A Gilbert & Sullivan junkie’s take on how the Savoy Operas became part of Australia’s theatrical DNA.

Australia’s love affair with G&S (and let’s face it, how many creators are instantly recognised by their initials alone?) is almost as enduring as the works themselves. In the 1870s, when policing copyright was much trickier than it is now, two rival “pirate” productions of H.M.S. Pinafore were playing across the street from one another in Melbourne.

After that, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company licensed all G&S productions in Australia to J. C. Williamson, granting them exclusive rights to present the works in productions based on D’Oyly Carte originals. So up-to-date were we that the first “official” production of The Mikado played here only six months after the London premiere. 

At the end of 1961, the copyright on the Gilbert & Sullivan operas expired, and companies all over the world relished the prospect of new productions, freed from D’Oyly Carte’s stylistic guidelines.

Since then, the operas have been reimagined in countless out-there guises, including “hot”, “black” and “swing” Mikados; an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart sings excerpts of Pinafore to calm a murderous Sideshow Bob; a bizarre episode of The Muppet Show in which a seven-foot-tall carrot sang selections from The Carrots of Penzance… Even Covent Garden has played host to a production of The Yeomen of the Guard conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. What each new incarnation seems to confirm is the inherent strength of the original material.

After all, Gilbert’s dramatic situations are still funny. We still delight in the way plots hinge on twins being swapped at birth or ridiculous legal technicalities. And Sullivan’s music provides a romantic foil to Gilbert’s pervasive drollery and cynicism. This kind of friction was very much at the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan’s creative relationship (explored wonderfully in Mike Leigh’s film Topsy-Turvy).

A good production of any of the operas will make these kind of sparks fly for today’s audiences, too. The music, of course, soars when delivered by great voices, and most of the text works beautifully just as it is: its particular genius is that the then-topical references in Gilbert’s text still sound relevant. 

So little wonder opera companies still perform the G&S canon. People love the works, they put “bums on seats” and the opera companies don’t have to pay ten per cent of box office receipts to rights holders. 

But the big question, and one which I am invariably asked, is: should serious opera companies be presenting these “light” works? My answer is yes. They are masterpieces of their particular type. Should opera companies perform only the four most popular of the G&S repertoire (Mikado, Pirates, Pinafore and Gondoliers)? No, just as opera companies shouldn’t perform Figaro, Traviata, Bohème and Tosca with such monotonous regularity.

Lastly, should the argument for not doing the G&S canon come down to quips like “they are old hat” or “the music is not as good as Rodgers and Hammerstein” or “they’re not really opera”? Please! 

For generations of Australians, seeing a Gilbert & Sullivan opera is a defining moment. I have lost count of the number of people who’ve told me something like, “My aunt took me to see Pirates when I was eight and that’s how I got hooked on G&S…”

The G&S phenomenon has been part of the basic language of performing in Australia for more than a century. People sing the numbers in competitions; musical societies stage the pieces all the time; and not so long ago people sang the songs around the piano.

Noël Coward spoke for many of us when he said: “The lyrics and melodies of Gilbert and Sullivan were hummed and strummed into my consciousness at an early age… by the time I was four years old they had been fairly inculcated into my bloodstream.” And long may this grand tradition continue.

Stuart Maunder’s new production of The Mikado for Opera Queensland runs until July 28 at the Conservatorium Theatre. View event details here.