Monday, November 28, 2005

Sing me the kind of song you hear in an operetta

The work of Victorian era duo Gilbert and Sullivan (lyricist/stagewriter William S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan) served as the inspiration for two songs by the Magnetic Fields: the harpsichord-bound "For We Are the King of the Boudoir" and "In an Operetta." Together, the pair created comic operas which often demonstrated "topsy-turvydom," the ever-present state of wacky complications and the mingling of diverse characters from varied backgrounds (hence, the name of the Mike Leigh film Topsy-Turvy, about the production of The Mikado.) Written over a century ago, their operettas continue to be performed today, including their three most famous ones, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado and serve as influential precursors to the modern stage musical. Now, Merritt sings of an operetta, and perhaps a little definition is in order. An operetta is kind of like opera lite, typically light-hearted and comedic, and not all of the words are necessarily sung; players are usually selected for their singing abilities rather than their acting abilities. A musical, however, tends to be more like a play that is interspersed with songs, therefore acting takes a greater importance.

On first listen, "In an Operetta" might seem like a trifle, but it's actually quite a clever song with several literary and musical references, twisted around into a sort of meta-Victorian plot. First off, Violetta is the main character in Verdi's opera La Traviata, first performed in 1853, a tragic story about a courtesan who faces disapproval when she falls in love with an aristocrat. The "cross-dressing female sailor" plot line was used in traditional Irish seafaring songs, and the most popular one, "The Handsome Cabin Boy," was covered by Kate Bush, Frank Zappa, and Jerry Garcia, among others. The protagonist of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, first serialized in the early 1860s, is an orphan named Pip, and the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance is centered around a band of orphaned pirates who are softies at heart.

Richard D'Oyly Carte was an important figure in the professional life of Gilbert and Sullivan, as he produced most of their operettas and built London's Savoy Theatre in 1881 for performances of their works. His D'Oyly Carte Opera Company is still around today, although they have ceased productions since May of 2003, waiting for better economic conditions. This week, two tracks performed by the Company are featured: "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore" from the nautical love story H.M.S. Pinafore and the spooky "When the Night Wind Howls" from the "supernatural opera" Ruddigore.

The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company - "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore"
The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company - "When the Night Wind Howls"


Anonymous Christopher Boyce said...

Wow. Ernie Paik!

7:18 AM  

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