Category Archives: Music

Topsy Turvy

The cold winter months are a perfect time to catch up on movies and miniseries.  I just treated myself to a repeat of one of my very favorite movies, Topsy Turvy. It’s a 1999 musical drama/comedy by the great and idiosyncratic director Mike Leigh. He works with a regular troupe of favorite actors.  The actors all develop their characters over a period of months and get together regularly to improvise based on the relationships they develop. Mr. Leigh watches the improvisations.  At certain points, he tells his actors to get out of character. Then they all discuss what’s happened. Based on the improvisations and discussions, Mr. Leigh develops a shooting script.  So the stories arise organically, out of real human behavior.


The subject of Topsy Turvy is the unlikely creation of the much-performed and much-loved musical classic, The Mikado. The film’s story is based on real people and real events, extensively researched.  Each cast member was given a character to research and understand, then at intervals they got together in various groupings. Mr. Leigh would give them the premise of a scene, and off they’d go.

At the beginning of the story, Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert are a phenomenally successful creative team.  Their comic operas attract large and appreciative audiences to the Savoy Theatre, built specially for them by the producer D’Oyly Carte. Gilbert writes the stories and lyrics, and Sullivan comes up with the orchestral scores.  But Sullivan is weary.  He feels he has a serious opera in him, and he is convinced he is wasting his time with light comic operas.  He complains to Gilbert that every story they’ve done is the same: a “topsy turvy” world created by a potion or spell or magical device.


Sullivan decamps to Paris, where, truth be told, he enjoys the naughty nightlife more than he composes serious work.  Gilbert is left to his own devices in Victorian London. He has a supportive but miserable wife, an estranged set of demanding elderly parents, and two old maid sisters.  His wife wants children, and he either can’t or won’t cooperate in conceiving any.

Suddenly, Eureka!  There’s an international exposition which includes a wildly popular Japanese pavilion.  Gilbert brings home a ceremonial Japanese sword; it falls on his head with the same brain-jarring effect as Newton’s apple.  The Mikado, in all its wit and humor, flies out of his pen. Sullivan, skeptical,  reads the libretto and chuckles appreciatively.  The duo is in business again, hard at work on their greatest triumph. The Mikado premiered in 1885.  It was an instant smash hit.


The best part of the film chronicles the joy and struggle to bring the piece from the page to the stage.  Scenes of backstage pettiness alternate with scenes of sheer genius as the performers learn their places in the comic masterpiece.

Some years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre in London.  It was all I’d hoped for, and more–sublimely beautiful and funny. Topsy Turvy brings it all back. But it is not necessary to know a thing about Gilbert and Sullivan to enjoy the rollicking humor and genuine pathos of the movie.

Alan Corduner stars as Arthur Sullivan.  Jim Broadbent is W.S. Gilbert.  All the actors are stellar, including Timothy Spall, who is currently starring in Mr. Turner, a new Mike Leigh film. Mr. Spall plays the great English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in an acclaimed performance.

The movie still above is from Roger Ebert’s admiring review, found at

Mimi and Rodolfo in Budapest


FullSizeRender (7)

What if it were as easy and cheap to see world-class opera as to see a movie?  In Budapest, world-class opera is actually easier and cheaper than a movie–at least for the tourist.  I have not seen a single movie theater as I’ve wandered Budapest.  But at the Opera Metro stop, sure enough, I found myself outside the grand headquarters of the Hungarian National Opera.  With no advance planning at all, I walked in and bought same-day tickets for my very favorite opera, La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini. Tickets were available for just a few dollars.  I splurged and snapped up two seats that must have been returns, 3rd row center.  The cost was still about 1/6 to 1/10 what I’d expect to pay in New York, Paris or Vienna.

FullSizeRender (4)

The gilded auditorium holds about 1200 seats, and the acoustics are generally considered among the very best in the world, after La Scala in Milan and the Opera Garnier in Paris. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria shared the cost with the city of Budapest, once he became King of Hungary in a political compromise that put an end to years of bloody conflict.  The first performances in the neo-Renaissance auditorium took place in 1884.

FullSizeRender (5)

From my seat, I could look over the shoulder of the conductor into the orchestra and marvel at the perfect coordination between about a hundred instrumentalists and the sublime singers onstage.  Sets, costumes, acting, music–all combined to tell a simple but moving story.  I love this particular opera because it deals with ordinary humans making ordinary messes of their lives, and doing it in the most musical and poetic way possible.  There are no dead spots in this opera–there’s either lively action or an achingly beautiful piece of music at every moment.

What about language?  The opera was sung in its original Italian. Hungarian translations appeared above the stage.  No matter! I knew the story and even most of the lyrics well enough to follow along.

Teodor Ilincai as Rodolfo, Royal Opera House 2010, photo by madamabutterfly, Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution 3.0

Teodor Ilincai as Rodolfo, Royal Opera House 2010, photo by madamabutterfly, Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution 3.0O

Of course no photos were allowed during the performance. I had to be content with the photo above, from an earlier performance. Teodor Inincai was a wonderful Rodolfo, and Letay Kiss Gabriella was transcendent as Mimi.  I was happy to share a glorious performance with an appreciative audience.  Afterward, I didn’t want it to end.  I happily sat through many curtain calls, complete with shouts of “Brava!” and “Bravo!” and their Hungarian equivalents.

What’s next, before I leave Budapest? A performance of the ballet The Nutcracker at the Hungarian State Opera House. I can’t wait!


Fanny and Felix

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, 1842, portrait by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Public Domain

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, 1842, portrait by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Public Domain

November 14 is the birthday of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, older sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn.  As children in a wealthy and refined family in Hamburg, Fanny and her brother shared a passion for music.  They were at least equally talented.  One of their teachers, Carl Friedrich Zelter, actually seemed to think Fanny’s was the superior talent.  In 1816, he wrote to his friend, the great poet Goethe, the  “…oldest daughter could give you something of Sebastian Bach.  This child is really something special.”

Fanny was a composer as well as a fine pianist. But like so many other women, she found herself automatically kept at home, out of the way of anything so vulgar as publishing and performing music for pay.  Her father commented about Felix, in a letter to Fanny.  He wrote, “Music will perhaps become his profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.” That was easy for him to say.  Living with those infuriating limitations must have been hard for Fanny, as it was for Mozart’s talented sister Nannerl a century earlier.

Fanny Mendelssohn, sketch by her fiance, Public Domain

Fanny Mendelssohn, sketch by her fiance, Public Domain

Fanny made a good marriage and continued to compose as best she could.  Her brother Felix “generously” allowed some of her compositions to be published under his name. He had at least one embarrassing incident as a result.  Queen Victoria, at Buckingham Palace, announced to Felix that she was going to sing her favorite of his songs, “Italien.”  He was forced to confess that it was actually his sister Fanny’s song. Served him right, if you ask me.

Fanny’s husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, encouraged her composing and playing.  Her brother relied on her for critiques of his works in progress, and she collaborated with him on various pieces–probably more than we know.


Things have changed for gifted women.  Recently, the prodigiously talented singer-songwriter Taylor Swift changed over from country to pop music, against the advice of her agents. Then she defied a music streaming outlet, Spotify.  She decided that the outlet didn’t give proper recognition, control or compensation to artists, and she could manage nicely without them. Her new album, “1989,” is available at Target and other outlets.  I wish her success.