Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


General thoughts about the Opera

1.1 - Not as good as......

David Craven, who was undertaking the role as moderator at the time of the Utopia discussion, opened the debate as follows:

Utopia Ltd. would appear, on first blush, to have all of the elements necessary for success. It was the reuniting of a highly successful team whose last several shows had all been well received. The show was set in an exotic location. The cast was large and talented and the set was both lavish and state of the art. At least one critic of the day, George Bernard Shaw, thought it to be a brilliant success. He stated: "I enjoyed the score of Utopia more than that of any of the previous Savoy operas" Yet, today, Utopia is a rarely performed show AND is generally regarded by many G&S aficionados as one of their weakest works. So why is Utopia today regarded as one of the weakest of the G&S canon?

(Many attributed this to weaknesses in either the plot or the score, or both. These discussions can be found in sections 2 and 3 respectively)

Amongst those falling over themselves to answer this was Tom Shepard, who said: Because there are few "numbers" in it; the show spends to much of its musical time in elucidating plot details, there are few lyrics that really soar, the characters are not particularly well-invented, and the object of the satire may be a bit too far-reaching. It is almost "heartless"--- we have too few characters to really care for and to root for. The music is weak too much of the time, the plot lets too many threads dangle, --- I could go on............Tom was supported by Ron Orenstein thus: because it is poorly constructed, sloppily paced, with a great deal of prolix and turgid dialogue, often wooden lyrics and feeble music (by comparison, of course). The ideas in Utopia, and the satirical intent, are great but their execution leaves a lot to be desired - Gilbert blunted his own point.

Marc Shepherd: It is true, as the opera's supporters will point out, that the underlying premise of the story is a clever one, and that many of its satiric barbs hit the mark. Unfortunately, in Utopia a promising idea is poorly executed. The story meanders aimlessly, as if the librettist never could decide what he wanted his opera to be about. Other G&S operas have satire as pointed as Utopia's while clothing it in a plot that goes somewhere. This is where Utopia fails.

Arthur Robinson said: At their best, Gilbert and Sullivan complemented each other perfectly. In Utopia, it seems to me that Sullivan has had to subordinate himself to Gilbert even more than usual. Utopia is the only opera in which I think Gilbert's libretto is definitely better than Sullivan's music--but I don't think it was Sullivan's fault.

Robert Jones pointed out that the partners had been through a very public and unpleasant fight, and the new piece was somewhat of a departure into untested waters (although perhaps it didn't start out that way). Such a reunion must have been a gamble at the outset, especially when popular tastes can change considerably in a few years.

Tom Shepard: I STILL think that a point once raised about Utopia rings true, which is that their eagerness and their still-open wounds made Gilbert and Sullivan deal with one another in such a scrupulously tactful fashion, that neither one was any longer able to REALLY speak his mind about rewrites, etc.

Marc Shepherd: I am convinced that the earlier operas in the partnership succeeded because Gilbert and Sullivan enjoyed a healthy relationship of give-and-take and mutual criticism. In a word, they trusted each other. The carpet quarrel destroyed all that. Each was, to a degree, dissatisfied with the other's work, but this time they were unable to find common ground. Their well-publicized tribulations over the finale are perhaps the best illustration of this.

Bruce Miller: My problems with Utopia can be summarized simply: I find the dialogue boring and redundant, and the music is often substandard (for Sullivan). However, I do find the opera interesting in its relationship to the rest of the canon, and there are certain musical numbers which are worthy of being ranked among G & S's best.

Marc Shepherd: Mind you, with the right cast and director, Utopia can work in the theater. This is Gilbert and Sullivan, after all. But, for the reasons I've given, I think it's the feeblest of their creations.

1.2 - Too many cooks?

Ed Glazier: In my opinion, one of the things that makes this show extremely difficult to do is the number of principals required. All of the canon can benefit from good performers in any role, but the more popular shows are strong enough to be entertaining even if every role is not brilliantly performed. Utopia, because of the many weaknesses that have already been mentioned, can work but more so than the rest of the canon requires a creative, inventive director and a large number of extremely talented performers. Oh, yes, and a large pair of scissors and/or judicious use of the editing pencil.

(Note: for an in-depth discussion of this last point, see section 7)

Marc Shepherd: Ed mentions that one of the difficulties of Utopia is the large cast required. This is NOT what makes it a mediocre opera, but it is another reason why amateur companies have an even HIGHER mountain to climb when they mount a production.

1.3 I should like to do It handsomely

David Duffey: UL had the reputation as being the most lavishly produced of all to date - large cast, magnificent costumes, scenery, staged numbers and so on. Yet this after a break in the partnership resulting from a quarrel which, whatever its underlying reasons, seems to have been ignited by Gilbert's perceptions of lack of financial control. Yet no expense was spared in the production of UL. Could the difference have been that, whereas previously he had shared net profit, Gilbert was now on a percentage of gross?

Marc Shepherd: It's an interesting theory, but I don't think so. All of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas were staged as realistically as possible. As the settings became more exotic, production costs rose. I think just about every opera was more expensive than its predecessor. Gondoliers was certainly no cheapie. With Utopia, I don't think the changed agreement affected how it was staged, because lavish stagings were what the D'Oyly Carte productions were about, and the carpet quarrel was NOT about those kinds of costs.

David Duffey: I'll stick to my guns for a little longer. The "I have had a difficulty with Carte" letter of Gilbert to Sullivan certainly starts with him being appalled at the preliminary expenses of the Gondoliers. Later in the correspondence Carte accuses Gilbert of "ordering blind" - i.e. with no estimates, and he (Carte) deferring to this as he considered the expense to be in pursuit of artistic excellence. I agree wholeheartedly that the 'carpet quarrel' was a matter of principle for WSG. The point I am trying to make, however, is that, such secondary matters having come into consideration, WSG might have been expected to have regard to them in the staging of the opera, but, being on gross terms for UL, had something of a "Oh, what the hell" attitude. With the large cast and lavish staging, of course the running costs must have been the greater, and this may have influenced the decision to take it off, although the initial run was respectable enough.

Bruce I. Miller: Marc is right on this one, I think. He neglected to mention that not only did the courts find in Gilbert's favor, but the independent auditor assigned by them discovered that Carte had, indeed, been cooking the books - Gilbert was owed about 1,000 pounds more than he had been paid for his share of Gondoliers. Gilbert's questioning of the expenses had less to do with his concern about mounting them too extravagantly, but more to Carte's alleged shenanigans (including paying too much for certain services and waste of expensive items, thus cutting into the profits). Carte naturally had counterclaims, as David mentioned, but in the end it was Gilbert who won the argument.

Trying to rationalize the comparative failure of Utopia with this excuse just doesn't wash. Certainly it was extravagantly mounted, but then so were The Mikado and The Gondoliers. The reason Utopia didn't last were its bloated, meandering libretto and often-anemic score. Had the authors been able to muster their former sharpness of focus, the show might well have been one of their more brilliant successes - rather than, as most of us acknowledge, a misfire - tantalizing for what might have been.

David Duffey: I nevertheless think that WSG was sufficient of a businessman to realise that costs had to be kept under control while he was on a share of net profit while that on a percentage of gross he could not lose.

1.4 - Old associations

Sam Clapp wrote: Gilbert and Sullivan each went off and found NO success; therefore, Utopia relates back to all the previous successful operas.

(Note: Sam went on to give extensive examples (words and/or music) from all of the operas with the exception of Trial By Jury, although this was rectified by Clive Woods, who spotted a link between "Oh Joy Unbounded" in Utopia's Act I finale and the finale of Trial.)

Marc Shepherd: I think the most critical point about all of these connections is that, in 1893, there simply didn't exist the large body of aficionados who knew every word by heart. Therefore, aside from the Mikado and Corcoran references, I find it hard to believe that it was deliberate. I take the many "reminiscences" in the libretto and score as just uninspired writing.

Ronald Orenstein: I think no one would doubt that Utopia is full of resemblances to earlier works. Sam's data supports that - but it says nothing about whether these were deliberate allusions (though the Corcoran and Mikado references clearly were) or simply the result of lack of inspiration. To do more you would have to either show that the references are structured in a way that indicates that the reference to the earlier work fits the context of the new (good luck!) or come up with documentary evidence that G&S intended these references and introduced them deliberately.

Paul McShane: And of course, that's the problem with later operas. The fact that there may be similarities with earlier operas doesn't mean that the later operas are of lesser merit - just that they were written afterwards. I suspect that you'll find similar comparisons if you scan later offerings of a number of series, from Mozart operas to Rogers and Hammerstein.

Sam Clapp: Oh, silly me. I had so much data, I forgot to wind it up properly. The phrases that Gilbert used reveal volumes to me: in my earlier posting, please note the use of catch-phrase. I think that's different than the simple quotation of oneself. For example, who among us would NOT catch a "That is the idea I intended to convey" thrown in amongst the heap of words.... or a "Without any doubt of any kind" Such ones as these were probably the ones for whom such tidbits were written. I think the reappearance of Corcoran (if that is indeed the same man) and the Mikado were even prompted by public demand!

Ron Orenstein: There is absolutely no doubt (whatever) about this. But notice how carefully these two references, to some of the most famous bits (indeed, with Corcoran, probably THE most famous bit) from G&S's greatest successes, are set up and placed in the opera. The other "reminiscences" seem tossed in much more casually - to my eye, more as though Gilbert was simply recycling his verbal stock-in-trade rather than expecting audiences to catch the references.

Sam Clapp: There have been die-hard G&S fans like us from the get-go, people. Why do you think he wrote about people who write for autographs in Mikado? I know I'd be pestering him if he were alive right now.

Ron Orenstein: I take your point, but I have often wondered whether Gilbert's admirers in his day would have been quite in, if you'll pardon my saying so, our league. We have opportunities WSG's contemporaries did not have to hear the operas over and over on tape or CD, read them collected in annotated volumes, and most importantly, perform them and see them with great frequency. We treat them as, not just a repertoire, but a canon (the sacred implications are intended!). As such it would not surprise me in the least to learn that we are on far greater terms of familiarity with each and every line than Gilbert's most fervent admirers in the 1890's. The problem is, then, twofold: (a) with almost EVERY line at our beck and call for quotation, which are the "catch phrases"? and (b) Are we assuming too much about Gilbert's audiences? I have always held a belief that deliberate-reminiscence-hunting is a difficult, not to say dangerous, thing to attempt.

Tom Shepard: I completely agree. Why should we ever be penalized for occasionally revisiting something which we have done before. It isn't fair to aesthetically judge Utopia because we already know about Iolanthe, any more than we have a right to project the destiny of G&S if all we know of are the first three works they wrote.

1.5 - Gone abroad? His address?

Derrick McClure: Does anybody else find that one of the things wrong with Utopia is that the setting - Utopia - is curiously ill-defined and ill-focused, both musically and dramatically? Sullivan has, of course, a brilliant talent for evoking a location: Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain, Persia, Ireland, or even England; but the music of Utopia fails signally to suggest either an exotic locale or anything else. The opening chorus suggests a Patience-like (VERY Patience-like) languorous atmosphere, but it doesn't suggest the South Seas. Is this because there was no authentic tradition of native music for Sullivan to base his style on (or else he didn't know it if there was)? Or is it because Gilbert likewise failed totally to make his Utopia credible? The lyrics of Phylla's solo are charming, but the picture they evoke is not remotely like anybody's image of Polynesia - ivied towers? lowing herds? The King, the Wise Men and the Public Exploder are not based on any REAL political system in the history of the South Seas or anyplace else - and where the deil did DYNAMITE come from in pre-colonial Polynesia? Even an imaginary world has to have some logic and consistency to it!

Sheldon Brown: We are used to think of Utopia as a generic South Pacific isle, but on reading a volume of the essays of Mark Twain, I came upon his report from "The Sandwich Islands" (Hawaii). This originally appeared in the New York Tribune in 1873. I am led to believe that Hawaii was the specific inspiration for Utopia, and Kamehameha V for Paramount.

(Note: Sheldon then went on to quote Mark Twain's essay at some length, giving excerpts which showed remarkable similarities with the Utopia created by W.S. Gilbert.)

Ron Orenstein: I can't lay my hands on the reference, but I distinctly recall that Hawaii had its equivalent to Princess Zara too - a Hawaiian princess who came to England and was presented to Victoria, but I can't find the details. Around the time of Utopia, there was a fair bit of tussle in Hawaii between pro-British and pro-American factions. As for putting Utopia in the Pacific at all, I wonder if Gilbert might also have been thinking of Erewhon, which is supposed to be in the Australia/NZ region?

David Craven: As for there being equivalents to Princess Zara, that is quite correct. In fact, one of the Kings, in fact, made a state visit to England and on this visit both he and his wife died.....

Bill Snyder: One last salvo in the attempt to nail down Utopia to a geographic location was fired this evening by a sometime Savoyard and now a graduate student in geography. He had asked what exactly everybody here (is this really a HERE?) talked about, so I gave some examples, notably where exactly did WSG envisage Utopia. His response was that he had always assumed that it was in the archipelago known as the Gilbert Islands (!!) I dunno. Maybe he's right! (not sure, but aren't they called something different now?)

Ronald Orenstein: They used to be known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (a great opportunity lost!), but are now called Kiribati. That isn't really much of a change when you realize that the "ri" is meant to be pronounced as "L" and the final "i" is silent. Similarly, the Pacific Ocean Christmas Island is now called Kiritimati, pronounced, roughly, "Krismas".

1.6 - I don't think I ever met him" - Is a lack of familiarity to blame?

David Craven, suggesting another possible reason for Utopia's lack of success: Is it due to a lack of familiarity with the show?

Paul McShane: Yes, definitely. Today, Utopia is generally perceived to have been a failure. But was it really? It ran initially for 245 performances, comparable with Princess Ida (246) and Ruddigore (288) and much better than Sorcerer (178). In fact, Utopia was not a failure. The problem was that, unlike these other three operas, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company chose not to revive it. One can speculate that the lack of a revival was chiefly due to the expense of doing the show properly and/or potential casting difficulties, but the inevitable consequence was a perception that it couldn't have been very good, otherwise the Company would have revived it, wouldn't it? This led to a self-perpetuating 'failure' myth because amateur companies, in turn, were fearful of reviving it because firstly they has no professional guidelines to assist them in staging the show and secondly they were afraid that its perceived unpopularity would lead to financial ruin.

Tom Shepard: Is its perceived failure due to a lack of familiarity with the show? Not necessarily.

Ron Orenstein: I think this is a consequence of the above, not a cause of it. Utopia is also very cumbersome and difficult to bring off and can be very expensive to stage, not to mention the huge cast requirements - another reason it is a comparative rarity in amateur theater, which is where most G&S gets done.

Robert Jones: Is the problem a lack of familiarity with the show? Unlikely, I say. I have friends who can take or leave G&S and who would enjoy, say, Pirates on first viewing; but I don't think they'd consider UL to be a good night out.

Page created 18 January 1999