Concert Notes

Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”

Notes by TŌN bassist Zack Merkovsky

The 14 works of the legendary collaborators, librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, are light, funny, and often poke at political and class issues. They are usually called “Savoy operas.” This theater was the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity, which allowed for spectacular effects like sparkling fairy wands and wreaths. Iolanthe (1882) was the first. Iolanthe was also the first play or opera to open on the same night in both London and New York City, with two separate casts. 

In the United States, Gilbert and Sullivan’s influence was staggering. H.M.S. Pinafore, a Gilbert and Sullivan opera from a few years prior, saw eight different staged productions in what we now call New York City’s Theater District at the same time. It’s not hard to draw the line from Savoy opera to the musical, especially geographically. One of the biggest contributions Gilbert and Sullivan’s works made is in how the stories unfold; the use of dialogue between musical numbers makes Iolanthe feel more like a musical than an opera, but both words and song serve to move the story along. 

My favorite song in Iolanthe comes in the middle of Act II. The Lord Chancellor has had a sleepless night, dealing with emotions of love for his own ward, Phyllis, who is already in love with Strephon and is also being courted by two other Lords. It is a fast and furious patter song with a surprising amount of text. Pay attention to the music any time the Lord Chancellor comes into the scene. This very “classical” sounding fugue, a stand-in for his high position, always accompanies him and you will hear it too at the beginning of this number. 

In a talk with our conductor, James Bagwell, he told me that he feels Iolanthe is a convincing pairing of music fit for a serious opera with this lighter, operetta style. He emphasized how much Mendelssohn and Wagner he hears in Sullivan’s writing. The connection to Mendelssohn is apt, as he wrote his own fairy music in his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I found myself attracted to the bouncy rhythms beneath nearly every song. Sullivan’s genius is evident in his orchestration; the music always acts to serve the singers on stage, but keeps a life of its own. 

The scenario and jokes wind together elegantly in Iolanthe, as they do in all of the Savoy operas. Much of the silliness comes from what is unsaid, and when that which is unsaid is said, the problems fizzle away. The climaxes of both acts are resolved so simply that you cannot help but laugh. Gilbert and Sullivan have packed Iolanthe with fun political satire too, much of which continues to be relevant through the centuries and across the pond.