100 Shades of Gray

Back in the 1920s, a letter written to the newsletter of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society in London sounded a warning bell:  In looking over audiences at the Savoy (where the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, under its vigorous new proprietor, Rupert D’Oyly Carte, was enjoying a sold-out season of Gilbert & Sullivan revivals), the writer had been struck by the fact that the heads that met his eye were almost entirely gray, if not white or even bald. He had observed the same phenomenon at amateur productions as well.

He concluded that the audiences at the Savoy were the same people who, 30 or 40 years before, had been the audiences for the original productions. For now they were basking in the nostalgia of their own salad days, but he worried that, when they died, Gilbert & Sullivan would die with them.

That didn’t happen, obviously. The D’Oyly Carte Company, and amateur groups around the world, were still playing to big houses a half-century later, long after the audiences he’d seen—and probably he himself—were in their graves.

The idea hasn’t faded out, though. Through the years, people who love Gilbert & Sullivan have looked out at audiences, seen 100 shades of gray and fretted that the G&S audience was dying out. There were young people in those audiences, to be sure, but not a large number, and many of them looked bored and resentful, as if they’d been dragged there by their parents or grandparents—as surely most of them had. How could there be a future for an art form whose audience so obviously had more of a past than a future?

The particular menace that frightens the pessimists most changes with time. First it was recorded music, then sound movies, then television and now the Internet. Gilbert & Sullivan has adapted to all these media and flourished, but none of them has quashed live performance of the operas. As the list elsewhere on this site attests, there are more than 200 companies in the world that perform the Savoy operas regularly, and more than 150 of them perform the operas primarily or exclusively. The audiences may be gray, but they keep coming.

So what’s going on?

The easiest route to the answer is to visit the local opera house, the local Shakespearian theater, the local classical concert hall, the local art museum or the local ballet. Look out over the audience, and you’ll see much more silver than gold. Some of them will be the same people you’ve seen at the local G&S society’s shows, some will be snobs who disdain G&S as lowbrow fluff, but the vast majority will be of the same generation.

The opera house, the ballet, the art museum and the Gilbert & Sullivan audience are all outposts of high art, built upon works that have outlived their original audiences and proven to be timeless in the most positive sense of the word, connecting with people who were yet to be born when they were created.  High art is different in kind from popular art, and so is its audience.

High art demands a sense of context and, more often than not, a sense of subtlety that is absent from popular art. Young people, as a class, lack that context and that sense of subtlety. They respond better to bright colors, fast-paced narratives and clear, visceral storylines. To them, West Side Story (1957) will speak more directly than Romeo and Juliet (c. 1593) because it’s shorter, faster-paced and more accessible in its language and cultural context.  The Fault in Our Stars (2014) speaks more directly yet.

This is not to say that all young people are immune to the power of Gilbert & Sullivan. I was 12 when I saw the Gilbert & Sullivan Workshop of Long Island do The Pirates of Penzance, and it changed my life. My lovely wife had a similar experience in Texas, and I’ve watched generations of young people fall under the Savoy spell (shout-outs to Laura Piil, Bonnie Kopf, Emily Della Pietra and Karina Vartanian, among many, many others). However, all of those young people have had the same experience as I had: They’ve been the subject of incomprehension and even scorn from most of their contemporaries, who simply don’t get the appeal.

Nor do I mean to disparage popular culture. I love popular culture, and have made my living off it for many years. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is, in its own way, as brilliant and artistically successful a work as The Yeomen of the Guard (1888). It’s simply doing different things for a different audience. Since I was 12, I’ve had to deal with incomprehension and even scorn from most of my G&S colleagues, who simply don’t get what it is about Halloween, Music and Lyrics (2007) or, most recently, Taylor Swift that appeals to me. All I can tell them is that, in their own way, they’re all as great as Gilbert & Sullivan. Michael Jordan isn’t any less an athletic wonder because he couldn’t hit a curveball as well as Joe DiMaggio. Different things, different kind of appreciation.

More to the point, almost all high art starts as popular culture. Shakespeare’s plays were the Michael Bay movies of his day, big, showy and catnip to the masses. So were Verdi’s operas, and those of Gilbert & Sullivan. It wasn’t necessarily apparent to viewers at the time that there was anything unique about Shakespeare, Verdi or Gilbert & Sullivan—remember, Dorothy (1886) ran longer than any of the Savoy operas—but with the passing years their rivals fell away and they remained, transmuted by the passage of time into high art.

There are young people who immediately glom onto Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, Clark Gable, Monet or William Blake, just as there are 70-year-olds who await the new Eminem album or the new J.K. Rowling book with eager anticipation. Nothing wrong with either group—I was one of the former 40 years ago, and aspire to be one of the latter in 13 years—or with the art that connects with them. But they’re outside their generational mainstreams, and they know it.

This much I know: Today’s Gilbert & Sullivan audience includes a lot of people who were G&S buffs in the 1950s and 1960s, but most of them weren’t. In those days they were nuts about Elvis, about James Dean, about the Beatles, about Paul Newman, about the Who, about Al Pacino. Chances are they still have a nostalgic affection for those artists, but somewhere along the line, in their 30s and 40s, they were exposed to Gilbert & Sullivan and found, to their surprise, that there was something there that spoke to them.  Around the same time, many of them also had the same experience with Shakespeare, with opera, with oil painting, with ballet. It probably wasn’t the first time in their lives that they’d been exposed to these forms of high art, but they’d reached a stage in their lives when they were ready to slow down, to look, to listen, to think a bit more than they had previously.

This happened to me, in my late 40s, with classic country music. Artists, songs and whole subgenres that I’d dismissed in my youth suddenly made all kind of sense to me—in particular, all kinds of emotional sense. I sometimes want to hit my head against the wall for taking so long to get where I am now, so long that I missed the chance to see Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and Kitty Wells live. I don’t do any head-banging, though, because I know that, if I had seen these greats in the 1970s or 1980s, I wouldn’t have liked them. I wasn’t ready for them.

So my advice to people who are concerned about the graying audience for Gilbert & Sullivan is this: Be nice to the Drake fans, the Taylor Swift fans, the Beyonce fans and the Jay-Z fans. We’re going to be meeting them down the road.

by Gayden Wren

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