Tuning in to Opera 2021

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A course exploring, enjoying and discussing opera at U3A Nillumbik, Melbourne, conducted by Lyn and Tom Richards

Welcome to Tuning in to Opera. Our group meets on Fridays in U3A terms in the Girl Guide Hall, Eltham. This blog offers information about the operas and composers we study - and links to lots more materials about them including live performances. Contact U3A Nillumbik to join the course.

This course has run since 2016: see this website for its first years and this blog for 2019-20.


It's Iolanthe, the most directly political of the G&S operas, with Gilbert's most direct attack on the class system he belonged to, and Sullivan's most hilarious use of music to highlight pomposity. And their most topsy-turvy plot of all - the fairies vs the House of Peers. Guess who wins.

It all starts with a weakening of the Fairie Law - Iolanthe is pardoned by the Fairie Queen (somewhat illogically) for marrying a mortal. The rest follows (with a lot of commentary on the human law ('the true embodiment of everything that's excellent') and how it works to control the 'lower middle classes'.

Full synopsis and lots of wonderful illustrations and side stories on the gsarchive site here. Of all the G&S operas, this offered most fun for the matchless costume designer.

Thus transported to the equally ridiculous worlds of fairies and the Victorian House of Lords, we are going further, to the world of Canadian fairies, commenting on Victorian England!

Our viewing this week is of the amazingly cheeky production for the Stratford Festival in Canada. It's on YouTube in two halves - First half here. Second half here. You need to adjust to some Canadian accents and references "Oh CBC... Oh, Knowlton Nash" but there have surely never been such fun fairies. There's a video here on YouTube on the making of the Stratford production.

By contrast, for a seriously funny traditional performance, there's a terrible recording on YouTube of a splendid early OA performance from the Sydney Opera House, - the brilliant Dennis Olsen as Lord Chancellor and Heather Begg as Queen of the Fairies, June Bronhill and Lyndon Terracini - would you believe - as lovers Phyllis and Strephon. Here's Olsen's Lord Chancellor on the Law... and here's his nightmare song.

As always, with G&S, you really must get Gilbert's words. The full libretto is on the gsarchive site. Read to the end to see the missing song - Gilbert withdrew it - when Strephon reflects on his achievements in making parliament a place of honest debate by intelligent leaders. Sigh.

Below is my printable version of the words of those hit songs!

Iolanthe hit songs
Download DOCX • 25KB


The Mikado remains the most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, despite, or maybe because of increasing awareness of its monstrous racial caricatures. If you're among the few who don't know of it, check out plot, background etc on the wonderful GSArchives site .

OK, it's about Japan. Sort of. Premiered in 1885, (that's the poster above) the production was advised by Japanese Londoners. 'Cleverly satirizing British politics and institutions by disguising them as Japanese, the production also reflected the growing interest and influence of Japanese art, fashion and aesthetics on western culture.' No wonder it was popular in the US. It played in Japan in mid-1940s under the American occupation, was then banned - but after the ban was lifted in the early 2000s, was well received - arguably because it was once banned. The ongoing more modern debate about white actors in race-drag or yellowface had a production cancelled in New York (though interestingly the debate didn't include the horrific cartoon depictions of the characters in all productions.) There has been much less discussion of the awfulness of the female roles, and nobody ever comments about the vulgarity of the mock-Japanese names!

We're watching a much praised 1987 version by Opera Australia. Details and cast are here. Opera Australia had only just begun in 1985, and one of its first productions was The Mikado. This production was revived at the Festival of Sydney in 1987. Our leads are Anne-Maree McDonald (Yum Yum), Peter Cousens (Nanki-Poo), Gregory Yurisich (Poo-Bah), Graeme Ewer (Ko-Ko), John Germain (Pish-Tush), Robert Eddie (Mikado). Flashback to last week: Heather Begg again is the amazing contralto comic elderly woman - Katisha, this time.

Want to view a full version in your own time? There's an amazing re-mastering of the 1966 production by D'Oyly Carte with John Reed as Ko-Ko on YouTube - to view the full opera, click here.

Here's another topsy-turvy. In 1890 the Thai monarch saw The Mikado in Singapore, and two decades later his princely son penned a 'translation' that substituted China for Japan (then admired) and altered the plot accordingly! Read all about it here.

Is it unsurprising that this opera is widely spoofed in production - Jon English for Poo-Bah?

Or try the entirely English-spoofing production by Jonathon Miller - trailer here.,

Meanwhile, Check out the ways Poo-Bah entered our language here. And that's not counting Sam Slagheap in the Flintstones.

And the plot? How Topsy-Turvy can you get? As Pish-Tush puts it, 'Our logical Mikado, seeing no moral difference between the dignified judge who condemns a criminal to die, and the industrious mechanic who carries out the sentence, has rolled the two offices into one, and every judge is now his own executioner.' The locals have solved the problem of too many executions by elevating Ko-Ko from the next in line to executioner, arguing, ‘Who’s next to be decapited/ Cannot cut off another’s head/ Until he’s cut his own off.’ As Ko-Ko points out a little later, 'In the first place, self-decapitation is an extremely difficult, not to say dangerous, thing to attempt; and, in the second, it’s suicide, and suicide is a capital offence.'

And thus the plot thickens, the satire and brutal comedy softened by some of the sweetest of G&S songs (so long as you don't check the libretto!) - as pictured on this poster advertising the original production.

Now - about the libretto. As always, G&S is better if you know the words.

As the hit songs by Ko-Ko and the Mikado establish, this opera is replete with score-settling in wonderful rhyme!!

Full libretto is available from the wonderful GSArchives site - along with plot, synopsis and historical information.

The attachment below gives you lyrics to enjoy the witty words Gilbert gave to the most famous!

The hit songs from the Mikado
Download PDF • 227KB

Lyn 6th Oct 2021


Aestheticism? It's hardly a major discussion these days, but in the 1870's and '80s it was powerful enough for Gilbert to parody it as empty, self-indulgent and laughable.

"You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind," sings Bunthorne, the (current) aesthetic object of the Maidens' love. His conclusion may ring bells for those involved in past graduate philosophy discussions....

The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.

And ev’ry one will say,

As you walk your mystic way,

“If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,

Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!”

Listen to the legendary Dennis Olsen perform the whole of this splendid patter-song.

The plot thickens when we move from the complicated state of mind of the aesthete convinced of their true beauty and the maidens committed to loving it. The situation is resolved by the much less complicated attitudes of Patience, the down to earth milkmaid, and the chorus of dragoons to whom the lovesick maidens were previously engaged.

Full plot and synopsis here. As Wikipedia puts it neatly, 'The opera is a satire on the aesthetic movement of the 1870s and '80s in England and, more broadly, on fads, superficiality, vanity, hypocrisy and pretentiousness; it also satirises romantic love, rural simplicity and military bluster.' (And, I would add, graduate philosophy discussions!)

We're watching the star-studded 1995 production by Australian Opera. Christine Douglas is Patience, Dennis Olsen is Bunthorne and Anthony Warlow his rival in beauty, Archibald. Heather Begg steals the show as aesthete-tragic Lady Jane. (Dame Heather Begg's career is outlined here.) Here's her hilarious duet with Olsen.

Did you miss our Zoom-Patience? Never mind - there's a full production option on YouTube. Click this link for the 2004 production by the splendid amateur group in Dunedin.

As always, with G&S, the libretto is crucial, and often inaudible given the pace of delivery. You can follow on the complete libretto here in pdf format. If you just want the words of the most splendid songs, print out the brief Word format version from my email.

Here's some history. In 1882, George Musgrove teamed up with J C Williamson and Arthur Gamer as a theatre production team, pooling their skills and funds for the premiere Australian production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal. The production was illustrated in The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil – 15 July 1882.

Lyn 28 Sep 2021