The best of British (musical comedy) comes to Adelaide

G&S Fest is a celebration of the founding fathers of British comedy opera, Gilbert & Sullivan. We spoke to State Opera Artistic Director and the mastermind behind the festival, Stuart Maunder AM before the inaugural festival in May.

G&S Fest – a celebration of the founding fathers of British comedy opera, Gilbert & Sullivan, has announced the program of its first edition. Presented by State Opera South Australia, G&S Fest is the only event of its kind in the southern hemisphere and brings together some of the best bits of very British humour and song in May 2023.

Gilbert & Sullivan or “G&S” as they are universally known created British comedy-opera in the 19th century. The pair gave rise to a great tradition of political satire, and their work shaped the development of musical theatre, political discourse, literature, film and advertising. 

Based around the Adelaide CBD, G&S Fest aims to deliver a memorable entertainment experience for aficionados and first timers alike. 

The fan favourite opera Trial By Jury at the Supreme Court may be sold out but other major highlights of the festival include crowd favourites Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Also, a ‘Big Sing’ community version of The Sorcerer which will bring together hundreds of G&S and choral enthusiasts for one massive performance.

“Satire and silliness are two of mankind’s greatest pleasures, and the music of Sullivan – that unquenchable melody – is a thing of its own. Try it – I dare you not to love it.”

Stuart Maunder AM

Bringing these G&S gems to life is a group of some of Australia’s finest voices and character performers including Ben Mingay, Antoinette Halloran, Jeremy Kleeman, Nicholas Jones, John Longmuir, Desiree Frahn, Nicholas Cannon, Douglas McNicol and Jessica Dean, who will take on multiple roles across the major productions. 

In the lead up to G&S Fest we spoke to State Opera Artistic Director and the mastermind behind the festival, Stuart Maunder AM. Stuart has been directing musical theatre for the past 35 years. His work has taken him all over from Australia and New Zealand, to the UK and France and to the USA. He has been with the State Opera of South Australia since 2018.

What do Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) and their comic operas mean to you personally and professionally? What impact have they had on you as a director?

At 16, when performing my first G&S role at school,  I discovered a book called Martyn Green’s Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan, which annotated all of the librettos. I read it from cover to cover and fell in love with the language; words that you’d never meet in your ordinary life, words that had seemed to be coined for simply the thrill of it. There were countless useless classical references, long-forgotten historical figures and many ‘tarantaras’ , ‘tra la la’s’ and ‘willow waly’s. Even without hearing the music I was hooked. 

My adoration of Sullivan came a little later. Through recordings of the Savoy Operas I revelled in the composer’s sprightly, gleeful invention as welI as getting my first taste of classical music. Sullivan’s extraordinary ablility to satirise, pay homage and celebrate other composers allowed me to discover a whole new world of musical styles from Handel through Donizetti , Verdi and even  a soupçon of Wagner. And yet, like the best composers it always sounded like Sullivan; play a few bars and it’s unmistakeable.

My first ever production was Trial by Jury at Asham and Sydney Grammer in 1975. 

I’ve now directed all but three of the canon…and the delight never fades.

Has love for the genre  shaped me as a director? It is obviously a major part of my love for the whole of the artform. And you gotta start somewhere.

Out of the 14 comic operas of G&S’s that have lasted to this day, what is your favourite/s? Do you have a different favourite to direct and a different favourite to simply enjoy as an audience member?

Ah, the horror question. I suppose I should say the one I am working on at the time. But I love ‘em all for different reasons.

Contrary to popular belief the operas are all very different, yielding many and varied delights! What other body of work, what other collection of 14 operas reveals such riches, all of a type, a family, yet all different, witty, satiric, gossamer thin and with real heart. 

But Ruddigore  will always hold a special place, as it was my first!  Next festival!

Can you explain the extraordinary staying power of the comic operas? Do you think this would hold true if there was no modernization of productions and they were identical reproductions of the originals?

The G & S operettas’ durability is extraordinary but not unexplainable. After all, Gilbert’s dramatic situations are still funny. The way in which plots hinge on twins being swapped at birth or ridiculous legal technicalities played like a satire on melodrama to the Victorians, but, let’s face it, stranger things happen on Succession and Home and Away.

Sullivan’s music succeeds in providing a kind of romantic foil to Gilbert’s pervasive drollery and cynicism. This kind of friction was very much at the heart of Gilbert and Sullivan’s creative relationship; a perfect marriage, complementary and challenging. And they shared a sense of humour. Nothing Sullivan wrote with others holds a candle to the music inspired by Gilbert’s words. What Sullivan did to those words was to sabotage them, and transform them by encasing them in glorious melody. 

WS Gilbert was the first great director in the modern sense, mapping out his productions in minute detail. This was a far cry from the largely improvised productions of the great actor-managers of the Victorian age. It’s a sad irony that it was the D’Oyly Carte Opera company’s insistence that the operas continued to be reproduced in Gilbert’s strict style without any nod to new methods and sensibilities that eventually led to the demise of that company. The oft-quoted view was that the D’Oyly Carte original versions of the operas had become boring, predictable and routine. Our versions, on the other hand,  are constantly surprising.

How different and/or similar will the State Opera productions of G&S’s operas be? How much modernization, lyric changes, etc have been made?

The interpretations will be fast, furious, energetic in feel but always respecting the originals. In The Sorcerer and Pinafore the conflict is between characters and their social caste. In Pirates the individual rails against the moral laws…and Trial by Jury satirizes the legal system. The law is turned on its head.

One of the joys of working on these pieces is that most of the text works beautifully just asthma are: their particular genius is that the then-topical references in Gilbert’s original text still sound so relevant;  we have changed very few of Gilbert’s jokes.

Can you explain this process? How do you hold true to both the history and the brilliance of the originals, and also the need for modernization?

The process is as simple as taking the pieces seriously. One should never parody a parody. 

The humour comes, as Gilbert says, from the fact that ‘the actors ere trained to get their effects by doing and saying absurd things in a matter of fact way’. Moss Hart, the great American playwright and director said ‘The job of a director is to put onstage what the author has written truthfully, tastefully and theatrically. He does not intrude he guides’. Our audience are clever, we don’t need to hit people over the head with concepts and reinterpretations. They can make to leap.

Satire and socio-cultural commentary and critique is a huge part of G&S operas – how have the State Opera made these particular themes relevant to 2023 audiences? 

The Savoy Operas lampoon Victorian Society in all it’s moralizing glory: the class system, the military, the law, doing one’s duty above all else…  all those great Victorian sacred Cows.  And wherever the Victorians had their sacred cows there was WS Gilbert ready to milk them for all the laughs he could get. The operas are of course still relevant today because those sacred cows are still with us; they are just fatter! 

Trial by Jury has been a sell-out show, both at G&S Festival and the Adelaide Fringe. What do you think makes this particular show so popular?

It helps that the opera is ‘up close and personal’, immersive and in a real courtroom. It’s also  quirky, mad, short, irreverent, wildly tuneful and some say ‘Gilbert’s revenge on the legal profession for his own failure at the Bar’. A masterpiece!

Lastly, the festival is exclusive to Adelaide are there plans or hopes of expansion?

I first dreamed of a G&S Festival in 1991…and finally it’s happened…I live in hope. 

The Savoy Opera’s fusion of gentle satire alternating with genuine heartfelt emotion is a combination that never ages – indeed, perhaps it’s something we need now more than ever.

G&S Fest

11 – 21 May 2023

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