The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music datebook: Madison Savoyards to give 6 performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore” starting this Friday | July 21, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

I’ll confess: I am not a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan.

Maybe it’s because I am too much of a Francophile. (I also don’t like a lot of British TV with the exception of “Masterpiece Theatre” and “MI-5”)

Or perhaps I’m  just humor-impaired. (I also don’t much care for Haydn’s, Beethoven’s or Mozart’s ideas of humor in music either.)

Gilbert and Sullivan (below) are not really classical music figures, so maybe I shouldn’t be putting them on the blog.

But I know plenty of serious classical musicians and classical music fans who relish seeing, listening to and even performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s many operettas. And I’ll admit that I once sang in the pirate chorus in “The Pirates of Penzance” and I did have a fun time watching the G&S bio-pic “Topsty-Turvey.”

Besides, last week I posted several obituaries for and an interview with the late great conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. He was known not only for his Mozart and Handel and Beethoven and  Brahms and Janacek, but also for his — a drumroll, please — Gilbert and Sullivan.

And of course summer —  for the past 48 summers in Madison — means it’s Gilbert and Sullivan time.

Especially this week, I will give the Madison Savoyards production of “HMS Pinafore”  (below, with Dean Messerly as Dick Deadeye and Ryan Thorn as Captain Corcoran.) a post. There is really no other competition on the classical front– or quasi-classical front —  at least.

And the Savoyards deserve the publicity, no matter what is wrong with me.

This year the Madison Savoyards, Ltd. are presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s first smash hit, HMS Pinafore, at Music Hall on the UW campus on Fridays and Saturdays July 23 and 24, and July 30 and 31, at 7:30 p.m.  There will also be matinee performances on Sunday, July 25, and Sunday, August 1, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15, $30 (most adult tickets) and $45. Children under 13 are $5, seniors over 60 get a $2 discount. Group discounts are also available (call 262-1500).

Here is part of a press release from The Madison Savoyards:

“The traditional hallmarks of the Madison Savoyards, a full orchestra and costumes, bring the HMS Pinafore to life as Gilbert and Sullivan intended.  The story of romance is chock full of barbs at British society and class differences.

“Gilbert’s fun with words and pointed remarks still bring hoots of laughter to audiences everywhere. Sullivan’s music matches Gilbert’s text with wonderful tunes and sends audience out humming and whistling tunes they already know but forgot were so much fun.

“Not only did HMS Pinafore tie the record for longest opening run in London, it was the first G&S show to enjoy great international popularity.  It has remained a favorite since its first performance in 1878.

(The stage direction of the two-hour show is in the capable hands of Terry Kiss Frank, a well-known local theater director and actress.  Grant Harville, the assistant music director in last year’s “The Yeomen of the Guard,” will be music director and conductor.  Both are experienced in presenting Gilbert and Sullivan operas for the local audiences.”

Tickets are available through the Vilas Hall ticket office (608 262-1500), or on line at

(Adds The Ear: At that web site, you will also find lots of background information, parking directions, a video/audio clip and much more. It’s well worth exploring.)

“The Madison Savoyards, Ltd. has been presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas for 48 years and strives to make each presentation come alive by knowing and respecting the special gifts of the authors and gathering a gifted and enthusiastic cast and crew.  The Savoyards last presented “HMS Pinafore” in 2000.”

And what kind of shape is The Madison Savoyards in?

The Ear spoke to board of directors president Jim Cain.

“We’re looking forward to celebrating our 50th anniversary in two years, so that tells you something, ” Cain said. “Like most local arts groups, we’re never very far away from trouble. We have finished the last fews years in the black — though not by much. So we are always looking for donors and contributors, but we’re in good shape.”

The Pinafore cast of mostly local people, Cain adds, ” is good with a lot of strong voices. This community has a lot of good singers with ties to the university and other organizations.”

To whet your appetite, here is a sample of one of the witty musical highlights of “HMS Pinafore” as done by a different troupe that is  if I recall correctly, not as good a G&S company as The Madison Savoyards:

Now educate The Ear:

Are there others who just don’t connect with Gilbert and Sullivan? Why?

And those of you who love Gilbert and Sullivan, can you tell me what is the big attraction?

And what did you think of this local production?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. […] Classical song datebook: Madison Savoyards to give 6 performances of Gilbert as great as Sullivan’… VN:F [1.9.3_1094]please wait…Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)VN:F [1.9.3_1094]Rating: 0 (from 0 […]

    Pingback by Classical music datebook: Madison Savoyards to give 6 performances of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore” starting this Friday | 7 Top M Download — July 26, 2010 @ 9:50 am

  2. “Readers, get thinking and typing, please!”

    OK – here goes.

    G&S is pretty quirky stuff.
    It isn’t really “an acquired taste.”
    Rather, I find that:
    a) Some people get the barest whiff and immediately reject it;
    b) Others give it a fair try and walk away scratching their heads and mumbling a puzzled, “Huh?”;
    c) And then there are the rabid Savoyards, like me, who love G&S passionately, adoring Sullivan’s infectious music and quoting Gilbert’s witty words ad nauseum in our lives.

    What is beyond debate is the durability and the pervasiveness of the works of G&S in our culture. 125 years after they were written, the G&S “big three” (Pinafore, Pirates, Mikado), along with many of the other “operas” (as G&S themselves preferred to call them), are performed constantly all over the world. Many of Gilbert’s words and witticisms have become fixtures in the English lexicon (a “Pooh-Bah,” “Here’s a pretty howdee-doo,” “I’ve got a little list”). And Sullivan’s music is all around us – “Tit Willow” from The Mikado; “With Cat-Like Tread” from Pirates [transmuted into “Hail Hail the Gang’s All Here”]; “We Sail the Ocean Blue” from Pinafore, to cite a few.

    As to whether the music is really “classical,” if you doubt it, try singing it. Or playing it. Or conducting it. It may be accessible and entertaining — and what’s wrong with that, anyway? — but it is also subtle, sophisticated and complex.

    It can be thoroughly enthralling (endless melodic invention, brilliant counterpoint, especially in many of the Act I finales). It can be exquisitely delicate and poignant (the brilliantly crafted madrigals). And sometimes it’s downright inspiring (the marches and the big chorales). In the end, however, I suspect this is probably a pointless debate.

    Sullivan, whom some hoped would become the “saviour” of serious English composition and “the Engish Mendelssohn,” together with the irascible Gilbert, were quintessential Victorians. As such, they created something wonderful, quite unique and almost unclassifiable.

    It ain’t fer ever’body, that’s fer sure, but fer us what loves it, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are a source of endless and enduring pleasure and delight.

    Comment by Marius — July 22, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    • Hi Marius,
      What a great comment you offer: Good ideas, well put or expressed, with good specific examples.
      Why, it is worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan themselves.
      Enjoy, enjoy.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

  3. OK, Ok, I’ll jump in. I’m a lifelong G&S fan, having been introduced to it, as a very young child, by my aunt who was accompanying various school productions.

    My position is that music is an extremely powerful force, expressing emotions that the audience members then re-experience, as if they had invisible internal sympathetic vibrating strings.

    I believe that each listener responds most deeply to music that fills his/her need. I’m a passionate Hungarian, and so, I don’t need music to highlight life’s intensity; it’s already about as intense as I can handle. Overblown raw emotions onstage are too overwhelming; give me Bach to put order back in the world and help me gain more of a God’s-eye perspective on my own personal situations.

    British wit works in a similar way for me, taking everyday situations and finding the humor in them instead of agonizing about them. By deflecting the intensity and presenting situations in a more stylized, abstract form, these depictions are more widely applicable and have their own beauty. Surely a real King Lear would not speak in gorgeous iambic pentameter, but the fact that Shakespeare’s character does so, etches his initial folly and ultimate wisdom more deeply in our pysches. The plays of George Bernhard Shaw are perhaps even better examples of the power of wit and artifice to drive home a powerful, memorable message.

    Some of it is formulaic, but overall, I love Sullivan’s music. I find the patter songs very clever and amusing, but I greatly prefer the gorgeous group-ensemble madrigals and part-songs that occur in almost every operetta (but then, I’m a chamber musician at heart). I’d much rather hear ‘Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day’ from “The Mikado” than follow Wagnerian leitmotifs in their seemingly endless iterations, or witness Bacchanalian shenanigans on a Venus Mountain.

    But go ahead, call me an uncultured heathen 🙂

    Back to the practice room,

    Comment by Marika Fischer Hoyt — July 22, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    • HI Marika,
      As always, you offer an interesting reply with some telling comparisons.
      Even I would favor G&S over a lot of Wagner, but not over other Wagner.
      Overall, I tend to favor music without words.
      As you say, we all take from our favorite music what we want or need.
      Thanks for weighing in.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

  4. Hi Jake,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.
    I understand that not everybody likes everything, and for what it is worth, some of the most ardent G&S bashers that I’ve run into have been Brits. They hate that twee, ah-Empire, tea-and crumpets, gotta-love-that-Queen quality that some American Anglophiles just lap up.
    So, it really is OK with me that you don’t much care for G&S, even if it is up there with Oscar Wilde, Elgar, and “Wind in the Willows” for me.
    What I take issue with are your assertions, stated near the beginning of your blog, that G&S are not really classical music figures, and thus, do not really belong on your classical music blog. I think I could amass a goodly amount of evidence to support the notion that G&S ARE best seen as so-called “classical” figures, but I’ll save that discussion for an (even more) rainy day.
    Meantime, thank you for all you do to help promote awareness of the music scene in Madison and beyond! As you know, I enjoy following your comments and those of your readers.

    Comment by Bill — July 22, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    • Hi again Bill,
      I appreciate your reply and your understanding of the subjectivity of taste — especially as one ages and has to make choices about how to spend a diminishing amount of time.
      No reason to go Da Capo.
      But about the “classical music” argument: You, and Leonard Bernstein, might well be right and I am wrong. I trust your cast knowledge of both Gilbert and Sullivan and also the classical music tradition or history in general. You are comprehensive in your knowledge AND your appreciation.
      But I still think changing categories — however problematic they prove to be — is an uphill battle in an age of convenient shorthand labeling.
      In short, you can be right and still lose the battle; I can be wrong and still be accepted as right.
      Not fair, but there it is.
      I will be interested to see what other readers reply — for or against either side.
      Let’s hope they do reply.
      Readers, get thinking and typing, please!

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2010 @ 10:10 am

  5. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    Opinions about matters of taste are not objectively right or wrong. Disagreements about matters of taste cannot be objectively resolved.

    “If you want to know if the work was a success, don’t show me the critical reviews. Show me the box office reports.”
    – Joe Green, famous composer –

    Comment by Marius — July 22, 2010 @ 7:00 am

    • Hi Marius.
      I can’t argue.
      I add that Schubert — Sam, of theater fame, not Franz — once said “The box office never lies.”
      I can also point out that I never argued that Gilbert and Sullivan’s work aren’t good — just that they don’t appeal to me as much they do as to others.
      I would be interested in knowing: How do you find them?
      Thanks for reading and writing.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2010 @ 8:04 am

  6. Your assertion that Gilbert and Sullivan are “not really classical music figures” I find curious, to say the least. Their comic operas are certainly as “classical” (whatever that word really means) as Johann Strauss Jr, or Offenbach, or Lehar.

    Leonard Bernstein suggested the use of the expression “exact” music in place of what we call classical … That is, it is music that is written to be performed as the composer (and in this case librettist) wrote it. I think that is a pretty good definition of what most people mean by “classical.”

    As a “classical” musician who deals with opera regularly, I would say that Sullivan’s music requires the same kind of polish, care, beauty of expression and elegance as Mozart. Could that be why Sir Charles Mackerras was such a fan? Could that be why the Lyric Opera of Chicago feels comfortable putting “The Mikado” on the same stage as masterworks by Verdi, Puccini, Handel and Britten?

    These comic operas (as they are properly called) contain a wealth of beautiful melody, and wonderfully comic (and in some cases profound) lyrics. Having been in most of the G&S operettas, and heard gales of laughter coming across the footlights (and having been in the audience for many, many performances, contributing to that laughter), I can only hope that those who have not seen a G&S opera will avail themselves of the opportunity.

    As for Savoyard’s long tradition, three hearty cheers!

    (By the way, I find it equally curious that you are unresponsive to the humor in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Too bad it has to be “serious” to be worthy of your critical approbation.)

    I invite others to take up the question of what does and does not fall under the vague heading of “classical” music. Maybe it is a word that needs to be retired, especially if it means perpetrating a narrow and elitist notion of what music is worthy to be loved and cherished.

    Comment by Bill — July 21, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

    • Hi Bill,
      Well, clearly you feel passionately and have thought long and hard about Gilbert and Sullivan.
      I certainly wouldn’t argue about the quality of their work. Its popularity and longevity surely speak to its excellence.
      I also said never said the work wasn’t good — just that I haven’t connected with it as much or as deeply as I thought I would.
      As for humor in them or other composers, I find it to be very subjective. Some people just don’t like Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges, or Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco. I love Henny Youngman and his one-liners, but can’t stand Don Rickles and his one-liners. I still don’t know why, and am not sure I want to.
      My loss, for sure, but one I can live with. Maybe I can even live a full life without appreciating everything I should or others do.
      Back to G&S:
      I prefaced my remarks about including them in the blog because I am still willing to bet that if you ask listeners to list the Top 10 or 25 or 50 or even 100 classical composers, you would rarely find Gilbert and Sullivan on that list.
      So perhaps you are right and Leonard Bernstein had a point about redefining the term or using a new and different one. But history and our penchant for short-hand categorizing suggest that is an uphill battle at best.
      Bravo to the Chicago Lyric Opera for offering such a wide choice of repertoire. But I suspect it will be a long time before the Madison Opera does a Gilbert and Sullivan work, though who knows — or before The Savoyards do a Puccini one-act.
      G&S do seem to occupy a special and unique niche — I’m not sure why, perhaps you know and can address that in a guest blog — which is why a group like the Savoyards exists and has done well.
      In any case, I posted about Gilbert and Sullivan because the works deserve it, the performing artists deserve it and the audiences deserve it.
      I may even go to “Pinafore,” though it is not a priority for me — just as certain concerts of music you like but do not love do not appeal to you. But that doesn’t mean i am not glad that works exist and are regularly performed and appreciated by many, many others.
      I should add that i enjoy and am amused, even delighted, by certain moments in G&S– the patter songs appeal to me for their ingenious use of language and rhyme — but that staying involved with an entire G&S work usually eludes me and just doesn’t reward me as much as other music, or literature, or visual art.
      Anyway, I meant no disrespect — or I would not have taken the time to write and done original research for the post.
      As for the Savoyards, I agree: Let’s give three cheers and one-cheer more!

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2010 @ 8:45 am

  7. I’m not a fan of shows where the performers on stage seem to be having more fun than the audience. Gilbert and Sullivan, PDQ Bach and some operettas fall into that category for me. And I say that as someone who has performed them. Fun to do — not as much fun to watch.

    Comment by Cheryl — July 21, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    • Hi Cheryl,
      Thanks for providing a perspective which I had not heard before but which makes a lot of sense.
      It certainly holds up to my own experience with Gilbert and Sullivan both on the stage and in the audience.
      Hope you’re doing well.
      We miss you.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 21, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

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