Lesbian Wine"

Other sites of interest

Patience illustration from the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

"Patience". An illustration from the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

If like me you have a love of the music or would like to take a deeper interest in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan you need look no further than this superb web site. It has a full range of historical and biographical facts, anecdotes and ilustrations. Each operetta has its own assigned and colour coded section which leads to a brief overview and then a more detailed account of the plot, the full libretto and a series of digitised files of the music.


Page Added: October 22nd 2005
Last Update April 26th 2019

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