Program Notes

2005 Spring – The Gondoliers

The Gondoliers by William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan

Much has been written about the 20-year collaboration of Sir William Schwenk Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan. There is general consensus that it involved the collision of two strong egos, and that there was much friction-each man thinking he deserved better-but they both denied it publicly. Infighting notwithstanding, they produced 14 comedic operettas over this period, at least eleven of which are still regular fare (the score for Thespis, their first collaboration, has been lost, and the last two shows-Utopia and The Grand Duke-are not of the same quality, and thus are infrequently produced). The quintessentially British humor in these works has no real parallel in works elsewhere-although, arguably, some of the broad American humor that today energizes Second City, or perhaps “Saturday Night Live”, or some ad hoc shows such as the annual Chicago Bar Association “roasts”, carries some of the same biting satire-but lacking the ofttimes wryly saccharine musical accompaniment.

The Gondoliers, which premiered in 1899, was the last of the twelve fully successful collaborations. Although it contains much of the same humor, the structure is somewhat different from earlier works such as Pirates of Penzance and Mikado. Briefly, two recently married Venetian gondoliers, the foster brothers Giuseppe and Marco, are informed that one of them-no one knows which-is actually the King of Barataria (a mythical island-or perhaps non-island!-described in Don Quixote). This came about because the infant King was spirited away, two decades earlier, for his own protection. The gondoliers set off for Barataria, vowing to rule together, as equals. On arrival, they find the situation much more complex than they had expected. The infant King, it seems, had been pledged in marriage to a local girl, so one of them is obviously already bigamous; furthermore, the girl in question is interested in someone else. In typical Gilbertian fashion, the plot goes through numerous twists, and it finally emerges that a double switch was done, leaving neither of them regent: That honor went to the local yokel who is now the object of the putative princess’ affections. So the gondoliers (and their brides, who have followed them), much relieved, bid Barataria adieu and leave for Venice-which yields the celebratory sentiment expressed in our song, concluding the operetta.

The Chorus presented much of Pirates of Penzance and Trial by Jury in a 1994 concert.

J. R. Fancher, Mar. 2005