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Scottish Opera's head of music Derek Clark talks The Gondoliers and Gilbert & Sullivan's partnership


By Margaret Chrystall

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MAYBE it is no wonder Scottish Opera’s head of music Derek Clark and Australian Stuart Maunder, the director of the company’s current production The Gondoliers, get on so well.

The Gondoliers - Mark Nathan and William Morgan - in Scottish Opera's production.
The Gondoliers - Mark Nathan and William Morgan - in Scottish Opera's production.

“We are both very enthusiastic Gilbert & Sullivan people,” said Derek.

“I’ve known The Gondoliers since I was about 10. And this is the first opportunity I have had to conduct it, so it’s been very good fun to do that.

“Also we found out that we had both got to know Gilbert & Sullivan a lot through the same book which we both discovered as youngsters, Stuart in Australia and me in Scotland in our local libraries when we were teenagers.

“It’s a book called Martin Green’s Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan – so we immediately found we had a lot in common,” laughed Derek.

Yvonne Howard in a spectacular costume in The Gondoliers. Picture: James Glossop
Yvonne Howard in a spectacular costume in The Gondoliers. Picture: James Glossop

Along with the designer Dick Bird who created the stunning look for The Mikado for Scottish Opera’s last Gilbert & Sullivan in 2016, Stuart, who is director at the State Opera South Australia, is also responsible for the decision to keep The Gondoliers set in Venice and to make the most of the 18th-century setting.

This production, which comes to Inverness on Wednesday, has a backdrop which calls to mind the artist Canaletto’s iconic views of Venice.

Derek said: “When Stuart and the designer Dick Bird came and explained what they wanted to do with the piece, we said ‘Yes! It is going to be absolutely fantastic!’.

“There is always a danger that a director might say ‘Well I’m going to set it on the moon and I want to do this!’

“And I’m not against that at all.

“But this is the first time we will be back in theatres with a live audience and it will perhaps be one of the first things that people will come to see again after lockdown and I think they deserve a visual treat as well as an aural one.

“The Gondoliers is a throughly good night out in the theatre and in our production it looks amazing. We haven’t tried to update it in any way, or make it relevant for our time. We are just presenting it as a piece of almost escapist theatre. So it looks very pretty and great fun and we hope that will come across the footlights.”

Musical highlights are many, but a video on Scottish Opera's website shows Derek playing accompaniment for two excerpts, The Regular Royal Queen and In A Contemplative Fashion.

"In A Contemplative Fashion is one of the cleverest pieces in the score, I think," Derek said.

"At that point in the plot, things have got particularly complicated and they are trying to sort it out. They keep saying ‘We need to be calm about this!’ while getting more and more upset about it!

"Sullivan was quite good at doing the two things at one time in his music and that is one of the examples of that.

"Most of the time, the four singers are singing this quiet, smooth tune. Then all four burst out from time to time with angry interjections."

Mark Nathan, Ellie Laugharne, William Morgan and Sioned Gwen Davies in The Gondoliers. Picture: James Glossop
Mark Nathan, Ellie Laugharne, William Morgan and Sioned Gwen Davies in The Gondoliers. Picture: James Glossop

Setting the scene for The Gondoliers, Derek points out it came at quite an interesting time for Gilbert and Sullivan themselves.

Wordsmith Gilbert – a barrister and playwright –and composer Sullivan – who would have loved to have been recognised as a serious composer – were quite different people.

Derek said: "We tend to forget that before he started working with Gilbert, he had written a symphony and a cello concerto and lots of orchestral music and oratorios and he was seen by many as the great hope of British music in the late Victorian era.

"And there were quite a lot of his contemporaries who thought he was just taking an easy option, almost prostituting himself with these pieces with Gilbert.

"He sort of believed that a little bit himself!

"But he needed the financial rewards that they brought to subsidise his quite extravagant lifestyle!

"But he dearly wanted to be taken seriously as a composer. And I think it’s only now that several of the pieces he wrote without Gilbert, some of his more serious concert pieces are beginning to develop a life of their own.

"There is a very active Sullivan Society who are promoting recordings of some of his other music.

"So we are beginning to see how the music in the Gilbert & Sullivan operas fits in with the rest of the music that he wrote.

"His fame will always be linked with that of Gilbert.

"But certainly Sullivan’s music outside what he wrote for Gilbert’s scripts is becoming more known and more valued which is nice."

Derek Clark, Scottish Opera's head of music.
Derek Clark, Scottish Opera's head of music.

Derek added: "Gilbert seemed to be the one with the greater number of chips on his shoulder.

"He gave the impression that when he got up in the morning he would get up and decide who he wanted to quarrel with that day! He seemed to be quite an irascible character.

"I don’t know much about Gilbert’s plays, But Gilbert was already a very successful barrister and playwright before he collaborated with Sullivan.

"All the time he was writing the libretti for Sullivan he was writing quite a lot of plays of his own. There is quite a body of work that both of them were involved in – without the other.

"They moved in different circles.

"Gilbert had trained as a lawyer and Sullivan was much more someone of whom it was said ‘He dearly loved a lord’.

"He was friends with the Prince Of Wales and he was always around Queen Victoria and that sort of thing. He moved in very exalted circles."

There was also a bone of contention ...

Ellie Laugharne, William Morgan, Mark Nathan and Sioned Gwen Davies in The Gondoliers. Picture: James Glossop
Ellie Laugharne, William Morgan, Mark Nathan and Sioned Gwen Davies in The Gondoliers. Picture: James Glossop

Derek said: "I think it also rankled with Gilbert that Sullivan was knighted about 15 or 20 years before he was.

"I think this was another thing between them because the papers were always saying things like ‘A knight of the realm should not be writing these silly little operas’, though that is a gross exaggeration!

"Also Queen Victoria, for better or worse, was always saying to Sullivan ‘You should write a grand opera!’ and he did in fact write a grand opera, which was sort of successful but isn’t nearly as effective as the pieces he wrote with Gilbert.

"Gilbert had flatly refused to have anything to do with it, but perhaps Gilbert said no because he knew that in a grand opera the words would be much less important than the music.

"He was probably well out of it, as it turned out.

"Though it was thoroughly respectable, it wasn’t a great success, I don’t think.

"It was called Ivanhoe and was based on the Sir Walter Scott novel.

"It gets a few performance, here and there, but it’s more of an occasional thing, in the hinterlands a little bit. It has nowhere like the popularity of the pieces he wrote with Gilbert.

"So they both had careers apart from what they did together. But I think it was when they were together that the magic happened!"

“After Gondoliers, which by all accounts was a difficult birth, but a very great triumph for both of them, they had a huge quarrel,” Derek said.

“There was a lawsuit and they didn’t speak to each other for about three years!

“But working on a little piece called Utopia Limited brought them back together. But there was just one other piece after that and then the partnership sort of dissolved!

“They fell out over the cost of a carpet at the Savoy Theatre in The Carpet Quarrel!”

Before The Gondoliers, the two had worked on The Yeoman of the Guard, which actually has someone die in it – unexpected in what most people think of as the light opera the duo are known for.

Derek said: “Gondoliers, which followed Yeoman, was seen as a return to a lighter, brighter world.

“I think Gilbert particularly felt that they had just gone slightly too far in Yeoman.”

For two men who worked so extensively together, Gilbert and Sullivan did not seem at all close, Derek reveals.

“I know it was the Victorian era when things were much more formal, but they corresponded by letter rather than having meetings.

“And for all that they worked so well together for over 15 or 16 years, they were never on first-name terms.”

The Gondoliers is at Eden Court, Wednesday to Saturday, November 10-13. More info on timings and tickets: eden-court.co.uk Also: scottishopera.org.uk

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