November 21, 2007

Announcing the CCLaP winter project: Gilbert & Sullivan

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

An Edwardian production of HMS Pinafore

So okay, another winter is fast approaching here in Chicago, my first Chicago winter in fact since opening this version of the CCLaP website. And this being the American Midwest, of course, that means a whole lot less bicycling and other exercising in my life each day, a lot more reading and writing and movie-watching and the like; and that, for example, has brought about the new series of mini-reviews you'll now be able to find at the website, starting last week and lasting all the way until next spring at least. But another thing it's inspired is the desire to take on yet another big subject from history and culture that I've never really understood in any decent way before, and to finally develop a sophisticated understanding of its specific history and culture; you know, the kind of subject you literally need to devote 20 afternoons or evenings to in order to understand in a complex, inside-out way.

And after some deliberation, I have in fact decided that such a "winter project" for me this year is in this case going to be on the subject of Gilbert & Sullivan, a British musician and British writer who teamed up over the course of the second half of the Victorian Age, to create a series of "light operas" that remain to this day arguably the most popular example of the medium, given that the medium has fallen out of mainstream popularity and no new light operas are being produced anymore. Like many people in the Western world, I've grown up seeing a lot of contemporary artistic projects referencing the work of Gilbert & Sullivan on a regular basis, but never really understanding the entire story of the Gilbert & Sullivan partnership in a sophisticated way; to see, for example, a greatest-hits version of HMS Pinafore done for comedic purposes on The Simpsons, and even having a few lines from such songs as Modern Major-General memorized, but ultimately not knowing what the original "operettas" are about or when they were first mounted, of how successful Gilbert & Sullivan were in their own contemporary times, or of why specifically light opera died out as a mainstream form of entertainment.

I don't have the slightest clue if any CCLaP readers will want to follow along this winter with my self-directed education of Gilbert & Sullivan; in case anyone does, though, here following is a rough schedule of what I'll be doing with my 20 upcoming afternoons/evenings this winter devoted to the subject:

--To start with, each of the 20 days will be devoted to one or more of the following sub-topics: The actual history and timeline of Gilbert & Sullivan themselves; the various historic and cultural things going on around the two, to influence what they ended up creating; and a specific concentration on 5 of the 14 light operas they ended up creating together, or in other words a third of their entire ouevre -- HMS Pinafore (their first big hit, a satire concerning all the inept officers in the British navy who bought their titles), The Pirates of Penzance (another satire of the British navy and the aristocracy, this time at a tropical island and concerning smartypants pirates), The Mikado (their big "comeback," after three semi-flops in a row, and what turned out to be the biggest hit of their career), The Gondoliers (relatively obscure now, but among their contemporaries considered the best opera of their career); and Utopia Limited (an example of one of their minor works, the second-to-last opera they ever created together, a lampoon of the brand-new British business designation "Limited Liability Company," which simultaneously lampooned the then-current story of "Anna and the King of Siam").

--Some of the various tertiary topics (goal two from above) will undoubtedly include light opera, operettas, the Victorian Age, the first great import of Japanese culture into everyday British society (also known as "Japonism"), the British nobility, amateur societies, the British higher-education system (or "Oxbridge"), the Raj, the British navy post-Napolean, and the switch in public taste from light operas to musical theatre (among many others), for those following along at home who want to get cracking.

--And speaking of which, an early general observation: That a big reason why I picked this subject over others in contention is because it gives me an excuse to study both the Victorian Age (when Gilbert & Sullivan's partnership was active and these operas were being created) and the Edwardian Age (1910s to '40s, when Gilbert & Sullivan's work underwent its first huge retroactive revival, arguably becoming even more popular to the generation between the wars than the generation in the late 1800s it was originally written for). I'm fascinated with both periods of British history, and love that this subject gives me an excuse to explore both.

--Needless to say that at least six of these days will be devoted to watching DVD versions of the five operas picked above, plus the Mike Leigh biopic Topsy-Turvy, plus more days devoted to the subject if I find out that other Gilbert & Sullivan biopics are available through Netflix and whatnot.

--And of course, since I'm in a large city like Chicago, one with its own multifaceted history during both the late Victorian Age and Edwardian one, part of my time will be devoted to seeing what kinds of live Gilbert & Sullivan stuff I can catch locally; if there are any choral societies in the area devoted to their work (something that used to exist in the hundreds at the beginning of the 20th century), or maybe local theatre companies about to put on a production.

Anyway, hope you'll get a chance to maybe follow along yourself this winter and learn a little more finally about a subject you've always wanted to know a little more about; needless to say, I'll be writing up all my findings here at the site throughout the winter as well, for those not doing the research themselves at their own homes. That's the whole point of the personal-essay series here at CCLaP, after all, is to share thoughts along those lines. As always, feel free to send along Gilbert & Sullivan information and tips to cclapcenter [at]

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:57 PM, November 21, 2007. Filed under: Arts news | Movies | Profiles |