October 12, 2014

Pinafore 1: Gilbert and Sullivan defined as co-workers

Virginia Opera's 40th season got off to a triumphant start with a stunning production of Sweeney Todd that received ovations at every performance.

Now on to the second of our four mainstage shows, H.M.S. Pinafore by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Think of it as the comforting "good cop" following the edgy "bad cop" of Sondheim's bloody spectacle. YO! All of you HSP's ("Highly Sensitive Persons") who have been hiding under your beds until the Demon Barber went away: it's safe to come out now.

For my initial Pinafore post I'm going to recap a speech I heard back in the 90's. I wish I could remember the name of the speaker, but I can barely remember what I had for breakfast this morning. (As we age...) So whoever you were, at least know I'm not taking credit for your insights. The speech was the keynote address at a national convention of arts administrators I was attending back when I was directing a community arts school in Richmond VA.

If you know anything about Gilbert and Sullivan's partnership, you know it was hardly a matter of rainbows and unicorns. Their beleaguered producer Richard D'Oyle-Carte had to use super-human gifts of tact to keep one or the other from quitting the Savoyard venture for good, as they each threatened to do on more than one occasion.

Gilbert was annoyed that, in their joint public appearances, Sullivan was clearly more popular - more of a celebrity - than he himself was. Stupid idiots always like the music best, don't they? He also hated it when Sullivan would read through his latest libretto with a distinctly "MEH" reaction. Not original enough. Too much like the last ones. Can't you do better, old fellow? That sort of thing.

For his part, Sullivan (to a degree) felt trapped by their very success. He had not been the darling of both the Royal Academy of Music and the hallowed Leipzig Conservatory in order to grind out catchy-but-simplistic musical doggerel. No, he was the Great White Hope of British Music, destined to be England's answer to Schumann, Brahms, Wagner and Verdi. He was destined to be a musical Moses, leading his homeland out of the musical wilderness (in which their greatest composer was not native-born, but rather the Saxon G.F. Handel) into the Promised Land of international stature. He would produce symphonies, oratorios, chamber music and (especially) GRAND OPERAS.

Not this silly, absurdist comic stuff.

Now for the recap of that speech. It was all about how to characterize workplace relationships; all of them - even the ones YOU have had in YOUR various jobs, Dear Reader. Here's how it works:

All relationships between co-workers necesssarily fall into four, and only four, categories. Thees categories are defined by the degree of

between the two parties. Here are the four categories defined:

  1. COLLEAGUES: co-workers who have HIGH AGREEMENT and HIGH TRUST.
  2. ADVERSARIES: co-workers who have LOW AGREEMENT and LOW TRUST.
  3. OPPONENTS: co-workers who have LOW AGREEMENT but HIGH TRUST. (In this scenario, one thinks the other person is an idiot, but an honorable/good person even so.) And finally,
  4. BEDFELLOWS: co-workers who have HIGH AGREEMENT but LOW TRUST.
If you review your own personal work history, you'll find that every person at every job you ever held falls neatly into one of these categories. Of course, politicians running for office love to invoke number three above. Even when rival candidates are in reality bitter adversaries, when they're debating on CNN they love to say things like "My opponent is a patriotic man, but I'm afraid his ideas on foreign policy would weaken our country." Et voila...

The point, of course, is that D'Oyle-Carte's librettist and composer were at best in the category of bedfellows. They understood that they could not really walk away from a money-making bonanza like their series of English comic operettas, but testiness and guarded civility were often the rule.

Until, of course, Sullivan did finally walk away, convinced that his true destiny was still within reach, hoping to make his bones as the English Verdi with Ivanhoe in 1891. 

As it turns out, he'd have been well-advised to heed this old saying: 

The way to have what you want is.... to want what you have.

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