I am the very model

Parody & satire in the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan

The operas of Gilbert & Sullivan are rich in contemporary satire and witty personal allusions. The lecture tells how each of the 14 operas, on which the partners collaborated, drew inspiration from the world in which they lived.  As a result, celebrities, politicians, social mores, manners, artistic taste, the class system – even Queen Victoria’s red drawing room at Windsor Castle – are poked fun at.

The study day explains how the then first Lord of the Admiralty, WH Smith, became the model for Sir Joseph Porter KCB in HMS Pinafore, how Oscar Wilde (in part) inspired the ‘fleshly poet’ Bunthorne in Patience, and how Gilbert himself was arguably the model for the Judge, in Trial By Jury.  The day is illustrated with live music.


Sample timetable with content

10.30-11.30 – Session 1

 I am the very Model

An exploration of the 14 Gilbert and Sullivan operas, searching for topical themes.  Real life figures such as James Whistler, Oscar Wilde, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Sir Garnet Wolseley are discussed with their counterparts in the operas.  Sullivan’s scores are examined in relationship to music by Handel, Donizetti, Wagner, Mendelssohn – composers from whom the composer drew inspiration.  The poetry  and plays of Shakespeare, Tennyson and  Swinburne are also brought under the microscope for their part in influencing aspects of the operas.

11.30-11.45 – Break

11.45-1.00 – Session 2


The second session examines the history, construction, reception and the contemporary satire found in Patience – arguably Gilbert and Sullivan’s most successful work.

In 1877, the Victorian artistic world was agog with a libel suit that James Whistler had brought against John Ruskin.  Apparently, the art critic had described Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold as flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face. Whistler won, but the judge only awarded him damages of a farthing, and the heavy costs incurred by the case brought him to bankruptcy in 1879.

In 1881, in the wake of Whistler’s court case, Gilbert and Sullivan created their opera Patience, a work inspired by the eccentricities and affectations of the aesthetic movement.  Well known figures like Walter Pater, Algernon Swinburne and members of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had their writings and artistic works alluded to, or mercilessly sent up.  Others – Oscar Wilde and Whistler – even inspired the costumes and makeup of the opera’s principal characters (see photograph, right).

1.00-2.15 – Lunch

2.15-3.30 – Session 3


Peter Medhurst performs a selection of arias and songs that are drawn from the operas.  Repertoire includes: The Sentry’s Song – Iolanthe, I am the very Model – The Pirates of Penzance, The Ghost’s Highnoon – Ruddigore, and The Nightmare Song – Iolanthe.


Thoughts on the Judge in Trial by Jury

It’s often forgotten that long before his involvement with the theatre, Gilbert did his professional training in the law, and spent two  years practising at the bar.  They weren’t happy, or successful times, and soon his energies were turned towards the writing of plays and libretti for a living.  However, Gilbert was not one to waste experiences, and I think it’s important that the first success he was to have with Sullivan – Trial by Jury 1875 – was based on an area of life of which he had a profound knowledge: the law.

There’s a strong autobiographical flavour to the opening verses of The Judge’s Song: When I good friends was called to the bar, I’d an appetite fresh and hearty, but I was as many young barristers are, an impecunious party . . . Biographies of Gilbert are always ready to tell us that in all his time at the bar, Gilbert only earned £25, so he knew perfectly well what an impecunious party was.  He would also have had sympathy with the following lines, which come from the close of verse one I’d a couple of shirts and a collar or too, and a ring that looked like a ruby.

The theme of the law is further developed some seven or so years later in Iolanthe, where the Judge, as a prototype character, has moved on to become the Lord Chancellor – altogether a superior being.  He’s honest, for a start!

Trial by Jury – The Judge’s Song (recorded in 1927)

Here is the complete text of The Judge’s Song:

When I, good friends, was call’d to the bar
I’d an appetite fresh and hearty
But I was, as many young barristers are
An impecunious party
I’d a swallow-tail coat of a beautiful blue
And a brief which I bought of a booby
A couple of shirts, and a collar or two
And a ring that looked like a ruby

At Westminister Hall I danc’d a dance
Like a semi-despondent fury
For I tho’t I never should hit on a chance
Of addressing a British jury
But I soon got tired of third-class journeys
And dinners of bread and water
So I fell in love with a rich attorney’s
Elderly, ugly daughter

The rich attorney, he jump’d with joy
And replied to my fond professions
“You shall reap the reward of your pluck, my boy
At the Bailey and Middlesex Sessions
You’ll soon get used to her looks,” said he
“And a very nice girl you will find her
She may very well pass for forty-three
In the dusk, with a light behind her”

The rich attorney was good as his word
The briefs came trooping gaily
And every day my voice was heard
At the Sessions of ancient Bailey
All thieves, who could my fees afford
Relied on my orations
And many a burglar I’ve restored
To his friends and his relations

At length I became as rich as the Gurneys
An incubus then I thought her
So I threw over that rich attorney’s
Elderly, ugly daughter
The rich attorney my character high
Tried vainly to disparage
And now, if you please, I’m ready to try
This breach of promise of marriage

For now I’m a judge
And a good judge, too
Yes, now I’m a judge
And a good judge, too
Though all my law be fudge
Yet I’ll never, never budge
And I’ll live and die a judge
And a good Judge too