Focus on… Gilbert and Sullivan

“Well there are two types of students who come to Gilbert and Sullivan;
the lunatics and the anoraks.” Despite comments like these from president Bethan Griffiths, her and treasurer Eugene Yamauchi cut a reassuringly normal presence when I met them in the Buttery on a chilly
Tuesday morning.

If you were to venture into the depth of Oxford’s cultural appreciations, the Gilbert and Sullivan society would be a good place to start. The Gilbert and Sullivan society is a group of students that appreciates the works of Sir William
Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (surprisingly), a duo that collaboratively produced fourteen comic operas from 1871-1896.

Gilbert and Sullivan began by producing a short piece together called Trial by Jury, in which Gilbert wrote the words whilst Sullivan composed the music. After that they produced around one opera a year. Although their comic operas were immensely successful, Sullivan always felt they could do better if they wrote serious opera. He wrote one grand opera independent
of Gilbert called Ivanhoe, an adaptation of Walter Scott’s novel.

With around fifty to sixty active members, these students aim to put on one Gilbert and Sullivan production a term. With a cast and chorus of around twenty who rehearse three to four times a week these are no small commitments.

Last term was The Pirates of Penzance, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous productions. It boasted a whole host of terribly serious characters, including a Pirate King, a Major-General, and a chorus of his daughters.

This term it is Princess Ida, a satire of feminism and the Darwinian revolution, being performed in seventh week. Around every five years they reach the end of the canon and then start all over again.

You might wonder how students end up in such a niche society. PPEist Yamauchi played the Pirate King last term whilst Griffiths, a second-year music student, was recruited in her first year.

Of her involvement, she says, “Very early on in my first term I had a friend in the year above who found out I played the piano and asked me to come along. When I said I might be interested his eyes lit up. The next day I was made musical director of the next performance. We generally attract a lot of freshers and a lot of talented performers.”

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However, Griffiths insists that “it is not just a performative thing.” Those not involved in performing meet on a weekly basis to singthrough Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Although they tend to meet at the Rose and Crown on
North Parade they will go “anywhere that is quiet and has a piano” and aim to get through the canon every two terms.

There was also talk of a trip to go to a “Gilbert and Sullivan museum” or “a house in Sussex filled with loads of Gilbert and Sullivan memorabilia” not to mention a biennial challenge to sing through all of the Gilbert and Sullivan
musicals in thirty-six hours.

Griffiths describes it as “more interesting than people give it credit for. It is niche, and a bit odd, and although the storylines are fairly similar there is a lot to look at. As a society it’s very close knit, very consistent…a nice little life.”

Princess Ida is showing between Thursday
28th February – Saturday 2nd March (7th week)
at the Corpus auditorium.