I had an audition last night for an Offenbach operetta. It could have gone better; I was already having a not-so-great voice day (the result of trying to integrate new technical stuff all at once, perhaps), and the audition was scheduled for 9:30 PM…which became 10…which became 10:30. It wasn’t pretty, but I hit all of the notes and managed to do my La Fontaine fable when they asked if I had done any theater in French. The next train home wasn’t for another 25 minutes, so I hopped on a bus to St. Michel (a friend of mine said once that when you’ve mastered the bus system, you’re a true Parisian, but I think it’s as simple as, does this bus go somewhere I want to go? You don’t have to know anything in advance!) and took the RER home.
But that’s not what this entry is about.
Because they were running so late, I wound up chatting with a couple of other singers and the people who were in charge of organizing the auditions. Somebody asked me what my favorite repertoire was; I listed Handel, Mozart and Bach, and then I said, “Et bien sur les opérettes anglaises.”
“Er…comme Le Mikado? Les Pirates de Penzance?”
“Gilbert et Sullivan?”
This was my reaction.
(Yep, that’s me. Age 17, high school production of Pirates of Penzance.)
So I wrote down the names Gilbert and Sullivan, and The Mikado, Pirates and H.M.S. Pinafore. They asked me if these were “les meilleurs,” the best…I said they were the most famous, but my favorite (The Yeomen of the Guard) was actually not on that list (NB: I’ve never met a G&S operetta that I didn’t like, so favorites are really a matter of slight preference).
And the funny thing, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience. My voice teacher had never heard of Gilbert and Sullivan when I mentioned them; neither had my Russian lesson pianist, Anna. Now, I know this is a very anglophone phenomenon, but come on. I’d heard of Offenbach (and not just Tales of Hoffman) even before last summer in Périgueux. I did Léhar in college. What’s amazing to me about the people at this audition is that they all belong to an organization that does an Offenbach operetta every year; as Captain Von Trapp might put it, they seem to be suffering from a deplorable lack of curiosity.
I think W.S. Gilbert would be appalled.
“Madam. I would rather spend an afternoon in a Turkish bath with my mother than live in a country where they have never heard of The Mikado!”
Maybe it’s just that the French in general find English pronunciation difficult, or that the Savoy operas don’t work at all in translation (and yet Offenbach does? the jury’s still out…). But it surprises me that well-educated, well-rounded vocal musicians with an interest in the operetta repertoire in general should never have investigated what are arguably the most popular works of music theatre in the English-speaking world.
…I’ve just remembered that my sophomore year of college I wrote a paper on Gilbert and Sullivan because I was so appalled that half of my music history discussion section had never heard of them. Sophomore year I honestly wouldn’t have yet considered myself much of an aficionado (and I’m still really only familiar with the ones that I’ve been in, but I know them inside and out!), but I brought up G&S as an example of English national music. My music history TA asked me to expand on that topic, since she didn’t know enough about it to do so herself.
I was shocked.
(That’s me again. 2011!)
So I wrote nine pages about the Savoy operas and how they were built on the English poetic and musical legacy, how any time somebody wants to represent the essential English-ness of something, they use “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” or “For He Is An Englishman” or “Three Little Maids,” how the operettas show up in Animaniacs, on The West Wing, and in Sondheim shows (the England section of “Please Hello” from Pacific Overtures is a brilliant, perfectly-scanning parody of Gilbertian lyrics, though Sondheim doesn’t particularly like G&S himself).
In the years since writing that paper, I’ve done three more fully-staged Gilbert and Sullivan operettas plus a semi-staged, not-at-all-rehearsed concert Mikado, and I just think there’s something magical about these shows.
John Wellington Wells would agree that you don’t need a magic potion (a PHILTRE, if you will) to find a G&S opera charming, funny, and heartwarming. They can be satirical at times, other times just completely ridiculous, with plot holes so big you could fall into another dimension…but there’s a thread of sincerity and good clean fun throughout them that makes me return over and over again to my favorites.
I’m listening to The Pirates of Penzance as I write this. Never gets old.