Who knows if the story's true or not. Who cares? The Gershwins were major- league Gilbert and Sullivan fans - that we do know. Dip into any of their shows, but in particular their swingeing satires of the 1930s - Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake - and the evidence is everywhere. Arthur Seymour Sullivan's wickedly unassuming way with musical pastiche and parody, William Schwenk Gilbert's stingingly irreverent lyrics ("I know of only two tunes," he said; "one is `God Save the Queen', the other isn't") - George and Ira had a nose for quality. They'd learnt well the first rules of Broadway: model yourself on the best and if you're going to steal, steal classy. They weren't alone.
American "musical comedy" was the lovechild of European "operetta". And the line of succession stretched way back beyond Johann Strauss, Jacques Offenbach, G&S and their illustrious successors to the Singspiel - "song- play" - works like Mozart's The Magic Flute, a popular entertainment that eschewed the Court Opera for the people's theatre. Sir Charles Mackerras, who conducts Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, next week (24 to 26 April), is prepared to go even further. He cites Cole Porter's Anything Goes as a kind of latterday opera seria. That's a first. That's definitely one step on from recognising the smell of old Vienna in the duets from Kiss Me Kate. But the parallels are there to be drawn. The American musical would be nowhere if European operetta hadn't travelled so well. Leonard Bernstein would never have written Candide, Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green would not have contemplated On the Twentieth Century and Broadway could never have engineered a hit re-vamp of The Pirates of Penzance (1981, with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt). But then, G&S always had the language on their side.
So G&S finally make it to Covent Garden - a mere stone's throw, but a lifetime of social unacceptability, from the Savoy, their theatrical birthplace. Until now, only "proper opera" has graced the stage of the Royal Opera. The line was drawn at Strauss's Die Fledermaus (proper operetta: Viennese, you see) and that, as they say, was that. Until now. But then, attitudes to G&S appear to have mellowed with the years. Now that class is a dirty word and terms like "high-brow" and "low-brow" are going out of fashion, now that musicals are "through-composed' and Domingo has designs on Les Misrables (heaven forbid), perhaps we feel less embarrassed about enjoying them. Of course, the Savoy Operas were very much products of their time, for their time, and, as such, blithely litist. They were pitched squarely at the upper middle classes, a happy position from which to lambast the establishment and make mockery of politicians and judges and First Lords of the Admiralty. Mind you, they too had a share in the in-jokes, while everybody could be frightfully snobby about "common folk". "Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes" (Iolanthe Act 1). Many a true word spoken in jest. G&S made an art form of political incorrectness.
Mackerras was weaned on G&S. There wasn't a tune or lyric or line of dialogue that his middle- class Australian family didn't know (G&S enthusiasts are like that - all or nothing). He was a fairy in Iolanthe, age 10, and even before his voice had broken he'd graduated to the role of Koko in a school production of The Mikado. When he first came to "proper opera", initially as an oboist, Mackerras began to recognise how much Bizet and Gounod and Rossini and Verdi and even Wagner there was in Sullivan. Only then did he truly begin to appreciate Sullivan's witty and felicitous gift for imitation.
In 1951, Mackerras fashioned Pineapple Poll - a rich and rumbustious ballet made up entirely of Sullivan tunes: in every sense "a thing of shreds and patches, of ballads, songs, and snatches, and dreamy lullaby". For those who summarily dismiss Sullivan tunes as bland as opposed to innocent, irritating as opposed to insidiously catchy, Pineapple Poll is a tonic. Same old tunes, but it's amazing what a little zest can do for the sauce. Flesh out the harmonies, pep up the percussion, throw in a few rollicking horn descants. Perhaps Sir Charles should re-orchestrate the operettas?
He comes swiftly but cautiously to Sullivan's defence. "When Sullivan really puts his mind to writing orchestral music - as in the Iolanthe and The Yeomen of the Guard overtures - it's really imaginative stuff. His touch is so sure and so light: I mean, the 6/8 section of the Iolanthe overture is delightful - very Mendelssohnian. And the way in which he counterpoints two of his most individual tunes here - a favourite device he learnt from Wagner and Verdi - is genuinely exhilarating. I think those who call Sullivan bland probably miss the bite of Offenbach and Johann Strauss. Here are these deeply cynical lyrics set to such blameless music."
But isn't that the point? Gilbert's cruel and facetious words exquisitely under-set? Mackerras is not convinced. "I think it was more by accident than design. I think he was lazy, a bit of a good-time fellow. I think he left everything to the 11th hour. It was too easy for him. He could orchestrate at lightning speed; but he never left himself the time to be that little bit more ambitious. And once he'd written a tune, he sometimes didn't pay too much heed as to whether the second or third verse of the song needed a different accentuation of the words. And, as you know, some of the overtures weren't his. Alfred Cellier, the D'Oyly Carte conductor, was more often than not assigned that task." And took to it with precious little panache.
So, gifted but lazy. Is that to be the verdict on Sullivan? Mackerras believes that he could have been great: his Leipzig Conservatory background should have seen to that. And he did so want to be a "serious" composer. But to think that we might have been deprived of the Savoy Operas, and all that they inspired. Perish the thought.
A sadder but wiser Sullivan presides over The Yeomen of the Guard. Its true nature is to be found in its pathos. For once, it is Sullivan's music that dictates the colour and cast of the piece. The curtain rises, not on some jolly chorus, but on the sad song of a maiden alone; Act 2 centres on the spare madrigalian beauty of the quartet "Strange Adventure!"; and the number you go out humming - the duet "I have a song to sing, oh!" - is more likely to draw a tear than a smile. Gilbert's rapier wit remains largely sheathed in Yeomen. But then, Sullivan had something to prove. The apparent success of his previous work - the cantata The Golden Legend - had restored his belief in the serious side of his musical personality. He proudly pronounced that score "the best of him", only to be bluntly contradicted by Ethel Smyth - whose rejoinder, "No, the best of you is The Mikado", wounded him deeply. The truth is that most of us - Mackerras included - are with Dame Ethel on that one.
Meanwhile, the great and the good of music are coming out more readily - indeed eagerly - for G&S. High-level casting distinguishes Sir Charles's own series of recordings for the Telarc label; and among other conductors, Sir Neville Marriner has publicly demonstrated his affection, while, last night at the Royal Festival Hall, Roger Norrington did likewise with Iolanthe. Is this a trend? Have G&S at last assumed the ascendancy? Or could it be that when future generations ask if the Savoy Operas ever made it to the Royal Opera House, we'll be reaching for that well-worn Gilbert epigram - "What never? Well, hardly ever."
n Sir Charles Mackerras conducts `The Yeomen of the Guard' with WNO at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2 (0171-304 4000) 7.30pm 24 to 26 AprReuse content