A Fanatic’s Tale (This Isn’t Pretty)

At age 11, around the spring of 1955, while living in Japan on an Air Force Base, I stumbled across a children’s recording of “We Sail the Ocean Blue,” and “I’m Called Little Buttercup,” the opening numbers of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “H.M.S. Pinafore” (which was a sensation in Victorian England in 1878, and then in the United States, where over 90 different pirated productions were playing when the authors arrived in New York the following year to try and stop the copyright bleeding). I was hooked immediately. I then discovered that the Modern Library (a classics publishing endeavor) put out a volume called “The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan,” and even found a copy at the base exchange, which I snapped up and more or less memorized. It contained only the librettos (Gilbert’s contribution), without Sullivan’s wonderful music, but I devoured the fourteen shows therein. Now the task was to hear the music. In Japan.

The base library had a recording of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s production of “The Mikado” (G&S’s most popular work—I wonder if I’m the only non-Japanese G&S fan to have first heard Mikado in the country where it takes place), and I drove the librarians nuts requesting to listen to it over and over. Tachikawa Air Base, nine miles away from Yokota Air Force Base where I lived, had a two-LP recording of D’Oyly Carte’s production of “Pinafore” coupled with G&S’s one act opera, “Trial By Jury.” So I hopped on my bike, rode over and back to buy it, and then memorized it so I could sing every song (not particularly well). My next door neighbors had “Pirates of Penzance” on 45 RPMs, and I borrowed those records and played them until the neighbors worried I would wear them out, and cut off my source. I then learned that D’Oyly Carte recordings could be ordered from the States, so I requested those from my parents for birthdays and Xmas, and sat salivating by the mailbox for weeks until the latest one would arrive (by ocean going-ship—it took forever between a mailed request and the product’s arrival). There are, as I said, fourteen G&S operas. It wouldn’t be until 1975 until I had finally heard the music from the rarest of them. When the Whaley family arrived back in the USA in the winter of 1957, “The $64,000 Question” was the big TV quiz show of the day (and there were a number that year), and one of their quiz categories was “Gilbert and Sullivan.” My father, dollar signs in his eyes, sent the show a letter suggesting me as a contestant, I was interviewed by a traveling show rep in Nashville, answered all but two of the forty questions correctly, and was slated to be on the show later in the year. But then all the quiz shows folded in the fall of 1957 as cheating allegations proved to be all too true. It was a great scandal of the day.

What was so special about G&S to lead to my mania? It’s this: they produced the most perfect blending of wonderful over-the-top stories and incredibly clever lyrics (Gilbert’s contribution), perfectly mated to some of the most splendid music ever written (Sullivan’s). When the one act opera, “Trial By Jury” (only their second work) premiered in 1875, one critic summed up this same thought by commenting that the libretto and the music were so exactly right for each other that it was difficult to imagine that they didn’t spring from the same brain. Though G&S, as individuals, often had trouble dealing personally with each other (see the incredible movie 1999 “Topsy Turvy,” which details the rocky creation of “Mikado”), they were a sensation during the late 1800s, and even today their works are routinely performed all over the world. Without each other, they accomplished little that survives (a play and a comic poem by Gilbert; some hymns by Sullivan, notably “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and “Nearer My God To Thee,” the Sullivan version of this hymn was playing when the Titanic went down).

I have performed the part of The Learned Judge in “Trial By Jury” six times (singing and dancing and having a good time), and directed eight productions of the short opera (28 minutes from start to finish) in two different law schools, most recently in 2004, the year I retired. Joining me for that last outing was Professor Larry Garvin, who was our music director and sang the part of the Usher. I first met him at a G&S conference when he was in law school, and then watched his career as he became a law professor. He was teaching at Florida State as I neared retirement, and since we teach the same subjects, I suggested him as my replacement, leading to his hiring. (“It was the second job I’ve gotten through G&S,” he dryly commented to me later). Larry was the person who slipped on the ice in February and whose Contracts class I took over for a month as a substitute, as described in prior posts (see “Clickers,” March 17th).

This mania is not confined to only a few people. Due to the internet, G&S buffs have found each other, and joined a list-serve named “Savoynet” (G&S operas were originally produced at the Savoy Theatre in London, so G&S fans were then called “Savoyards”). Consequently I have G&S friends in England, Australia, Canada, the USA, and bizarre countries like Brazil (bizarre because G&S is largely an English-speaking attraction). Members of Savoynet and other G&S experts have created the very impressive and thorough G&S Archives [http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/], which contains the librettos, midi-files, histories, and more detail about G&S than you might think possible. There is nothing, no matter how small, about any aspect of G&S that someone on Savoynet cannot answer immediately.

Even better, Savoynetters decided to start getting together at various spots all over the globe for G&S sing-a-longs, where over a weekend or so up to eight operas would be performed, one after another. These performances are just of the songs, with piano accompaniment and dedicated singers. Solo parts are assigned ahead of time, and everyone is expected to bring their own vocal scores and sing in the chorus for each show (typically four a day). In Connecticut one year, by the end of the first day my voice gave out, and the next day I pitifully croaked my way through the part of the Colonel in “Patience.” The quality of the singers varies from trying-hard to wonderful. At one NYC sing-a-long, I found myself nervously singing a trio that included a Metropolitan Opera chorus member standing next to me!

There is a yearly summer G&S festival in Buxton, England that lasts for three weeks. Early in the history of Savoynet it was proposed that netters who were going to the festival should each sport a button with an “@” symbol so they could find each other and bond. That worked. The next year someone had the idea that Savoynet might put on its own G&S production at the festival if it was the one act “Trial By Jury.” The show was promptly cast ahead of time, with all involved promising to know their parts on arrival, and with Savoynetters and friends attending the festival supplying the chorus. Somehow costumes and scenery were obtained (the festival provides a large orchestra for each show), and with little more than a week’s rehearsal, a very credible TBJ was put on the stage and was the talk of the festival because of its high quality despite being thrown together so quickly.

That did it. The next year Savoynet put on a full length “Ruddigore,” and things have snowballed since. Years later Savoynet has produced almost the entire G&S canon, including the most complicated opera, “Utopia Limited,” which has fifteen principals and elaborate costumes and staging, and which came together in seven days and then won festival awards. For Savoynet’s annual production nowadays there are video tryouts, selections made by the casting committee, and midi-files put on the internet for each part and voice so that those participating (including the individual voices in the chorus) know exactly what notes they are to sing before they even arrive in England. The internet competition is fierce, and the Savoynet productions have yearly become more impressive. At the festival Savoynetters, perhaps wisely, are refused permission to form an all-Savoynet trivia team for the festival G&S Trivia contest.

If you don’t know Gilbert and Sullivan, you should experiment. Start with “The Mikado,” and if you like that, well, there are thirteen others. And see me if you want more G&S advice. I have plenty.


  1. "At age 11, around the spring of 1955, while living in Japan on an Air Force Base, I stumbled across a children’s recording of ‘We Sail the Ocean Blue,’ and ‘I’m Called Little Buttercup’ . . .”

    A Little Golden Record? Because I remember owning that one as well --

    Kevin Newland Scott
    (who first saw this post as reposted to SavoyNet)

  2. You know, I also had a GS record given to me as a child. It was "greatest hits" if I remember correctly and I did enjoy the music. This was a 33 record, not a Little Golden Record and I remember Little Buttercup and the captain patter of HMS pinafore. I did enjoy the record, and have enjoyed watching some of these operas thanks to Doug asking me along. I will never be a GS fan(atic) but I am grateful for seeing live performances.


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