Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”: Poking fun at politics and privilege

English director Alistair Donkin brings authentic perspective to this weekend's Marylhurst University production.


What fun! For this Gilbert and Sullivan fanatic, talking with Alistair Donkin tonight transported me to my first Gilbert and Sullivan experience in San Francisco, presented by the famous D’Oyly Carte opera company. Donkin brought them all back to life for me — Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and HMS Pinafore — and then reintroduced me to the one I know the least: Iolanthe.

This marks the third year that Justin Smith, Professor of Music at Marylhurst University, has brought Alistair Donkin over from London to produce and direct Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

Gilbert & Sullivan's "Iolanthe" comes to Marylhurst University June 6-7.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” comes to Marylhurst University June 6-7.

Composed in 1882, Iolanthe sits almost perfectly in the middle of the Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre, coming seventh. The only fully orchestrated operetta by Arthur Sullivan, it was the first operetta produced at London’s now famous Savoy Theatre. As with many of these light operas, it played in New York a short time after opening in London.

In the story, Gilbert takes great pains to poke fun at the House of Lords and Commons, and all things political in Victorian England. It tells the story of Iolanthe, a fairy who had committed the capital offense of marrying a mortal. A quarter century later, her son, Strephon, who is half fairy, half mortal, loves Phyllis, who is a ward of the Court of Chancery. She loves Strephon, but is unaware of his mixed origin. Meanwhile, the entire House of Lords is enamored of Phyllis — especially the Lord Chancellor, her guardian. At the start of the opera, the fairies persuade the Queen to pardon Iolanthe, and she returns, introducing Strephon to her sisters. The Queen agrees to help when Strephon announces that he wishes to marry Phyllis, despite the Lord Chancellor’s refusal.

The House of Lords appeal to the Lord Chancellor to give her to whichever peer she chooses. But when Phyllis herself declines to marry a peer, announcing her intention to marry Strephon, the peers angrily refuse, and leave, taking Phyllis with them. A series of misunderstandings, reversals and gentle revenge ensues, pitting merit against aristocracy.

So, as in Pinafore, where Gilbert pokes fun at the Royal Navy, and Penzance, where he satirizes  the military, and Patience, where Oscar Wilde and aethetics are the target, Iolanthe takes to task the House of Lords and the privileged class it represents. The themes might provide more than mere chuckles for today’s Americans who face the prospects of dynastic rule, founded in part on inherited wealth, in the Koch Bros./Citizens United era.

Donkin has directed all the major G&S operettas, and other stage works as well, including La Cage aux Folles. Since 1982 he has directed the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston and, in fact, leaves the day after this production ends to begin work there on Pirates of Penzance.

After five years in his first career, as a solicitor in London, (“as a very young man he went to the bar”), he was induced to exchange his law career for his art, and joined D’Oyly Carte Opera in 1979. The prestigious D’Oyly Carte Company, founded in London by Richard D’Oyly Carte in 1875, has been touring Gilbert and Sullivan shows for some 140 years.

Following in the footsteps of the great Martyn Greene, Donkin has sung virtually all of the team’s comic baritone roles: Koko; Sir Joseph Porter; and the Major General, among many others.

“We have a fine full orchestra, an excellent chorus of over 40, and some glorious solo voices,” Donkin says. Too, the show will be fully costumed, courtesy of the Houston G and S Society. This production promises to be one of the best at Marylhurst .

The internationally renowned director is tight lipped about one aspect of the performance, however. He refused to reveal the modern references that will be made to the current political scene. That, he says, is a surprise for the audience.

If you’ve never seen or heard an operetta by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, do try this one. I hope you will be as dazzled as I was in my first, youthful viewing of this great art form.

The Marylhurst University Department of Music presents Iolanthe on Saturday, June 6, at 7:30 p.m.
 and Sunday, June 7, at 4:00 p.m. at St. Anne’s Chapel
, Marylhurst University campus
, 17600 Pacific Highway, Marylhurst. Tickets ($20 general admission; $10 students & seniors) are available online.
Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne directed the choral programs for Portland State University, Portland Symphonic Choir, and many other choruses for many years.

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