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.


... isn't generally heard and if it is it doesn't matter."

Thus the patter trio ends the second act of Ruddigore. As we end our U3A term, it's a good message for a lighter vacation. And for the amazing works of Gilbert and Sullivan, it's a nice comment. The pair created fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896 - and we'll be watching at least four this vacation. Welcome to our G&S Vacation Festival.

The patter song is arguably the ultimately operatic humour, since it always requires both brilliant libretto and brilliant, often multi-part, music. Check out the post back in 2020. Donizetti did it. Rossini did it. Mozart of course did it. But mention patter songs and most people will cite Gilbert and Sullivan's.

From the Cambridge G&S: "The question of intelligibility that these songs raise forces a re-evaluation of the boundaries between words and music. It then seems necessary to ask how this effect is produced and why the patter song's status on the border of intelligibility is funny…. A patter song is not defined by its structure at the level of bars or sections (like a blues or a symphony), but by a much smaller unit of measure: the relationship between words and time.”

It fits, of course, the 'topsy-turvy' of the G&S art. (The 1999 film of that name was about the strange partnership of G&S. - interview with director Mike Leigh here.) These comic operas are comic because they rely on plots that turn social class or reality inside out, metaphors that jolt and make you think, satire that bounces of that long ago Victorian social world and weirdly reflects the current one.

Is this the secret of the lasting fame of G&S operas? There's a fascinating essay by Stephen Jay Gould, titled 'The True Embodiment of Everything That's Excellent: The Strange Adventure of Gilbert and Sullivan." You can read it online here.

First, a word of caution. It's not all blissful giggles. There are darker streaks in these comedies which we perhaps should address?

The misogyny of most of these operas is a major one - they all win laughter at the expense of female characters - and it's directed particularly to older women. There are allusions of this throughout each opera (the judge in Trial by Jury, for example, got there by falling in love with "a rich attorney's/ Elderly, ugly daughter". And almost all the G&S operas have a central comic figure of an elderly woman. Not that traditional opera was free of this comic nasty - Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro is the classic example. But she's not as evil as Katisha - or as tragic.

And there's always of course the question of racism. A 2015 NY production of Mikado was cancelled at use of 'yellowface' makeup and parody of Japan. (But was the opera a parody of current attitudes to Japan?

Anthony Warlow plays 'Ko-Ko' Adele Johnston 'Katisha' in Sydney 2009
John Reed as Koko, 1966, singing "Willow, tit-willow..."

Read about misogyny in this Guardian article. Watch Jacqui Dark making up to become Katisha in Mikado in 2011 at the Arts Centre, Melbourne. (Sigh: just a decade ago!) Here's her 'cheated maiden' aria.

It is of course not all in the songs. You have to follow the fast-moving dialog.

Katisha. And you won't hate me because I'm just a little teeny weeny wee bit bloodthirsty, will you?

Ko-Ko. Hate you? Oh, Katisha! is there not beauty even in bloodthirstiness?

Katisha. My idea exactly.

Now, here are some resources for approaching G&S and fulfilling the needs of addicts. This is a lot easier than our usual backgrounding of an opera, because there is - here - an amazing G&S Archive site that tells you everything you might want to know, and provides full synopsis and libretto of every one of those 14 operas.

There are of course some people who didn't grow up with G&S recordings in the house. If you're one, check out the ENO's Beginner's Guide to G&S. On the other hand, perhaps you're one of those whose family ran on those catchy tunes and savoured silly aphorisms like "did nothing in particular and did it very well", "duty, duty must be done" and "the Lord High Everything Else"? If so, you can choose if you wish to mute your Zoom window before you join in the chorus.

Sir Despard in Austin Texas

Here we go - as Sir Despard put it in Ruddigore, "Now, if you please, we'll proceed."

Which operas? Wikipedia has the full list. And of course lots of background.

We have DVDs of seven we can choose from for our vacation respite from opera seria - with thanks to Dawn and Ron and to Sheila. We'll start with Trial By Jury, because that was the first 'real' G&S opera.

We then will choose which opera or theme we chase each week.

Here's our list to choose from in chronological order:

Trial By Jury 1875

H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor. 1878

The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty 1879

Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride 1881

Iolanthe or The Peer and the Peri 1882

The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu 1885

The Gondoliers, or, The King of Barataria 1889


"A goodly portly man, i' faith, and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage; and, as I think, his age some fifty, or, by'r Lady, inclining to threescore; and now I remember me, his name is Falstaff." ~ William Shakespeare

Yes, the character is taken from Shakespeare (Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV), and no, Verdi's was not the first operatic adaption. Several composers, including Salieri had seen him as an opera. As Auden commented, 'Even in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff has not and could not have found his true home because Shakespeare was only a poet. For that he was to wait nearly two hundred years till Verdi wrote his last opera. Falstaff is not the only case of a character whose true home is the world of music; others are Tristan, Isolde and Don Giovanni.'

Trivia item: yes, there was a real Sir John Falstaff!

'He was a brave soldier; served in France; was governor of Hondleur; took an important part in the battle of Agincourt, and was in all the engagements before the walls of Orleans, where the English finally were obliged to retreat before Joan of Arc. Sir John Falstaff died at the age of eighty-two years in county Nortfolk, his native shire, after numerous valiant exploits, and having occupied his old age in caring for the interest of the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge, to be foundation of which he had largely contributed. To us, however, he is known almost wholly as an enormously stout comic character.'

There's some good reading in this account of the creation of the opera - and Bryn Terfel's account of his battle with the role. This early production was one of his first tries at Falstaff.

The ultimate fat suit - 'This oven, sauna feeling of wearing this grandeur on the stage' says Terfel!

And the opera 's plot? It's well described here. Not very PC in many ways. Following Shakespeare, it's about excess, dishonesty and drinking, also about social class and war of the sexes.

What about the music? Very Verdi, very varied. And he was approaching 80. There's an interesting commentary here about its departure from the great earlier Verdi operas. For the better, some would say.

Trailer for our production is here. Last word to the Guardian reviewer: 'The cast is almost uniformly excellent, with Bryn Terfel's performance in the title role a wonderful demonstration of the range and power of his ever widening command and equally impressive contributions from Barbara Frittoli (Alice), Roberto Frontali (Ford), Kenneth Tarver (Fenton) and Desirée Rancatore (Nannetta). But there are aspects of both Graham Vick's production and especially of Bernard Haitink's disappointingly stolid conducting that prevent this Falstaff taking off in the way that this finest grained of operatic comedies can in the right circumstances.'

Lyn, 15th Sept 2021


He wrote 25 operas, apparently his are the most performed of the works of any composer. They're also, almost all, pretty serious, glorious music framing tragedies and historical, political dramas. (If you want to find out more about Verdi, start here at our 2018 website.)

He wrote only two comedies, one at the beginning and one at the end of his life. The first was a failure, the last a triumph. It's the first - Un Giorno di Regno, that we watch this week.

It's one of the least performed of Verdi operas. But this slight opera invites a feisty production. Directed with a good sense of the ridiculous, it's simply fun, loping through the spoof of a king's palace, with too many cooks and serving folk and a lot of food.

'Money, not virtue, has the power to buy love,' they agree.

Un Giorno di Regno (usually translated as King for a Day). was a flop at its premiere, hissed off the stage and cancelled for its season. It was hardly performed since until it was revived for the Verdi festivals. Verdi, whose personal life was shattered at that stage, vowed never to write another opera (but fortunately nobody held him to that.).

Wikipedia has the context in his life, the story of this opera and the synopsis of this impossibly silly libretto here. The story is actually based on history - the Polish monarch King Stanislaw was ousted in the War of Succession and exiled in France, so to return to Poland he got a French officer to impersonate him in France. I didn't make this up and neither did Verdi's librettist, but it's meat for a crazy complicated plot. It's also good material for music, but musical in a way that promises Verdi while imitating Donizetti. Above all, it's fun, and fascinating to contrast with his later, heavier dramatic tragedies and historical works.

Interesting comment in this review of a later (2018) Verdi Festival performance. 'The plot is complicated as is typical of opera buffa and its initial failure was not unlikely due to the fact that the music was rather old-fashioned in style. To my ears the music sounded rather ottocento in style which was rapidly going out of fashion when it was composed. In fact Julian Budden notes that “by the side of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore or Don Pasquale it cuts a clumsy figure”.

We're watching a 2013 production from Parma, his birthplace, during the annual Verdi festival. Rather like the beautiful town, the set is all arches and ceremonial spaces, colour and staging.

The Marquessa takes a bath (with help).

We'll play the full recording, pausing for discussion. If you prefer to watch in your own time, it is available online here, with English surtitles superimposed.

Reviews of this production were mixed. They agreed it's not a masterpiece, but then masterpieces from Verdi were heavy stuff. In the words of Opera News this production had 'undeniable charms'!

And about that final comedy?

Verdi's final opera leaves a huge question - it's extraordinary there weren't more comedies in this brilliant composer's output. Falstaff has been called Verdi’s greatest work, and was a huge success from its debut. There's lots about it on our 2018 website. The Met's brilliant 1992 production screened live to us last year. As did Glydebourne's (2009) hilarious historically updated production with Christopher Purves. Listen here to the trailer to remind you!

Or catch up with Purves' latest performance in Barrie Kosky's new production, available online for free until later this month. Click here to listen (so long as your French is up to it: it's a production for Aix-en-Provence, so surtitles are in French.) Brilliant, according to Bachtrack.

Lyn, 7 Sept 2021