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Kitchen Table Reviews: The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan

The tale of the famous feuding collaborators is a perfect way to introduce children to the silly side of opera.

By Mir Kamin | December 18 , 2009
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<i>The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan</i> by Jonah Winter
The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan by Jonah Winter

I have a confession to make: Before I was a writer, (before I was many other things I’ve been, actually) I was a drama major. In other words, I’m a theater geek. So could I resist a children’s book about Gilbert and Sullivan? No, I could not. Surely my children would instantly realize the brilliance of this duo!

Me: So, what did you think about this one?

Daughter: I don’t know. It was kind of a strange story. I mean, it was kind of a weird thing to make up.

Me: It’s not made up. I mean, Gilbert and Sullivan were real people, who wrote a bunch of famous operettas. Didn’t you read the Author’s Note at the end?

Daughter: Oh. No, I didn’t. I guess I should read that.

Son: I thought it was funny how they worked together but they were so different. Like how Mr. Gilbert kept writing the same story over and over, just set in different places. And that drove Mr. Sullivan crazy.

Me: Right! Mr. Gilbert was silly and Mr. Sullivan was serious. And it almost got to where they couldn’t work together anymore.

Daughter: I don’t understand how you have a silly opera. I thought operas were serious.

Me: Let’s get my computer and I’ll show you some Gilbert and Sullivan songs.

And then, via the magic of YouTube, I indoctrinated my children. They were lukewarm for “Three Little Maids From School Are We,” but were both delighted with “The Major-General’s Song.”

Son: How do they sing so fast?

Me: Very carefully.

Son: So that’s the stuff Gilbert and Sullivan wrote?

Me: Yep.

Daughter: It’s really funny. And totally silly.

Me: Exactly, and that’s part of why their work is so popular even today. A lot of opera has beautiful music but is kind of stuffy and serious. But Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas have beautiful music and are hilarious. Back to the book: What did you like best?

Daughter: I liked how Mr. Gilbert had a dollhouse where he could figure out how the show should look. And on one page they show the dolls set up, and then you turn the page and there’s the actors doing exactly what the dolls did. That was cool.

Son: I liked how after they made up, when they were talking about the new show, Mr. Sullivan is shown dancing. He got a little silly, after all!

Hooray for the ends of feuds, and for silliness.

Pros: Cute story for young and old alike. The perfect gateway to forcing your children to watch endless YouTube videos of all your favorite Gilbert & Sullivan tunes. The artwork is gorgeous and (dare I say it?) theatrical.

Cons: Trying to remember which one is Gilbert and which one is Sullivan. Friends fighting with each other. Having “I am the very model of a modern major general” stuck in my head all day long.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan gets three thumbs up and a few groaned, “Mom! Stop singing!” pleas from our kitchen table.

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