A wandering minstrel I am not. Nor have I ever been the model of a modern major general. Although I would like to be able to claim that a more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist or admit that I have walked down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in my medieval hand, the fact is that I have never actually sung in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.
Let me rephrase that.
I have never actually sung in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera except in the bath.
In those enameled, warm, and wallowy shallows, deeply submerged among the loofahs and face cloths, the soap and the pumice, I have performed in virtually every G&S operetta known to man with the exception of "Ruddigore" and "Princess Ida." Singalong "Sound of Music" has nothing on my singalong "Iolanthe," let me tell you.
From, I don't know, about the age of 7 or 8, the G&S repertoire was undeniably one of my favorite things. My first double LP was "HMS Pinafore." Our gramophone, a giant affair in a large wooden chest, stood in the room adjoining our bathroom. I rarely took a bath without a record playing loudly enough to penetrate the sound of running hot water.
My G&S enthusiasm lasted a long time. I finally kicked the habit at about 19 or 20 and since then, until now, have not found it in me to admit openly, even at a G&S Anonymous Meeting, that I am a Gilbert and Sullivanolic. Although I haven't attended, or even listened to a tape or CD of any of the operettas since that time (apart from seeing a fascinating but rather, I felt, overresearched film about the duo a year or two ago), I secretly retain a small corner of fondness for that talented and by now surely outmoded pair's productions.
They are not forgotten. In tongue-twisty vocal-exercise preparation for my current amateur efforts on the boards, I have lately taken to singing from memory (but only in the privacy of the car) "To sit in solemn silence in a dull dark dock/ In a pestilential prison with a lifelong lock/ Awaiting the sensation of a short sharp shock/ From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block." I even follow this with the refrain, "Big black block! Dull dark dock!" and so forth. It definitely does a good job tripping the tongue and loosening up the lips. But at the same time I can't help still admiring Gilbert's brilliant verbal inventiveness, his way with rhymes, his pompous absurdity. And Sullivan's capacity to make music that fits such impossibly tortuous torrents of alliteration is not be sniffed at. Not at all.
Some years after the worst of my G&S enthusiasm was behind me, a friend who was profoundly cognizant of the most elevated nuances of the classical repertoire told me that Sullivan's music in the comic operas was actually full of rather wicked musical jokes. That he was frequently parodying grand opera, mocking Mozart, teasing Verdi, and the like. I hadn't realized this. I had thought Gilbert was in essence the humorist, and that Sullivan, while he knew that they were onto a good thing with acceptable commercial repercussions, would prefer to be writing a deeply sincere oratorio or a sublime symphony.
It seems to have been the fate of a number of Victorian "greats" that their fame should be almost entirely associated with their less serious accomplishments. Edward Lear was lionized for his "Nonsense"; Lewis Carroll for his Alice books. Yet the first was a committed landscape painter, and the second an academic mathematician. In this tradition, later, T.S. Eliot is today probably known better as the author of "Cats" than of "The Waste Land." I suppose it's a case of "some are born great, and some achieve lightness." A.A. Milne is indelibly marked by Winnie the Pooh while his adult writings are mainly forgotten, and Beatrix Potter is marked by Squirrel Nutkin and Mrs. Tittlemouse little books she grew tired of when she become a sheep farmer and rural conservationist.
To care what posterity thinks is a temptation of the notable. But it is, perhaps, a somewhat irrelevant concern. Some who assume they will be remembered are forgotten. Some who were ignored are recognized. They, supposedly, are the ones who were ahead of their time.
Those of us who are not troubled with notableness are not likely to be troubled by the worry of posthumous reputation. It is on this basis that I have now agreed (somewhat unwittingly, it must be said) to sing on stage. I have been given a small part in an upcoming play. Singing was not part of the audition, so the discovery that this part is that of a rather over-the-top chorus master in an opera house and that he bursts suddenly into song, surprised me a bit.
Admittedly, the play is a comedy and is also set in an "alternative" universe, so this fortunately means a degree of unseriousness attaches to my snatch of operatic excellence. In other words, I am required to sing a few lines of spoof opera. It is in Italian, and the stage direction suggests making the (actually ridiculous) words fit a famous Mozart highlight, "Voi che sapete."
Although it has required some practice, I find it is really quite easy to sing badly. One resorts, of course, to what one knows. All I need to do is imagine that I am singing in the shower (I gave up the bath about the same time I gave up G&S) and that I'm one of the Three Tenors. It's astounding what you can do by means of imagination.
But I suspect it is all that singing along with "The Gondoliers" and "Pirates of Penzance" that has finally paid off.