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A time-honoured Gilbert & Sullivan tradition has come under fire following a performance by Stuart Maunder and the Sydney Symphony last Saturday.
Maunder sang in the perennial crowd-pleaser The List at a G&S costumed extravaganza, in a rendition that contains a comic lyric about the Sydney-based mega-church that attracts more than 20,000 worshippers to its services each week. Within days of the concert, Hillsong’s lawyers sent an official letter to the Sydney Symphony requesting a copy of the lyrics.
The humorous song from The Mikado calls for substitute lyrics relevant to a contemporary audience as the character Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner of Japan, draws up a wishful list of victims “who never would be missed”.
The wide-ranging, topical targets of Maunder’s satire included “Twitterers and Facebook fiends” and “Justin Bieber’s ineffective dermatologist”. Politics is never sacred in Gilbert & Sullivan, and “councilors who on those lanes for bicycles insist” were flagged along with a Speedos-clad Tony Abbott and ''Canberra's favourite red-head”, whose diphthong-drenched drawl Maunder incorporated into his delivery. Laughs all round.
And then the line that raised eyebrows within the Church community: "That Hillsong lot on television, all joyfully singing psalms, I wish they would desist, and their happy claps resist.”
“The List always gets comment,” says Maunder, Australia’s undisputed G&S king who has performed the piece many times with different lyrics. “But rarely do individuals or companies resort to solicitors’ letters.”
Although he is adamant that a joke explained is a joke ruined, he insists the Hillsong reference is “a mock peevish jibe at others people’s joy. The members of the Church are clearly having a good time and we are left out.
“Gilbert himself took the established Church as fair game, describing one character in The Gondoliers as ‘a Wesleyan Methodist of the most bigoted and persecuting kind’. That joke is still included in libretti, and it’s still funny!”
The version of The List that caused an uproar last week is part of a living theatrical tradition, “an amalgam of jokes written by WS Gilbert with rewrites by many Ko-Kos who have appeared in the Opera Australia production of The Mikado – Jonathan Biggins, Anthony Warlow, Mitchell Butel”, which Maunder “filtered, adapted, updated and pilfered” to present up-to-the-minute social commentary.
It’s a tradition that appeals to the Australian larrikin sensibility: “The song puts in one place as many current issues as it can. It’s the operatic equivalent of a political cartoon, just listing things that annoy or amuse and written with Gilbertian syntax."
The List may touch on controversial issues, but Maunder stresses it’s all in good fun. “I’d like to think the church assumed I had said derogatory things, heard in the moment then reported wrongly like Chinese whispers.”