“Singing Satire”


One of the musical constants in my life has been the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, 19th century British operetta composers. As a child, I learned many songs from the phonograph records my mother often played of their work performed by the famous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. I learned the songs to “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “Pirates of Penzance,” and “Iolanthe.” I was particularly intrigued by the “patter songs,” mainly spoken ditties sung very quickly with tongue twisting challenges. One of my favorites was about insomnia from “Iolanthe“. I missed most of the humor as a child, but I loved how fast the singer could go. Another parallel delight was from “Pirates” about the model of a modern major general.

When my mother went to her 15th college reunion at Oberlin, she took my brother and me along and we all say “Princess Ida,” a musical I have never seen or heard since. When I was in high school, Reed College put on one operetta a year, which is where I first saw “Patience,” made even funnier by inserted lines ridiculing some aspects of Reed.

When my daughter was in 8th grade, her school put on “Ruddigore,” a story unknown to me until then. She had broken her leg, but still played Mad Margaret. The injury actually enhanced her role, as she thumped across the stage. She and two others sang a wonderful patter trio “It Really Doesn’t Matter.

There continue to be productions of Gilbert and Sullivan today, mostly from local groups which put on one or two a year. While much of the humor was topical and might seem to be irrelevant 140 years later, it still applies. The ignorance of the modern major general seems very parallel to the ignorance of the U.S. newly appointed Secretary of Education. And insomnia will never go out of style. Many of us will finally be ready to go to sleep just when the alarm sounds for us to rise.


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