Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



6.1 - General feelings about staging Utopia

Paul McShane: Utopia lends itself best of all the G&S operas to lavish spectacle. This no great advantage for a bunch of amateurs, but throughout Act II we come across a whole range of scenes which modern professional stage designers and choreographers would drool over - the Court of St. James's Hall, the Royal Household March, the Drawing Room presentations, the 'capital plot' trio and dance, the graceful dance/tarantella interlude.

6.2 - Costuming expense

Trooper surrounded by native maidens.

David Craven: One major problem with Utopia is the need for two (well sort of two) costumes for much of the cast. Could this problem be solved by raiding the costume racks and using costumes from other shows for the second act of Utopia? For example, if a company has presented Patience, could many of the men in the second act be dressed as Dragoons? Would the dresses from Pirates be of use for the ladies? What about a few people dressed as British Bobbies? What about a few people in Kimonos? hmmm...

Bill Snyder: In our productions, both times we showed the progress of the islanders to enlightened Englishness throughout the second act. By the Drawing Room apparently not all of the islanders had been able to acquire each a full set of formal wear, so, selfless people as the Utopians are, they shared what they had among themselves, each Utopian getting a piece of a costume, the rest filled out with traditional Utopian garb. Cheap and effective!

Marc Shepherd: Indeed, I am fairly certain that there HAVE been Utopia productions that took this approach. There are other G&S operas that require two costumes for much of the cast, but none as expensively as Utopia.

6.3 - To bare or not to bare?

David Duffey: I saw a Cambridge University (student) production of the 1969-72ish era. In its time the CU G&S has turned out some of the very best amateur shows I have ever seen, apart from the occasional poor make-up - not looking old enough - job.

In this production of Utopia it seemed reasonable that the South Sea Maidens would dress thus - or not dress thus (compiler's note: i.e. topless!), prior to their enlightenment by the F or P. A good running gag was having the twins clearly uncomfortable in their clothes and being restrained from throwing them off whenever they saw their more liberated sisters.

It was not an illogical interpretation, and the students in the audience thought it wonderful, but I did not enjoy it. We were sitting next to the parents of one of the choristers and fell to talking to them before the curtain went up. Throughout the show I did not know where to LOOK.

Dan Kravetz: You didn't know where to look? Hel-LO! You're supposed to be looking  directly at the performers. That's why they're up there performing, and giving their all for the audience's amusement. Any less than your full, undivided attention would no doubt be taken by them as a slight.

Tom Shepard: Of course we know where to look, and I must say that the idea of topless  Utopian maidens is initially very attractive. But when I think seriously about the opening chorus of Utopia, I realize that there is a great deal more sensuousness to the lyrics and music than we generally have had a chance to hear. The DOC recording, for example, has absolutely no sultriness or suppleness here. So what I am saying is that G&S have NOT really been given their due, AND, if we add twenty topless maidens, I sincerely doubt that any of us are going to be doing much more than thinly-disguised gawking. Perhaps because we do NOT live in a topless culture, we still find the sight (especially if it is by surprise) of bare breasts at least titillating (no pun intended) and therefore quite liable to take our concentration off of the works of Messrs G&S, and onto the works of God. So, until onstage nudity is relatively commonplace, I think I would object to its introduction in Utopia because, as I have said, the nudity becomes the event instead of the work being performed.

David Craven: I understand your degree of uncomfortableness, but I must make a few points.

One: Topless, if not naked, Utopians is a very reasonable set of costume choices for pre-FoP'd Utopia. As someone who has lived in the tropics, and someone who has worn both British Style attire and also worn far less encompassing tropical attire, the choice to avoid the British Style of Dress is very logical. The Twin's running gag of throwing off clothing is pretty close to true behavior. My school had a very strict dress code, long pants for the men, skirts for the women, and shoes (except on Friday) for both. As soon as the school day ended, the campus looked liked auditions for a production of gypsy as shoes came off and long pants and skirts were exchanged for shirts. To someone whose regular form of dress was negligible, this is totally normal. If anything, the behavior was natural.

Two: As for the cast members who chose to do this... it was a free and voluntary decision. I, personally, have never appeared on stage in such Costume, but I know a large number of people who have in a whole variety of productions. In such cases, the actors had accepted their body and had no problem with it. One such actor told me that it was the most freeing experience of her life and since then she has had no hesitation in accepted Nude Scenes. The only problem that they had was when the audiences did not fully accept it, for it was this that caused them a degree of lack of comfort. I would have asked the couple next to me who their daughter was (particularly in the far freer days of the late 60's - early 70's) and later comment to them on the great job that they had done in instilling into her such confidence. Would I do it, probably not (and I think that the audience would appreciate it), but if it was appropriate to the part and I felt sufficiently committed to the role, I would at least consider it.

It certainly takes some work on the part of the audience to get over the initial reaction to nudity on stage, but once you get beyond the shock value (which it has, at least in Western Society) and if it is presented in a forthright, almost matter fact way, it is a very valid approach..

Frankly, I admire a company with the guts to do this....and I wish I could find a company in the US with the self-assurance and resources to do such production in the United States.

Ron Orenstein: I seem to recall a certain WS Gilbert being very proud of the fact that no woman appearing in his operas was required to wear a costume that would not have been wearable with complete propriety at a fancy dress ball.

Ralph MacPhail: Yeah, but check out one of those "Bab" drawings - for "King Borria Bungalee Boo"?

Clive Woods: Call me naive and ignorant if you wish, but please can someone explain to me in words of one syllable why the common law of decency does not extend to the theatre? I don't mean the legal argument, I am well aware that people pay to go in so it is legally not public; this seems to me to be a technicality, because (presumably) this performance was advertised publicly and was open to any members of the public. I am more interested in the philosophical reason why this distinction should be made.

Rica Mendes: Legally (let's cover this quickly) women can show their bare breasts in public even in the wonderful country of the USA (granted, not in every state and city, but several).

Philosophically, I think it depends on which realm you place theatre - "Real Life" or "Art"? By "real life", I mean are you offended by the fact that the performers are live people in front of you performing in real time? Whereas a nude painting or sculpture is not a living breathing thing?

Personally, I place (and will always place) theater as "Art" - a living, breathing piece of expression. Therefore, if the artist(s) (in this aspect, the director) feels that nudity expresses something to the audience, he is merely using his paintbrush (costumes, or lack thereof), to communicate. I mean, in reality, how outrageous is it to have topless women in a show that is, I think we can agree on this, inspired by a tropical island where women likely went around topless?

Ron Orenstein: The point I was trying to make, obliquely, is that the real problem with topless (female) Utopians is that it imposes something on the opera utterly false to its conception - besides making us shift our own attention (as we have been doing here) from the show to the "gimmick". After all, Gilbert (besides his views on stage decorum) made not the slightest effort to introduce "real" South Seas local colour into Utopia (as many stagings in other locales have shown) - it is, for example, far less Pacific than Mikado is Japanese. This whole thing sounds like an attention-getting device that attracts attention AWAY from what the show is, or ought to be, about, and therefore strikes me (sight unseen) as bad staging.

6.4 - Drawing-room Names

Stan DeOrsey: In the original Drawing Room scene as staged by Gilbert -- is it recorded anywhere what names were used for the ladies? I assumed they were announced loud enough for the audience to hear. How about the 1975 revival, what names did D'Oyly Carte use? Anyone care to relate their experience and cleverness with this "opportunity" to invent?

Arthur Robinson: I can't answer your question; but I remember that in the Utopia production done in Toronto in May 1987 for the festival there, many of the names were those of characters who appeared (or didn't appear) in other G&S operas (e.g. Margaret Murgatroyd and Lalage, Mistress of "The Pigeons" or whatever). I can't remember many of them, but it was hilarious. (You had to be there.)

Bill Snyder: Two different groups: Cornell Savoyards and Summer Savoyards. Asked to pick their own names. One group of ladies researches authentic Polynesian names; the other group comes up with .... well, the only repeatable names from their first tries were "Kamanawanna" and "Kahlua"

Ralph MacPhail: Several years ago the Ohio Light Opera at Wooster, Ohio, made quite a production of this, with names such as Lady B. Good, etc. I can't remember the names, but each of the ladies had on hoopskirts that must have been six feet in diameter!

I have never seen anywhere that the ladies were named in Gilbert's original production.

6.5 - "Ethnic casting: Good idea?"

David Craven: The peoples of Oceania are divided into three different "ethnic" groups... the Polynesians (Hawaii, Tahiti etc), the Micronesians (Marianas, the Marshalls and the Carolines) and the Melanesians (Island groups NE of Australia). The "typical" member of each of these groups would have skin colour of varying shades. The Melanesians, by and large, have a darker skin tone than that of the Polynesians.

Henry Stephens: I have a question here....Why hair color? Is this to show the Utopians as Irish? (This is an Emerald Isle theme.) Or is it just easier to change hair color than to cast it ethnically?

David Craven: On the other hand, if we are trying to show the evils of colonialism, which I believe is a major part of the message, than anything which emphasizes this is good. Personally, if I had complete control of the cast, I would bring out the bleach and the hair dye and give all of the Utopians VERY red hair.... and would make sure that all of my flowers of progress and the other Europeans had their hair dyed black, except for Fitzbattleaxe who would hopefully have blonde hair.

Henry Stephens: I also think it would be cool to do Utopia Ltd. with a fine black cast as the Utopians to play off the white English.

Tom Shepard: Playing Utopia in Black and White is an interesting idea, and seems to have been at least suggested in the D'OC revival which made Utopia a South Pacific Isle. The picture of Sandford as Paramount (on the LP package) certainly shows him with darkened skin.

6.6 - Alternative productions

Neil Madras: Last year, St. Pat's Players in Toronto set Utopia on a moon of Saturn. The Flowers of Progress (including Ron Orenstein as Mr. Blushington) were Earthlings who arrived with Zara by transporter, a la Star Trek. The whole concept was quite effective and consistent.

Page created 20 January 1999