Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian era partnership of librettist W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900). Together, they wrote fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896, of which H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado are among the best known.
Gilbert, who wrote the words, created fanciful topsy-turvy worlds for these operas, where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion—fairies rub elbows with British lords, flirting is a capital offense, gondoliers ascend to the monarchy, and pirates turn out to be noblemen who have gone wrong. Sullivan, seven years younger than Gilbert, composed the music, contributing memorable melodies that could convey both humor and pathos.
Producer Richard D'Oyly Carte brought Gilbert and Sullivan together and nurtured their collaboration. He built the Savoy Theatre in 1881, to present their joint works—which came to be known as the Savoy Operas—and he founded the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which performed and promoted their works for over a century.
The Gilbert and Sullivan operas have enjoyed broad and enduring international success and are still performed frequently throughout the English-speaking world. The collaboration introduced innovations in content and form that directly influenced the development of musical theater through the twentieth century. The operas have also influenced political discourse, literature, film, and television and have been widely parodied and imitated by humorists.
W.S. Gilbert was born in London, on November 18, 1836. His father, William, was a naval surgeon who later wrote novels and short stories, some of which included illustrations by his son. Gilbert was kidnapped by pirates at the age of two, but after the ransom was paid and Gilbert returned to his family, he settled into a rather unremarkable childhood. In 1861, the younger Gilbert began to write illustrated stories, poems and articles of his own to supplement his income. Many of these would later be mined as a source of ideas for his plays and operas, particularly his series of illustrated poems, called the Bab Ballads.
In the Bab Ballads and his early plays, Gilbert developed a unique "topsy-turvy" style, where the humor was derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences, however absurd. Mike Leigh describes the "Gilbertian" style as follows:
With great fluidity and freedom, [Gilbert] continually challenges our natural expectations. First, within the framework of the story, he makes bizarre things happen, and turns the world on its head. Thus the Learned Judge marries the Plaintiff, the soldiers metamorphose into aesthetes, and so on, and nearly every opera is resolved by a deft moving of the goalposts… His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way.
Gilbert developed his innovative theories on the art of stage direction, following theatrical reformer Tom Robertson. At the time Gilbert began writing, theater in Britain was in disrepute. Gilbert helped to reform and elevate the respectability of the theater, especially beginning with his six short family-friendly comic operas, or "entertainments," for Thomas German Reed.
Sullivan was born in London on May 13, 1842. His father was a military bandmaster, and by the time Arthur had reached the age of 8, he was proficient with all the instruments in the band. In school, he began to compose anthems and songs. In 1856, he received the first Mendelssohn Prize and studied at the Royal Academy of Music and at Leipzig, where he also took up conducting. His graduation piece, completed in 1861, was a suite of incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest. Revised and expanded, it was performed at the Crystal Palace in 1862, and was an immediate sensation. He began building a reputation as England's most promising young composer, composing a symphony, a concerto, and several overtures, among them the Overture di Ballo, in 1870.
His early major works for the voice included The Masque at Kenilworth (1864); an oratorio, The Prodigal Son (1869); and a dramatic cantata, On Shore and Sea (1871). He composed a ballet, L'Île Enchantée (1864), and incidental music for a number of Shakespeare plays. Other early pieces that were praised were his Symphony in E, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, and Overture in C (In Memoriam) (all three of which premiered in 1866). These commissions, however, were not sufficient to keep Sullivan afloat. He worked as a church organist and composed numerous hymns, popular songs, and parlor ballads.
Sullivan's first foray into comic opera was Cox and Box (1866), written with librettist F.C. Burnand for an informal gathering of friends. Public performance followed, with W.S. Gilbert (then writing dramatic criticism for Fun) saying that Sullivan's score "is, in many places, of too high a class for the grotesquely absurd plot to which it is wedded." Sullivan and Burnand followed their success with a second comic opera, The Contrabandista (1867).
Gilbert and Sullivan's first collaboration gave little indication of the success that was to come their way. The two were first paired in 1871, when the manager of the Gaiety Theatre in the Aldwych, John Hollingshead, commissioned the two up and comers for the production of a musical burlesque show. Titled Thespis, the show was rushed, actors were under rehearsed and over worked. In fact, the first performance ran an hour long, lines were forgotten, and booing could be heard when it finally ended.
And yet, the musical showed elements common in future Gilbert and Sullivan plays, particularly the ridiculous premise (in this case, the classic Greek and Roman deities go on vacation, leaving a troupe of actors in charge of Mount Olympus). Despite the fact that the show starred two big names of the time, J.L. Toole and Nellie Farren, it opened to mixed reviews; however, it did manage a modest ten-week run.
Gilbert and Sullivan would not be paired together for another three years, until they were commissioned to write Trial by Jury. In 1874, Gilbert wrote a short libretto on commission from producer–composer Carl Rosa, whose wife would have played the leading role, but her death in childbirth canceled the project and left the libretto an orphan. Not long afterwards, Richard D'Oyly Carte was managing the Royalty Theatre, and he needed a short opera to be played as an after piece to Offenbach's La Périchole. Gilbert already had available the libretto he had written for Rosa, and Carte suggested that Sullivan write the score. The composer was delighted with it, and Trial by Jury was composed in a matter of weeks.
The piece is one of Gilbert's humorous spoofs of the law and the legal profession, based on his brief experience as a barrister. It concerns a breach of promise of marriage suit. The defendant argues that damages should be slight, since "he is such a very bad lot," while the plaintiff argues that she loves the defendant fervently and seeks "substantial damages." After much argument, the judge resolves the case by marrying the lovely plaintiff himself. With Sullivan's brother, Fred, as the Learned Judge, the opera was a runaway hit, outlasting the run of La Périchole. Provincial tours and productions at other theaters quickly followed.
After the success of Trial by Jury, Gilbert and Sullivan were suddenly in demand to write more operas together. Over the next two years, Richard D'Oyly Carte was one of several theatrical managers who negotiated with the team but were unable to come to terms. Carte also proposed a revival of Thespis for the 1875 Christmas season, which Gilbert and Sullivan would have revised, but he was unable to obtain financing for the project.
Carte's real ambition was to develop an English form of light opera that would displace the bawdy burlesques and badly translated French operettas then dominating the London stage. He assembled a syndicate and formed the Comedy Opera Company, with Gilbert and Sullivan commissioned to write a comic opera that would serve as the centerpiece for an evening's entertainment.
Gilbert found inspiration in one of his own short stories, "The Elixir of Love," which concerned the complications arising when a love potion is distributed to all the residents of a small village. The leading character was a Cockney businessman who happened to be a sorcerer, a purveyor of blessings (not much called for) and curses (very popular). Gilbert and Sullivan were tireless taskmasters, seeing to it that The Sorcerer opened as a fully polished production, in marked contrast to the under-rehearsed Thespis. While The Sorcerer won critical acclaim, it did not duplicate the success of Trial by Jury. Nevertheless, Carte and his syndicate were sufficiently encouraged to commission another full-length opera from the team.
Gilbert and Sullivan scored their first international hit with H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), satirizing the rise of unqualified people to positions of authority and poking good-natured fun at the Royal Navy and the English obsession with social status (building on a theme introduced in The Sorcerer, love between members of different social classes). As with many of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, a surprise twist changes everything dramatically near the end of the story.
Gilbert oversaw the designs of sets and costumes, and he directed the performers on stage. Sullivan personally oversaw the musical preparation. The result was a new crispness and polish in the English musical theater.
H.M.S. Pinafore ran in London for 571 performances, the second longest run of any musical theater piece in history up to that time (after the operetta, Les cloches de Corneville). Hundreds of unauthorized, or "pirated," productions of Pinafore appeared in America, where the show was exceptionally popular.
The libretto of H.M.S. Pinafore relied on stock character types, many of which were familiar from European opera (and some of which grew out of Gilbert's earlier association with the German Reeds): The heroic protagonist (tenor) and his love-interest (soprano); the older woman with a secret or a sharp tongue (contralto); the baffled lyric baritone—the girl's father; and a classic villain (bass-baritone). Gilbert and Sullivan added the element of the comic patter-singing character. With the success of H.M.S. Pinafore, the D'Oyly Carte repertory and production system was cemented, and each opera would make use of these stock character types. Before The Sorcerer, Gilbert had constructed his plays around the established stars of whatever theater he happened to be writing for, as had been the case with Thespis and Trial by Jury. Building on the team he had assembled for The Sorcerer, Gilbert no longer hired stars; he created them. He and Sullivan selected the performers, writing their operas for ensemble casts rather than individual stars.
The repertory system ensured that the comic patter character who performed the role of the sorcerer, John Wellington Wells, would become the ruler of the Queen's navy as Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore, then join the army as Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, and so on. Similarly, Mrs. Partlet in The Sorcerer transformed into Little Buttercup in Pinafore, then into Ruth, the piratical maid-of-all-work in Pirates. Relatively unknown performers whom Gilbert and Sullivan engaged early in the collaboration would stay with the company for many years, becoming stars of the Victorian stage. These included George Grossmith, the principal comic; Rutland Barrington, the lyric baritone; Richard Temple, the bass-baritone; and Jessie Bond, the mezzo-soprano soubrette.
The Pirates of Penzance, conceived in a fit of pique at the American copyright pirates, also poked fun at grand opera conventions, sense of duty, family obligation, the "respectability" of civilization and the peerage, and the relevance of a liberal education. The story also revisits Pinafore's theme of unqualified people in positions of authority, in the person of the "modern Major-General" who has up-to-date knowledge about everything except the military. The Major-General and his many daughters escape from the tender-hearted Pirates of Penzance, who are all orphans, on the false plea that he is an orphan himself. The pirates learn of the deception and re-capture the Major-General, but when it is revealed that the pirates are all peers, the Major-General bids them: "Resume your ranks and legislative duties, and take my daughters, all of whom are beauties!"
The piece premiered first in New York rather than London, in an (unsuccessful) attempt to secure the American copyright, and was another big success with both critics and audiences. Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte tried for many years to control the American performance copyrights over their operas, without success.
During the run of the Gilbert and Sullivan's next opera, Patience, Carte built the Savoy Theatre, which became the partnership's permanent home and was the first theater in the world to be lit entirely by electric lighting.
The most successful of the Savoy Operas was The Mikado (1885), which made fun of English bureaucracy, thinly disguised by a Japanese setting. Gilbert initially proposed a story for a new opera about a magic lozenge that would change the characters (which he later presented in The Mountebanks, written with Alfred Cellier, in 1892), but Sullivan found it artificial and lacking in "human interest and probability," as well as being too similar to their earlier opera, The Sorcerer. The author and composer were at an impasse until May 8, 1884, when Gilbert dropped the lozenge idea and agreed to provide a libretto without any supernatural elements.
The story of The Mikado focuses on a "cheap tailor," Ko-Ko, who is promoted to the position of Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu. Ko-Ko loves his ward, Yum-Yum, but she loves a musician, who is really the son of the emperor of Japan (the Mikado), and who is in disguise to escape the attentions of the elderly and amorous Katisha. The Mikado has decreed that executions must resume without delay in Titipu. When news arrives that the Mikado will be visiting the town, Ko-Ko assumes that he is coming to ascertain whether Ko-Ko has carried out the executions. Too timid to execute anyone, Ko-Ko cooks up a conspiracy to misdirect the Mikado, which goes awry. Eventually, Ko-Ko must persuade Katisha to marry him, in order to save his own life and the lives of the other conspirators.
With the opening of trade between England and Japan, Japanese imports, art, and styles became fashionable in London, making the time ripe for an opera set in Japan.
Setting the opera in Japan, an exotic locale far away from Britain, allowed Gilbert and Sullivan to satirize British politics and institutions more freely by clothing them in superficial Japanese trappings. Gilbert wrote, "The Mikado of the opera was an imaginary monarch of a remote period and cannot by any exercise of ingenuity be taken to be a slap on an existing institution."
The Mikado became the partnership's longest-running hit, enjoying 672 performances at the Savoy Theatre, which was the second longest run for any work of musical theater (surpassing the 571 performances of Pinafore and 576 of Patience) and one of the longest runs of any theater piece up to that time. The Mikado remains the most frequently performed production at the Savoy Opera, and is widely regarded as Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular and successful work.
Ruddigore, a supernatural tale, was the pair's next release and became quite controversial due to its subject matter. It was followed in 1888, by The Yeoman of the Guard, and in 1898 by The Gondoliers. Gilbert and Sullivan then spent close to four years away from the stage, returning in 1893, with Utopia, Limited. Their final collaboration, The Grand Duke, was first performed in 1896, and marked the end of their oft-quarrelsome, quarter century-long partnership. Together, they produced 14 comic operas. In 1883, Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria. In 1907, Gilbert, too, was knighted, by King Edward VII.
Gilbert and Sullivan quarreled several times over the choice of the subject for a new production. After both Princess Ida and Ruddigore, which were less successful than the seven other operas from H.M.S. Pinafore to The Gondoliers, Sullivan asked to leave the partnership, saying that he found Gilbert's plots repetitive and that the operas were not artistically satisfying to him. While the two artists worked out their differences, Carte kept the Savoy open with revivals of their earlier works. On each occasion, after a few months' pause, Gilbert responded with a libretto that met Sullivan's objections, and the partnership was able to continue successfully.
During the run of The Gondoliers, however, Gilbert challenged Carte over the expenses of the production. Carte had charged the cost of a new carpet for the Savoy Theatre lobby to the partnership. Gilbert believed that this was a maintenance expense that should be charged to Carte alone. Sullivan, however, sided with Carte, who was building a theater in London for the production of new English grand operas, with Sullivan's Ivanhoe as the inaugural work.
In 1891, after many failed attempts at reconciliation by the pair and their producer, Richard D'Oyly Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan's music publisher, Tom Chappell, stepped in to mediate between two of his most profitable artists, and within two weeks he had succeeded.
However, Gilbert and Sullivan produced only two further operas together.
Because of the unusual success of the operas, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was able, from the start, to license the works to other professional companies, such as the J.C. Williamson Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, and to amateur societies. For almost a century, until the British copyrights expired in 1961, and even afterwards, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company influenced productions of the operas worldwide, creating a "performing tradition" for most of the operas that is still referred to today by many directors. D'Oyly Carte produced several well-regarded recordings of most of the operas, helping to keep them popular through the decades.
Today, numerous professional repertory companies (for example, NYGASP, Carl Rosa Opera Company, Somerset Opera, Opera della Luna, Opera a la Carte, Skylight opera theatre, Ohio Light Opera, and Washington Savoyards), opera companies, amateur societies, churches, schools, and universities continue to produce the works. The most popular Gilbert and Sullivan works are still performed from time to time by major opera companies. A three-week long International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival is held every August in Buxton, England.
In the past 125 years, Gilbert and Sullivan have pervasively influenced popular culture in the English-speaking world, and lines and quotations from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas have become part of the English language (even if not originated by Gilbert), such as, "let the punishment fit the crime" and "A policeman's lot is not a happy one." The operas have influenced political style and discourse, literature, film, and television, have been widely parodied by humorists, and have been quoted in legal rulings.
The American and British musical owes a tremendous debt to Gilbert and Sullivan, who were admired and copied by early authors and composers such as Ivan Caryll, Adrian Ross, Lionel Monckton, P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Victor Herbert, and Ivor Novello, and later Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Gilbert's lyrics served as a model for such twentieth century Broadway lyricists as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Lorenz Hart. Noel Coward wrote:
I was born into a generation that still took light music seriously. The lyrics and melodies of Gilbert and Sullivan were hummed and strummed into my consciousness at an early age. My father sang them, my mother played them, my nurse, Emma, breathed them through her teeth while she was washing me, dressing me and undressing me and putting me to bed. My aunts and uncles, who were legion, sang them singly and in unison at the slightest provocation….
Gilbert and Sullivan's work provides a rich cultural resource outside of their influence upon musicals. The works of Gilbert and Sullivan are themselves frequently satirized. Well known examples of this include Tom Lehrer's "The Elements," Allan Sherman's, The Two Ronnies, and Anna Russell's famous routines, as well as the animated TV series Animaniacs' HMS Yakko episode. Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas are commonly referenced in literature, film, and television—such as the 1998 film, Star Trek: Insurrection—in various ways that include extensive use of Sullivan's music or where action occurs during a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. There are also a number of Gilbert and Sullivan biopics, such as Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy.
The musical is not, of course, the only cultural form to show the influence of G&S. Even more direct heirs are those witty and satirical songwriters found on both sides of the Atlantic in the twentieth century like Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in the United Kingdom and Tom Lehrer in the United States. The influence of Gilbert is discernible in a vein of British comedy that runs through John Betjeman's verse via Monty Python and Private Eye to… television series like Yes, Minister… where the emphasis is on wit, irony, and poking fun at the establishment from within it in a way which manages to be both disrespectful of authority and yet cosily comfortable and urbane (Ian Bradley, 2005).
It is not surprising, given the focus of Gilbert on politics, that politicians and political observers have often found inspiration in these works. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist added gold stripes to his judicial robes after seeing them used by the Lord Chancellor in a production of Iolanthe. Alternatively, Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer is recorded as objecting so strongly to Iolanthe's comic portrayal of Lord Chancellors that he supported moves to disband the office. British politicians, beyond quoting some of the more famous lines, have delivered speeches in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan pastiches. These include Conservative Peter Lilley's speech mimicking the form of "I've got a little list" from The Mikado, listing those he was against, including "sponging socialists" and "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue." Political humor based on Gilbert and Sullivan's style and characters continues to be written.
Major works and original London runs
Gilbert and Sullivan operas have been translated into many languages, including Portuguese, Yiddish, Hebrew, Swedish, Danish, Estonian, Spanish (reportedly including a version of Pinafore transformed into zarzuela style), and many others.
There are many German versions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including the popular Der Mikado. There is even a German version of The Grand Duke. Some German translations were made by Friedrich Zell and Richard Genée, librettists of Die Fledermaus, Eine Nacht in Venedig and other Viennese operettas, who even translated one of Sullivan's lesser-known operas, The Chieftain, as ("Der Häuptling").
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