- Resident Artists
A young apprentice's overzealous passion for his duty ends in an absurd meeting of pirates, policemen and of course, the girl he loves.
Our staging of this whimsical tale of comic adventure on the high seas is inspired by the hit production in Ashland and reimagined for the Keller stage. Bill Rauch (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director) makes his Portland Opera directorial debut. Under Rauch's direction the production was praised by The Oregonian as "an effortlessly freewheeling romp."
Sung in English with projections above the stage.
Run time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes.
|Sergeant of Police||Kevin Burdette|
|Major-General Stanley||Robert Orth|
|The Pirate King||Daniel Okulitch|
|Stage Director||Bill Rauch|
|Conductor||Daniel Gary Busby|
|Costume Designer||Deborah M. Dryden|
|Scenic Designer||Michael Ganio|
|Lighting Designer||Jane Cox|
|Sound Designer||Kai Harada|
When Frederic was a little lad, his nurse, Ruth, was told to apprentice him to become a pilot. She heard the word incorrectly and apprenticed him to a band of pirates, remaining with them herself as a maid-of-all-work. Although Frederic loathed the trade to which he had thus been bound, he dutifully served. As the curtain rises, his indentures are almost up and he is preparing the leave the band, planning to devote himself to its extermination.
He urges the pirates and their king to join him in embracing a more lawful calling, but they refuse. Ruth, however, wishes to become his wife. Having seen but few women, Frederic does not know whether she is really as pretty as she says she is, but he finally consents to take her.
Just then a bevy of young maidens, all wards of Major-General Stanley, happen upon the scene. Frederic sees their beauty—and Ruth’s plainness—and renounces her. Of these girls, Mabel takes a particular interest in Frederic, and he in her. The other girls are seized by the pirates and threatened with immediate marriage. When the Major-General arrives, he can dissuade the pirates only by a ruse: he claims that he is an orphan and so works upon their sympathies that they let him and his wards go free.
This lie troubles the Major-General’s conscience, and at night he broods over it as he sits in a Gothic ruin. He is, however, consoled by his wards’ sympathy and by Frederic’s plan of immediately leading a band of police against the pirates.
Meanwhile, the Pirate King and Ruth appear and beckon Frederic. They have discovered that his indentures were to run until his 21st birthday. Since he was born on February 29, he has had as yet only five such natal days. Obeying the dictates of his strong sense of duty, he immediately rejoins the pirates. He tells them of the deception that has been practiced upon their credulity and they seize the Major-General.
A band of police arrives and, after having reassured the pirates that they are not in fact orphans, rescues the Major-General by asking his captors to “yield in Queen Victoria’s name.” This they do. Ruth explains that the seemingly lawless pirates are in fact “all noblemen who have gone wrong.” They are pardoned and each is partnered with one of the Major-General’s wards, with marriages to happen in the very near future.
“It is very good of you to send me so many interesting scraps about the Pinafore in America. I am gratified beyond measure at its success there, but there is one matter of great regret to me. Not the money question, although I don’t pretend for an instant that I should not prefer to be paid for my work. No, my regret is that my music is not performed as I wrote it. Orchestral coloring plays so great a part in my work that to deprive them of this is to take away from the attraction…for a small sum a manager might have had a copy of my score, and my work would have been given to the American public as I wrote it, instead of in garbled form…”
It is impossible to discuss The Pirates of Penzance without considering the remarkable popularity of H.M.S. Pinafore. Pinafore’s success was the catalyst for the creation of The Pirates of Penzance, as well as the American tour for which it opened. Pinafore inspired theatrical pirates and the ensuing copyright lawsuits, and earned immense profits for Gilbert and Sullivan and the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, enabling the formation of an independent company managed by Carte, with Gilbert and Sullivan as full partners. Pinafore built the Savoy Theater. Before diving into the shark-infested waters of The Pirates of Penzance, it will be necessary to navigate the production history of H.M.S. Pinafore.
Initially, in the summer of 1878, it looked like Pinafore might fail—a heat wave blistered London and the theaters of the nineteenth century were not the cool haven they are today. In the heat, Pinafore languished. The Board of Directors of the Comedy Opera Company, always a nervous, anxious and restive crew, began to whinge that profits were down and that D’Oyly Carte must shut down the production, nullifying their agreement with Gilbert and Sullivan. Their timorous response to a purely temporal dip in their profit only hardened Carte’s resolve to be rid of them. Annoyed by these ninnies and supported unreservedly by his artistic partners, Carte kept the theater open and Pinafore sailing. The show limped along in the changeable weather (record heat, then torrential rains and thunderstorms), until one of Sullivan’s “promenade concerts” at Covent Garden featured an orchestral medley of Pinafore’s tunes. This treatment, replete with favorable notices in all the papers piqued public interest in Pinafore, and the theater (and its coffers) began quickly to overflow. This change of affairs, plus an extended run, changed the Board’s tune and everyone was happy. Except that Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan did notice that their net profit from the opera was much reduced after the Director’s took their cut. Now that Pinafore was sailing lily-strewn waters, the Directors viewed Pinafore as their property, a view most certainly not shared by Messrs. Gilbert, Carte and Sullivan. The mutual antipathy for the Board bound the trio together into an extremely lucrative company.
While not netting as much as they might have liked, the profits from Pinafore allowed Gilbert to buy himself a yacht and Carte to buy the plot of land upon which he would build the Savoy Theater, where he would have the exclusive rights to produce Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Of course, at this time, only four such operetta existed, only two of which were full length. Pinafore guaranteed there would be more, luring even the reluctant Sullivan with the jingle of currency. By December of 1878, Gilbert, perhaps inspired by happy voyages on his yacht, began work on the next opera, The Pirates of Penzance. He shared his plot overview with Sullivan one evening, and the two, no doubt laughing heartily, discussed it long into the wee hours.
It was more than boating that inspired Gilbert, however. On November 25, 1878, across the pond at the Boston Museum, a pirated version of H.M.S. Pinafore opened. It caused such a frenzy of enthusiasm in the United States that one American journalist wrote, “Such a furor as this opera has created I have never known before in the history of the American stage.” The situation was graver than one pirated Pinafore, though. Copyright laws in the United States did not protect the intellectual property of foreign authors—or composers. In fact, “The Supreme Court held that [anyone] might perform, for profit, as much of anybody’s else dramatic property as [he/she] could remember, although [said person] would not be allowed to eke out [his/her] memory by taking notes.” This led to pirated Pinafores cropping up all over the country. In New York, eight theaters were running their own versions of Pinafore, each introducing its own songs into the mix. One touted a “new design in trousers,” another, an innovative entrée, unknown to Gilbert or Sullivan. Even more inexplicable, one theater flattered Sullivan’s score by inserting Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. In America, organ grinders on the streets profited more from Pinafore than did Gilbert or Sullivan. This was simply intolerable.
Carte quickly pulled Gilbert and Sullivan together in the spring of 1879 to plan a frontal assault on the American pirates by touring the genuine H.M.S. Pinafore there to show the American public what it was missing. In addition, American copyright law protected the manuscript copy of any foreign author’s work (and exclusive rights to performance), but did not extend to the same works published abroad; Carte proposed that the next opera should premiere in the United States, allowing the three to profit in the first run in American theaters. In addition, negotiations would be made to publish the work in the United States, in the hopes that control would be maintained by the creative team. Having thus made an initial plan, Carte sailed to the U.S. to find a theater for Pinafore and Pirates.
Carte found negotiations difficult and was unable to secure the terms that he had reached with Gilbert and Sullivan in the June 12, 1879 Memorandum of Agreement. The American impresario wanted sixty percent of the take, or for Gilbert and Sullivan to take up a percentage of the risk. This caused some ripples of discontent from composer and librettist and made Carte’s job incrementally more difficult.
To compound Carte’s headaches, back home the Board of Directors of the Comedy Opera Company, sensing that their golden goose was about fly off, made their move. While Carte was wrestling with impresarios in New York, the Board sharpened their long knives to seize control of Pinafore performances in London. Sullivan made the first move to counter the attack. Per an agreement with Carte and Gilbert, on July 8th, Sullivan sent notice through his solicitor that as of July 31st, the rights to his score of Pinafore would expire and exclusive control would return to him. Predictably, the Directors reacted strongly to this shot across their bow, and made clear that they maintained performing rights to Pinafore and intended to set up a rival production in another theater.
Shamelessly, the Directors began to lure original cast members and choristers away from Carte’s production with a lavish new fee schedule. Sadly, while they had the performers, they did not have a set for them to perform on. To solve this problem, the Board sent a raiding party to Carte’s theater and during the performance on July 31st, tried to steal the set! Gilbert wrote to Sullivan (who was vacationing on the continent):
By the way, on Friday night they broke into the theatre with a mob of 50 roughs, during the performance, and tried to carry off the properties…Baker resisted their approach, and was knocked downstairs and seriously hurt. There was alarm among the audience who raised a cry of “Fire!” appeased, however, by Grossmith who made them a speech from the stage…I hear the performance at the Aquarium [Theater—where the rival production was house] was wretched and very few audience were present…the soprano is a contralto so has to take her high notes an octave lower. That’s all the news.”
Remarkable news, indeed. It is little wonder that Gilbert’s crew felt accosted by pirates.
During the next two weeks, Gilbert once again wrote Sullivan—this time about his Pirates, “I’ve broken the neck of Act II and seen my way clearly to the end. I think [Pirates] comes out very well.”
Meanwhile, the ever-industrious Carte, who had returned from his scouting trip in the U.S., was eager to return—this time with Gilbert and Sullivan. Too much time had passed for them to get rich from Pinafore performances in America—they had no control of the product at all. But Carte knew that “Gilbert & Sullivan” was a commodity that the Americans were eager to buy. He needed to show them off, and they needed to produce a Pinafore to whet American appetites for “authentic,” “genuine” G & S productions. This would pave the way for the real money maker: The Pirates of Penzance. Carte was already busily negotiating contracts with singers and wrote to Sullivan:
Now as regards cast—our people must all be strong singers. The people there are nearly all splendid singers…They like “emotional” singing and acting. The placid English style won’t do, and I assure you that if we took out such a Company as the Opera Comique, we should make a big failure, as likely as not.
Despite Carte’s preparation, the three partners did not finalize the terms for the American tour until October 23, 1879. The final agreement called for The Pirates of Penzance to be complete by December 1st (an ambitious goal, unmet), and that all three would plan to stay in the United States for three months from December 1st and not leave without the permission of both of the others. In addition to opening H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway, Carte would organize official tours of Pinafore and The Sorcerer. To protect copyright in both the U.S. and in Great Britain, The Pirates of Penzance would open simultaneously, hopefully thwarting theatrical pirates on both sides of the pond.
Of one mind, they sailed.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s arrival in New York was a nineteenth century British Invasion. The harbor was crowded with vessels, all flying the Stars and Stripes alongside the union Jack. The air was filled with cheers and the cacophony of rival bands, sawing away at Sullivan’s tunes from the decks of their bunting swaged ships. Feted, feasted and entertained, Gilbert and Sullivan had barely time to breathe. Journalists demanded interviews; hostesses lobbied for the invitations’ acceptance; passersby whistled tunes or hooted lines to the celebrated twosome. It all became a bit overwhelming, particularly for Sullivan.
At first, he’d had been pleased by all the attention, writing enthusiastically to his mother, “…I must do the Americans justice [and] say that they are most wonderfully kind and hospitable. The moment a man sees you, he wants to know what he can do for you, and means it, too.”
Not long after, he amended, “Americans for three hours this afternoon. I’ve talked to more Americans half the night and I’m told there are still more Americans whom I haven’t talked to coming tomorrow morning. What I want to know is—when do all these Americans end!!!”
If the normally sweet Sullivan sounds churlish, we can perhaps forgive him. He was suffering martyrdom from his kidney stones, and he had been slaving away to complete The Pirates of Penzance in time for rehearsals under adverse conditions. He’d been “writing music to 4:30 a.m., when he was not actually writing music until 6:30 a.m.”
Always a last minute composer, at least as far as the orchestrations were concerned, Sullivan was more than usually pressured with Pirates. Though he had completed most of the music before departing for the U.S., he had inadvertently left all of Act I at home. To open on time, he had to reconstruct that, as well as score the opera in two weeks, during which time rehearsals would be well under way. “It is a great nuisance, as I have to re-write it all now and can’t recollect every number I did.” He locked himself away and buckled down to work.
In order to complete the work on time and facilitate a double opening on two continents, compromises were inevitable. Composer Alfred Cellier lent Sullivan a hand by writing the piano/vocal score for Act II which was sent back to England for the opening performance there. Cellier also proved his worth by composing the Pirates overture.
Much has been made of Sullivan’s re-use of the chorus “Climbing over Rocky Mountain” from Thespis for the Act I appearance of the Modern Major Genera’s myriad daughters. Gilbert claimed years later that this petty, personal plagiarism was due to the time constraints caused by having to reconstitute all of Act I. But there is a small rocky mountain of evidence to support the conclusion that the decision to recycle this chorus had been made long before. In this self-borrowing, Sullivan had mighty company. Everyone from Handel to Rossini to Puccini had done it, so there was little shame in admitting it.
Rehearsals were conducted in secret. Upon the completion of each day’s work the score was locked away in a safe. Opening night arrived and Sullivan described his day in his diary:
No rehearsal, except band at 11 for Overture. Home at 1:35 to breakfast. Too ill to eat. Went to bed to try to get sleep. Could not. Stayed in bed till 5:30. Gilbert came. Got up feeling miserably ill. Head on fire. Dressed slowly and got to the New York club at 7:30. Had 12 oysters and a glass of champagne. Went to theatre. House crammed with the elite of New York. Went into the Orchestra more dead than alive, but got better when I took the stick in my hand—fine reception.
“Fine reception.” This is an understatement. In a letter to his mother, Sullivan is a bit more forthcoming:
…We had long and wearisome rehearsals, but fortunately our Company and all the chorus are charming people and devoted to us, and spared themselves no pains or trouble to do their work thoroughly well. All except the tenor, who is an idiot…we took nine encores and could have had more if I liked…we anticipate immense business for the next few weeks.
What do I think of the piece myself? The libretto is ingenious and clever, wonderfully funny in parts, and sometimes brilliant in dialogue—beautifully written for music, as is all Gilbert does, and all the action and business perfect. The music is infinitely superior to Pinafore, funnier and more developed, of a higher class altogether. I think that in time it will be more popular. Then the mise-en-scène and the dresses are something to be dreamed about…The New York ladies are raving about them. The Policemen’s Chorus is an enormous hit and they are cheered tremendously when the march on with their Bull’s Eyes all alight, and are always encored. I am sanguine of its success in London for there are the local allusions which will have twice the force they have here…
So the New Year opens propitiously for me.
And what of the simultaneous English opening of Pirates? It wasn’t quite simultaneous, and had occurred the day before in a strange, almost furtive, performance by a Pinafore touring company in Paignton, Devon at 2:00 in the afternoon. Wearing their uniforms from the H.M.S. Pinafore, and tying colorful scarves across their brows, armed only with their vocal “sides,” the courageous crew turned pirate for the afternoon in an extraordinarily rough performance. The piano/vocal score prepared by Cellier had only arrived the day before. The set was scrounged from whatever bits and pieces the Royal Bijou Theater had on hand. One can only imagine the mayhem. Ridiculously, the tiny house (surely no more than fifty in attendance), paid for the privilege of experiencing this cynical (if clever) display—“sofa stalls were 3 shillings, the second seats cost 2 shillings and there was also room in the theatre for an ‘area’ at 1 shilling, and even a gallery at 6 pence.”
Perhaps even more ludicrous was the review in the “Paignton and Newton Directory,” the paper of record in this tiny town. “We congratulate the talented author and composer for another brilliant success.”
Perhaps they meant New York.
Back in the U.S., the work was ecstatically received. As soon as Sullivan’s baton was lowered, theaters were sending telegrams to Carte begging for the performance rights. For Gilbert, Sullivan, and the enterprising Carte, the show was definitely financially rewarding. The profit for composer and librettist was $4000 per week for the New York performance alone. Tours in New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky and Louisiana opened the floodgates on a river of dollars, all of which came to Messrs. Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte. This work solidified the reputations of Gilbert and Sullivan, for all intents and purposes producing the “Gilbert & Sullivan” brand, patented by Carte and eventually worth “actual millions of profit” to them all. Replete with success, they left America content, but though they had won the first fruits of their monetary harvest from Pirates, they did not retain control over that or any of their subsequent works. Carte would spend the better part of the next decade in court haggling over copyright in the U.S. only to be disappointed.
Once home, Pirates opened in London just as successfully as in the United States. In The Pirates of Penzance, Sullivan had a terrific time writing “operatic” music—merrily skewering Verdi and Gounod with music which demands truly gifted singers to bring it fully to life. The role of Mabel is a particularly good example of these demands, requiring a coloratura to manage “Poor, wandering one” (admirably recalling Gounod) and then the lyrical, significantly lower “Dear Father, why leave your bed?” In Pirates, Sullivan’s music came dangerously close to overwhelming Gilbert’s words (at least in Gilbert’s mind); a problem Gilbert would hastily rectify in their next collaboration, Patience.
The Pirates of Penzance has proved itself to be one of the most delightful and enduring of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon, providing modern producers ample opportunities to delight audiences. With its lusty tunefulness, swashbuckling action, memorable characters, virtuosic vocal demands and relentless absurdities, The Pirates of Penzance is worthy to grace any opera house in the world.
“I was bored by The Tempest, as I was by Richard III and Julius Caesar, three ridiculously bad plays. I dare say Shakespeare was a great poet. I am not qualified to express a technical opinion on that point, but I consider myself an authority on dramatic work and I have no hesitation in expressing a professional opinion that all his works should be kept off the boards.”
To say that William Schwenck Gilbert was endowed with a colossal ego may not do him justice. Whereas his collaborator, composer Arthur Sullivan, was a willing partner, making room for the textural, dramatic, artistic and physical challenges presented by the works he made with others, Gilbert was autocratic, secure that Sullivan’s extraordinary facility would set any words thrown at him—and what is more, write music which would flatter them. Gilbert was lucky that his more rigid genius was aided and abetted by Sullivan’s flexibility. Given his ego, it must have niggled at the proud, stiff-necked dramatist that during the lifetimes of the famous pair, the composer was considered the greater artist of the two. In the years after Sullivan’s death, when his music took a drubbing at the hands of music critics, the balance shifted and Gilbert’s librettos were ascendant. Whichever partner one credits more for the brilliance of the operettas, it is indisputable that each man spurred the other into greatness neither could have achieved on his own. Though neither would have acknowledged that during his lifetime!
While Sullivan’s family was decidedly poor, Gilbert came from stolidly middle and upper middle class stock. Gilbert’s great grandfather was a self-made man, leaving his family at fifteen to be apprenticed to a shopkeeper. Upon his completion of his apprenticeship, he received £300 from his father to begin his life in business. The hard-headed, tight-fisted William Gilbert savvily parlayed this into several grocery shops and a swath of property, firmly establishing the family financially, and providing a strong foundation for the fortunes of his sons.
W.S. Gilbert’s grandfather (another William) and his wife died young, leaving their three children (including our librettist’s father, yet another William), well provided for and in the care of their aunt and uncle, Mary and John Samuel Schwenck, who raised the orphaned trio as their own. The Schwencks provided the Gilbert children with love and stability, and their kindness explains W.S. Gilbert’s odd middle name, Schwenck.
Because of the particulars of his father’s will, Gilbert’s father did not gain come into his inheritance until he was twenty-six years old. As he left his uncle’s house at fourteen, that left him 12 years of life to experience before he was able to pursue the travel, authorship and social activism which would characterize his life as Gilbert’s father. His experiences were varied, and together with the tragedy of his early life would mark him strongly and influence his son W.S. Gilbert for good—and ill.
After an exciting youth as sailor, traveler, doctor and naval surgeon, Gilbert père married his second wife Anne Mary Bye Norris in 1836. (His first had died tragically young). William Gilbert Sr. would prove to be a rigidly moralistic, litigious and difficult husband and father. Traits passed down from his own grandfather, and imposed upon his son.
W.S. Gilbert (called Schwenck by his family—a name he loathed) was born on November 18, 1836. Little is known of Schwenck’s early childhood besides what he was willing to share in his memoir, and that is little enough. We do know of one rather curious and illustrative (given some of Gilbert’s later plot points) incident. When Schwenck (or sometimes “Bab”) was two or so, his father took the family to Italy. (Gilbert Sr. was a great fan of Italian opera and enthused about it often.) While in Naples, the nanny was out strolling with Schwenck, when she was approached by two confident, amiable young men, who convinced the poor woman that they had been sent by the child’s father to come and collect the baby. (Evidently, it was a far more trusting time.) The nanny cheerfully handed Schwenck over. Needless to say, it was a con, and Gilbert Sr. had not sent the two. The family received a ransom note demanding £25, rapidly paid. Years later, Gilbert would recall the incident to his first biographer and insist that he remembered “riding in front of a man on an animal.” As one might expect, it made a strong impression.
One charming detail about the tiny Schwenck is that he loved to play with a toy theater. Less charming was his behavior at Great Ealing School, in which he was enrolled at thirteen. The school was small, only about forty full time students, but it offered Schwenck a chance to spread his theatrical wings. Academically, in general, he was lackadaisical, though he excelled in Latin and Greek, his translations garnering him several awards. He was passionate, however, about theater, and here he began to display the tyrannical tendencies he became for which he became famous later in life. At school, he wrote, directed, designed, built and acted in his own plays. Several accounts (among them the pro-Gilbert biographer Hesketh Pearson) have him bullying both verbally and physically boys involved in his productions who were not up to snuff. The more even-handed Michael Ainger in his Gilbert and Sullivan: A Duel Biography states, “Stories about him being violent at rehearsals are without foundation.” However, the fact is that Schwenck was not popular at school, and abuse can take more forms than just knocking someone down.
Popular or not, Schwenck was not happy at school. Early in 1852, after seeing a play called The Corsican Brothers, he packed up his bags and left school, heading straight for the theater responsible. He approached the manager, Charles Keen to ask for a job with the company. Sadly, Gilbert Sr.’s reach was long, and he was known to Mr. Keen, who forthwith bundled the boy back to his father, who bundled him back to school.
He was finally delivered from Great Ealing as the year waned, but unfortunately, it was on his back, struck down by typhus. After a long convalescence, he enrolled at King’s College. The plan, so far as can be determined, was to study the law and then move on to Oxford, a logical and respectable career trajectory. Patriotic fervor derailed this conventional path when the Crimean War broke out in 1854. Gilbert, always taken with a uniform and quite capable of great physical courage, applied for a commission in the Royal Artillery. Lamentably for Gilbert’s military career, the Crimean War ended before he earned his commission, and so, he returned to school.
In 1857, he completed his undergraduate degree and took a job as a clear in the Education Department of the Privy Council Office to finance his law studies. He spent five years in “the detestable thralldom of this baleful office” as he put it, until a £400 windfall enabled him to quit the job and matriculate full-time under Charles James Watkin-Wilkins. He also managed to get into uniform by joining the Fifth West Yorkshire Militia. He was to remain associated with militia groups for many years, and at six feet four inches, young, strong and handsome, he was every inch the idealized dashing British officer. He was not, however, an ideal lawyer. After passing the bar in 1863, he was completely ineffectual in court. In his four years nominally practicing law, he had only 20 clients. “An unconquerable nervousness prevented me from doing justice to myself or my unfortunate clients,” he wrote.
While (not really) practicing law, he did have plenty of time to writing, and he did a lot of it. By 1860, he had already completed fifteen farces and burlesques, none of which found their way to the stage. He submitted poems and criticism to numerous papers and journals—all rejected. Finally in 1861, frustrated by failure, he submitted a humorous article and illustration (Gilbert was a talented visual artist and gifted cartoonist) to Fun, a new magazine established to rival the perennially popular Punch, which was among those publications which had rejected Gilbert’s work. Fun, however, accepted the article and drawing and, what is more, offered him a weekly column with half-page drawing and a regular salary. “I hardly knew how to treat the offer,” recalled Gilbert, “for it seemed to me that into that short article I had poured all I knew. I was empty. I had exhausted myself: I didn’t know anymore.” It seems he did know more, though. For the next ten years, Gilbert was Fun’s man-about-town, writing theater and art criticism as well as short stories. But the work he is best remembered for in Fun is the Bab Ballads. The first Ballad, To My Absent Husband, appeared in Punch in 1865. Gilbert’s second, The Yarn of Nancy Bell was rejected as “too cannibalistic” for Punch, however, the parody of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner was eagerly accepted by Fun and became incredibly popular.
The Bab Ballads are a collection of nonsense that is often nasty, embittered, and cynical, but still funny. Very funny. Besides their popularity, they are significant because several of them were the genesis for Gilbert’s subsequent plays and operettas. For example, The Fairy Curate blossomed into Iolanthe and The Rival Curates evolved into Patience. These two are direct corollaries, and there are others.
Gilbert’s first play, or at least the play mentioned as his first in many biographies and just as often debunked in others was Uncle Baby, which opened in 1863 as a curtain-raiser. Certainly, one reading it without context would not credit it to W.S. Gilbert based on the style or subject (temperance.) The author listed is W. Gilbert, a moniker never used by W.S. There is speculation that it was his father who penned Uncle Baby, perhaps with Gilbert’s help. Gilbert never claimed it as part of his oeuvre. At any rate, it was panned.
Gilbert claimed that his first professionally produced play was Dulcamara or The Little Duck and the Great Quack of 1866. It seems prudent to take him at his word in this case. Dulcamara was a parody of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. At the time, such spoofs were called burlesques. The familiar arias were presented with rewritten words to fit the new situations, and the stories might or might not follow their operatic inspirations. Gilbert wrote many of them, lampooning, among others, the works of Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Bellini and Balfe. His childhood exposure to his father’s love for opera stood him in good stead.
Dulcamara was successful and Gilbert felt free to propose to Lucy Agnes Turner, given the pecuniary rewards of the venture. They married in 1867. While they had no children together (one assumes to both their regret—they loved children and entertained them often in their home), it seems to have been a happy marriage. Gilbert could not long be separated from his Kitty, as he called her. When they married she was a pretty, blue-eyed blond—the very ideal of British beauty, a perfect English rose. Despite Gilberts bluster and cynicism (and possible infidelities, if what some biographers suggest is true), Gilbert seems to have loved her and relied upon her emotional stability to ballast his own tempestuousness. Biographer Hesketh Pearson described Kitty this way:
She never attempted to impose her will on his, but was clever enough to get what she wanted by making him wish it first. She quickly realized that his habit of forming attachments to other young women and his admiration for a pretty face sprang from some deep need in his nature…The home life of the Gilberts was quiet and relatively free from the discord in so many households…It might be said that the master of the establishment released all of his irritability in quarrels with actors, critics, managers and neighbors, and was peaceful at the fireside from sheer exhaustion.
As for Gilbert, he said, “[Kitty is the] center of every bit of happiness I have, my only peace, my only safety, my guardian angel, the only person I trust unchangingly.”
So Dulcamara won Gilbert a wife, but it also taught him a valuable lesson—a lesson that would play out in other theaters and color Gilbert’s view of theater managers and theatrical agents until the end of his life. During the run of Dulcamara, the theater manager asked Gilbert how much he owed him for the play. Gilbert, new at this game, quoted the self-effacing price of £30. With raised eyebrows, the manager wrote the check and presented it to Gilbert saying, “Now take a bit of advice from an old stager who knows what he is talking about: never sell so good a piece as this for £30 again.” Gilbert didn’t, but it is an insight into his personality that rather than smile at his youthful folly, appreciate the humor in the situation, and be grateful for the good advice, he became bitter and suspicious and allowed this bitterness to influence his dealings with all future theatrical managers, culminating in the infuriatingly pointless persecution of Richard D’Oyly Carte years later.
An interesting feature of the early Victorian theater was that the rapidly expanding bourgeoisie felt that theaters were not places that respectable people should visit. This reluctance would have to be overcome before Gilbert and Sullivan phenomena would be possible. Thomas German-Reed (1817-1888) and his wife, singer Priscilla Horton (1818-1895) created a “series of Illustrative Gatherings and Entertainments,” eventually held in a space they called the Gallery of Illustrations. Nary a mention of “theater.” Not a whiff of impropriety could possibly attach itself to said entertainments. The entertainments consisted of “innocent musical plays employing harmonium or piano, and introducing elements of impersonation, mimicry and burlesque.” They employed a small cadre of talented actors and commissioned well-established authors to pen new works for them. The German-Reeds produced Sullivan’s first comic opera Cox and Box (1866), and Gilbert wrote several plays for them including: No Cards (1875); Ages Ago (169); Our Island Home (1870); A Sensation Novel (1871); Happy Arcadia (1872) and Eyes and No Eyes (1875). Of these plays, at least three were adapted in some way into Savoy libretti.
The German Reed’s Illustrative Entertainments fitted beautifully into Gilbert’s own theatrical goals. Said he:
When Sullivan and I began to collaborate, English comic opera had practically ceased to exist. Such musical entertainments as held the stage were adaptations of the plots of the operas of Offenbach, Audran and Lecocq. The plots had generally been ‘bowdlerised’ out of intelligibility, and when they had not been subjected to this treatment they were frankly improper, whereas the ladies’ dresses suggested that the management had gone on the principle of doing a little and doing it well. Sullivan and I set out with determination to prove that these elements were not essential to the success of humorous opera. We resolved that our plots, however ridiculous, should be coherent, that our dialogue should be void of offence; that, on artistic principles, no man should play a woman’s part and no woman a man’s. Finally, we agreed that no lady of the company should be required to wear a dress that she could not wear with absolute propriety at a private fancy ball. I believe I may say we proved our case.
The Entertainments, the burlesques and the Bab Ballads all established Gilbert as a comic writer, but for the man who felt himself superior to Shakespeare, more substantial fare would be required. Accordingly, he began to write a series of blank verse plays, including perhaps his most famous Pygmalion and Galatea (1871). Some of these plays (The Princes, andThe Wicked World, for example) became the basis for opera libretti—in several cases, they provided inspiration for more than one!
As Gilbert was becoming an important face in London theatrical circles, Arthur Sullivan was looked upon as the great hope to breathe life into a vital new school of serious music in England. Their initial meeting, which must be seen as the epicenter of the spectacular seismic shift in the careers of both men, was remarkably ordinary.
The German-Reeds’ Gallery of Illustration facilitated the first pairing of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, though they programmed separate works. They commissioned Gilbert to write them a companion piece for Sullivan’s Cox and Box. He accommodated them with No Cards, which marked the first time Gilbert wrote words set to original music, provided by Mr. German Reed. Previously, Gilbert had only written words for already established tunes, as in his burlesques of operas. The pairing proved felicitous and ran for 139 performances, however, as Michael Aigner points out, “By no means does it follow that Gilbert ran into Sullivan there. Sullivan had completed his work long before, and as with the operas he was to write with Gilbert he would have made no further appearance.”
It wasn’t long, though, before the two would meet. After No Cards, Gilbert was back at the Gallery with Ages Ago, with music by Fred Clay—a close friend of Arthur Sullivan’s. Clay invited Sullivan to a rehearsal, expressly to meet Gilbert. Gilbert presented himself to Sullivan in a peculiar way—perfectly Gilbertian, really—but it must have seemed oddly aggressive to the urbane Sullivan.
“I’m pleased to meet you Mr. Sullivan,” Gilbert reportedly said. “Because you will be able to settle a question which has arisen between Mr. Clay and myself:
[Would the result] be the same,
Whether [you] chose to play upon
The simple tetrachord Mercury
That knew no diatonic interval,
Or the elaborate dis-diapason
(Four tetrachords , and one redundant note),
Embracing in its perfect consonance
All simple double and inverted chords?”
This erudite nonsense Gilbert had cribbed from his own play The Palace of Truth and the interlocutor within its context, is a musical humbug, who, while truly knowing nothing of music, dazzled his listeners with theoretical mumbo-jumbo. The verse above was Gilbert’s “translation” of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s windy definition of harmony. Sullivan merely smiled suavely and gave a “noncommittal reply.” How else to rise to Gilbert’s bait? Throughout their career together, Sullivan’s talent would overcome any of Gilbert’s challenges, until he grew tired and chose not to.
According to Gilbert, Sullivan “always understood a joke immediately and never needed an explanation.” At this moment, Sullivan was certainly unaware that his future lay in comedy, yoked to W.S. Gilbert. After the two met, they went their separate ways.
Several months later, John Hollingshead, manager of the new Gaiety Theater, commissioned Sullivan to write the music for Thespis (1871), a Christmas extravaganza by W.S. Gilbert. The resultant work was not taken particularly seriously by either man. Gilbert was in production of two other plays and Sullivan busy with multiple contracts all over the country. Nevertheless, Thespis received good reviews, even if some audiences were less than enthusiastic:
The story written by W.S. Gilbert in his liveliest manner is so original, and the music contributed by Mr. Arthur Sullivan so pretty and fascinating, that we are inclined to be rather disappointed when we find the applause but fitful, the laughter scarcely spontaneous and the certain falling without sounds of disapprobation. (The London Times)
Perhaps the Christmas audiences were lethargic after their turkey dinners. Despite The Times insinuation of audience indifference, Thespis ran to the end of the pantomime season and even a little beyond, a success for any such specialty piece. Afterwards, composer and librettist picked up their separate careers, meeting socially, but with no intention of joining forces again.
Up until Gilbert, what we would call the stage director was a weak position in the theater. Leading actors had tremendous freedom to “gag” or “mug”—comedians in particular were hired for their specific schtick, which may or may not have been suitable in the context of a given story, but was guaranteed to elicit audience response. Gilbert put a strong hobnailed boot on the neck of all that. Our understanding of the role of a stage director is, in large part, a tribute to Gilbert’s force of will (what he called “management”) on the sets of his own plays.
Gilbert, reminiscent of the boy who loved to play with his toy theater, used a model theater to work out all of the blocking for his shows. Before he arrived at the theater for rehearsal, Gilbert had a precise picture in his head of how the action should go, which he fed to his actors by rote and insisted they perform exactly as he presented it to them. Equally exacting with dialogue, the obsessive playwright spoke the lines the way he wanted them delivered and rehearsed his cast until they performed each gesture, inflection and expression precisely as he intended. Infinitely patient while teaching a role, Gilbert could nevertheless become vicious if he sensed any actor was in any way being insubordinate. He also preferred to do all of his own casting, although, in his partnership with Sullivan, he did accept some direction. His insistence on this point would later become problematic. In addition, Gilbert designed costumes and scenery to perfectly integration his artistic vision.
In 1875, Richard D’Oyly Carte, erstwhile composer and publisher, took over as manager of the Royal Theatre, which was scheduled to present a season of Offenbach operetta, which would also require curtain raisers and afterpieces. Carte, whose keen eyes and ears had been impressed by Thespis, was eager to create a new English genre of comic opera and knew Sullivan’s music had the potential to rival Offenbach’s, so he approached the composer for a one act opera. Happily, Sullivan agreed, partially because his brother, Fred, was among the cast of the Royal. Carte had a composer, but no libretto for him to set. As yet.
Carte happened to know that Gilbert was sitting on a completed libretto. Some time before, Gilbert had written Trial by Jury for composer Carl Rosa. Rosa’s wife Euphosyne Parepa was to have played the leading lady, but sadly, she died in January 1874, leaving Gilbert with a libretto on his hands. Carte came round to Gilbert to persuade him to “take his libretto ‘round to Sullivan.”
Sullivan described the fateful Saturday morning when a ruddy, snow-covered giant appeared at his door with the libretto under his arm.
[Gilbert] read it through and, it seemed to me, in a perturbed sort of way, with a gradual crescendo of indignation, in the manner of a man considerably disappointed with what he had written. As soon as he came to the last word, he closed up the manuscript violently, apparently unconscious of the fact that he had achieved his purpose so far as I was concerned, in as much as I was screaming with laughter the whole time.
Gilbert liked to read his libretti aloud to his collaborators (composer and actors), performing all the parts as he presented it. His method of writing was methodical. Gilbert, when starting a new libretto began with a blank “plot book” in which he wrote a first draft. Then he would begin again, editing, elucidating and detailing. He wrote only on the right hand page—the facing page was reserved for his drawings, which might include a costume sketch, character illustration or a scowling self-portrait, glaring at what he had just written. After several rewrites, he would make a clean copy to read to Sullivan. Together they would discuss the musical moments, number of ensembles, arias, and the division of music to spoken dialogue. Then Gilbert would toddle off to write lyrics, which, once complete, were sent to Sullivan to set. As Sullivan composed, Gilbert got around to the dialogue. The completed libretto emerged as rehearsals began on Act I and Sullivan’s completed score might not arrive until much later.
Of course, Sullivan received Trial by Jury as a fait accompli. The opera opened on March 25, 1875 and was an immediate hit. Coming at the end of an evening of Offenbach, there may have been consternation as to its reception, but the audience and critics immediately recognized it as a miniature masterpiece. Punch crowed:
In Trial by Jury, both Mr. Words and Mr. Music have worked together and for the first quarter of an hour the Cantata (as they have called it) is the funniest bit of nonsense your representative has seen for a considerable time.
The Times concurred:
To judge by the unceasing and almost boisterous hilarity which formed a sort of running commentary on the part of the audience, Trial by Jury suffered nothing whatever from so dangerous a juxtaposition [with Offenbach]. On the contrary, it may fairly be said to have borne away the palm.”
The Daily News summarized what would become the story of the newly forged partnership, for good or ill:
So completely [are words and music] imbued with the same spirit that it would be as difficult to conceive the existence of Mr. Gilbert’s verses without Mr. Sullivan’s music, as of Mr. Sullivan’s music without Mr. Gilbert’s verses. Each gives each a double charm.
Carte was delighted and perhaps he alone understood that he had captured lightening in a bottle with these two. For Gilbert’s part, he moved on to his next musical, Eyes and No Eyes with composer Florian Pascal. Sullivan had moved on to write The Zoo with B.C. Stephenson. Carte organized a touring company to take Trial by Jury on the road, once again as companion to Offenbach’s La Perichole. Carte was bouncing on his heels to present another new opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, but he had not a theater of his own in which to produce it. He had given over management of the Royal to Charles Morton. Carte was prospecting for investors to remount Thespis for the Christmas season, and he had approached Gilbert to explore terms, who, in turn, wrote to Sullivan with his proposal:
They seem very anxious to have it and wanted me to name definite terms. Of course, I couldn’t answer for you, but they pressed me so much to give them an idea of what or terms were likely to be that I suggested that possibly we might be disposed to accept two guineas a night each with a guarantee of 100 nights minimum…
Gilbert had a head for and interest in business not shared by Sullivan and often negotiated terms for both of them. He was always scrupulously fair with Sullivan in such matters, and would go to bat for him if he sensed anything was amiss. However, Gilbert sometimes read impropriety where there was none, and his sense of equity and justice could be taken too far, especially since he had a blind spot when it came to seeing another fellow’s point of view.
During the two years between Trial by Jury and the formation of Carte’s Comedy Opera Company, which would be inaugurated by a new G & S collaboration, Gilbert was embroiled in several acrimonious disputes, which isolated him professionally and personally. On a personal note, he had fallen out with his dear friend John Hare over the production of Gilbert’s new play Broken Hearts (1875). Hare typically directed all of the plays produced in his theater. We have already seen to what length Gilbert would go to see a play of his performed exactly as he visioned it, and Broken Hearts was the work that Gilbert later said contained the “most of himself.” It was a serious piece, seriously intended. Hare and Gilbert, both hotheads, clashed, though they patched things up before the opening. Below the surface, hard feelings festered and emerged later when Hare wrote to Gilbert (who blamed Hare for Broken Hearts’ lukewarm reception):
…you rarely let an opportunity pass without reminding me that you think the piece will be a great success when revived and “properly done.” …Highly as I value your work, I value your friendship more.
Hare banned Gilbert from his theater.
Meanwhile, Gilbert declared war on Henrietta Hodson, an actress with whom he had had a strained relationship from the start. In 1874, three years before their pamphlet war began, Miss Hodson, thinking she was sitting on a chair, landed with a thud on her rump on the floor while rehearsing one of Gilbert’s plays. Gilbert laughed, “Very good, very good. I always thought you would make an impression on the stage one day!” Miss Hodson failed to see the humor in the incident and lost her temper. Both yelled things they would later regret, and there was no reconciliation.
In 1877, Pygmalion and Galatea was about to be revived with Hodson in a leading role. Gilbert objected on the grounds that he could not direct a leading lady with whom he was not on speaking terms. Hodson, the contracted prima donna of the company threatened to sue. Gilbert relented in this instance, but in rehearsal, according to the actress, Gilbert was deliberately provocative, never addressing her directly and chatting with others while she rehearsed. Gilbert, on the other hand, had been meticulous about making sure that “no act or word [of his] smacked of discourtesy to the lady.” Of course no word can be discourteous if you speak no word. Eventually, Henrietta Hodson, convinced that Gilbert had had her fired after her contract was not renewed, released a pamphlet based on her recollections, which were impossible for Gilbert to prove false. Gilbert retaliated with his own pamphlet and so it went to rather embarrassing lengths.
During this time, Gilbert’s parents were separating. Gilbert took his father’s part. Here, another chasm opened which would never be bridged, between either son and mother, or husband and wife, despite the many efforts of the son.
With tattered personal relationships and his professional reputation tarnished, Gilbert was in need of something to repair his dented prestige. Carte’s proposal for a two act comic opera with Sullivan came at the right time. The income would be particularly welcome, as Gilbert had just bought a new house.
The Sorcerer opened on November 17, 1877. Gilbert, nervous to the point of breaking, escorted his wife and their guests to his box and left the theater to get some air. He needn’t have worried. His intensive rehearsal period, combined with his words and Sullivan’s music garnered audience hilarity and glowing praise:
Messrs. W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan have once again combined their efforts with the happiest result…A more careful performance of a new work of its kind has rarely been witnessed…[Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan were called to the stage] amid applause, the genuine nature of which could never once have been mistaken. In short, the audience was diverted from the rise of the curtain to the fall, and the laughter was incessant. (The London Times)
The success of The Sorcerer held out the tantalizing promise of a great commercial enterprise. Much has been written about the parade of operetta which followed close on the heels of The Sorcerer. Suffice it to say that together, D’Oyly Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan built an operetta empire, which made all three famous, influential and fabulously wealthy. But it all fell apart, and much of the reason for its ruin is found in Gilbert’s personality.
With a man such as Gilbert, one can understand why he might be reluctant to write a libretto for a grand opera. In Opera Proper, after all, works tend to be credited solely to the composer. It is Bizet’s Carmen, or Verdi’s Otello, even with such fine librettists as Halévy and Boito. Gilbert knew enough about opera to know that if the music were granted the stature that Sullivan longed for it, the balance implicit in Gilbert and Sullivan would shift to Sullivan. Gilbert had no desire to be a subordinate. He had strong, specific ideas on the role of music in comedy, and it is beneath the shoe of the words, underscoring the humor. It is a testament both to Sullivan’s talent and to Gilbert’s respect for it that Gilbert developed so obviously as a librettist in his work with Sullivan.
At the beginning of their partnership, there was no artistic tension. Thespis was a lark, and Trial by Jury was presented to Sullivan finished. Sullivan cannot have viewed it as much more than a one-off. The Sorcerer was a new experience for both of them, and they seem to have been in accord. As the association progressed, however, both may have found themselves alarmed at the very real danger their partnership presented to their artistic independence of each other. Critics badgered Sullivan for his lack of “serious” music after he took up with Gilbert. They expected more of him. This must have grated on Gilbert. Critics didn’t needle him to produce something more substantial. He was not the next best hope for English theater. Sullivan was viewed as England’s ticket out of musical mediocrity.
One can see cracks in the façade as early as their first trip to the United States:
Gilbert, more than a little nettled by the immense popularity of the Pinafore music, which he heard praised wherever he went, while only the silliest of his own words were quoted, could not help displaying the superiority of wit to tunes in public; and when the partners were being entertained he was included to make a butt of Sullivan. No doubt he believed that his fun was good-natured, but the pointed way in which he expressed it pained the more sensitive nature of the composer…”
Sullivan was incredibly facile. He knew that he could write whatever was necessary to accommodate Gilbert’s words. He didn’t need to work as hard to match Gilbert’s genius as Gilbert did to match his. Sullivan had the luxury to wait for Gilbert to create words, judge them and then set them. Gilbert had always had to sweat over something new, and he had a limited palette of “new.” Gilbert had to work harder than Sullivan in some ways because he invariably wanted something original (to himself) and not based on another man’s work. Undoubtedly, this limited “topsy-turvy-dom” bored Sullivan, just as subordinating lush orchestration and expansive melody to Gilbert’s clever words eventually irked him. He wanted a libretto to write a “real” opera to, provided by Gilbert, his great muse, despite their differences. Gilbert could only see this as a request to make himself ancillary to Sullivan.
This was not true from Sullivan’s point of view, although he had difficulty articulating his needs well enough for Gilbert to understand. Or perhaps, Gilbert did not want to understand. Sullivan wanted the music “to act in its own proper sphere,” by which he meant he wanted his music to have the opportunity to “intensify the emotional element not only of the words, but the situation.” Gilbert refused to comprehend and, instead offered to withdraw temporarily and allow Sullivan to write his opera without a Gilbert libretto.
What do you say to this—provided that Carte consents. Write your opera to another man’s libretto. I will willingly retire for one turn. It may well be that you are cramped by setting so many libretti of the same author, and that a new man with a new style will start a new train of musical ideas. I suggest this because I am absolutely at a loss to know what it is you want from me. You will understand how faintly I grasp your meaning when I tell you that your objections to my libretto really seem arbitrary and capricious. That they are nothing of the kind I am well persuaded—but, for all that, I can’t fathom them.
Both artists had signed a contract shortly after Princess Ida in 1873 to provide Carte with five operas for the Savoy. Sullivan, threatened with Gilbert pulling out, sought a compromise. He announced that he would be content with a plot “without supernatural and impromptu elements.” Gilbert answered with The Mikado, one of their most enduring works. But the essential artistic quarrel was not over by a long shot. Time and again Gilbert’s delight in his own words trumped any other artistic expression. During rehearsals for The Mikado, Durvard Lely, who created the role of Nanki-Poo recalled:
“Very good, Lely, very good indeed,” said Gilbert at a rehearsal; “But I have just come down from the back seat in the gallery, and there were one or two words which failed to reach me quite distinctly. Sullivan’s music is, of course, very beautiful, and I heard every note without difficulty, but I think my words are not altogether without merit, and ought also to be heard without undue effort. Please pay particular attention to the consonants, the Ms, the Ns and particularly the Ss.”
On the surface, this seems fair enough, but, if one is a singer, one knows that the role of Nanki-Poo is high, and Ms, Ns and Ss shut down the vocal production and make it much more difficult to sing the notes. In the balance between words and music, it is clear which Gilbert favored.
This conflict only escalated during The Yeomen of the Guard. Had Sullivan not been in need of income due to gambling debts, there might have been no The Gondoliers after his experiences trying to set Gilbert’s impossible words for Yeomen. In Gondoliers, though, after much gnashing of teeth, Gilbert proved himself more than capable of writing for music in a way which allowed Sullivan more creative freedom. Why he would not continue in this vein, when it would inspire an even more perfect union of text and tunes, is an astounding mystery. According to David Eden, author of Gilbert & Sullivan: The Creative Conflict, it was “not his art, but his ego which stood in the way.” This impediment would eventually damage the relationship beyond repair and leave them all but un-reconciled until Sullivan’s death.
The Gondoliers was the last truly successful pairing of G & S, and it sparked the infamous Carpet Quarrel, which was the disastrous death knell for the team of Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan. Though they would limp along after its conclusion, their relationships would never be the same and the work would suffer mediocrity.
Throughout their long association, Gilbert had never truly understood or appreciated what Richard D’Oyly Carte did for the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta enterprise. The first whiff of Gilbert’s contempt for Carte’s role came shortly after their first American tour. At this point, Gilbert was taking a percentage of the company’s profits and wanted to negotiate more. Gilbert challenged Carte directly and in the most insulting terms possible. What, Gilbert wondered, did Carte bring to the table that a salaried manager hired by himself and Sullivan for £1,000 could not do just as well? He badgered Carte constantly about the accounts, implying Carte was either dishonest or incompetent.
Gilbert suspected Carte was dishonest. Carte was a businessman, often involved in speculation outside of the theatrical realm. He did quite well, and in this way increased his personal wealth. Carte knew that to make money you sometimes had to spend money, and he borrowed from banks on occasion to forward his business concerns. Carte had cherished ambitions to build an opera house. Gilbert insisted on “sticking in his oar” at every juncture—even where he had never held sway before. He believed Carte might be skimming company money to finance his own ambitions or to pay for theater expenses on the business rather than the artistic side—expenses that were not the responsibility of the artists to pay. The first suspicion was manifestly untrue. The second would evolve into the Carpet Quarrel.
Just what did Carte do for the company? He pushed Gilbert and Sullivan to partner in the first place; he managed the initial investors in the Comic Opera Company, and, when they became too mettlesome, he joined forces with Gilbert and Sullivan to form their own organization; he built the Savoy Theater; he put together and, with the help of the second Mrs. Carte, managed the myriad official tours of the Savoy operas throughout the world. Had Gilbert by stepped back and looked beyond himself, he would have seen that Carte was as much a part of his vast financial fortunes as he and Sullivan were of Carte’s.
At the time of the notorious Carpet Quarrel, Carte was once again deeply invested in various speculations (among them a wine concern), as well as moving forward with his opera house. All of this was expensive, and Gilbert wondered where the money was coming from. He didn’t know that Carte was on solid financial footing and in no personal difficulty.
The situation came to a head when Gilbert reviewed the initial costs for The Gondoliers, which stood at the princely sum of £4500. Among the expenses listed were upgrades to the front of house, specifically new carpet for the lobby and stairs. The contract was ambiguous and could be honestly interpreted by conscientious minds in different ways.
Gilbert believed he and Sullivan were “liable only for ‘repairs incidental to the performances’” and improvements to the lobby were not incidental to performances. Carte answered in an uncharacteristically angry way that as patrons traipsed through the lobby on their way to the theater, the wear and tear was most certainly “incidental to the production.” They were tenants of the theater, and if they did not want to pay a percentage for the upkeep of said theater then “in that case we would make the rent £5000 instead of £4000.”
“Then you will have to find a new author for the Savoy.”
“That might be practicable.”
Carte standing up for himself so strongly sent Gilbert into a rage. After another insulting exchange, in which Carte suggested that Gilbert connect with Sullivan and consider a new agreement if he was so discontent, Gilbert left.
“I have had a difficulty with Carte,” he wrote to Sullivan the next day. He then proceeded to enumerate his various grievances with The Gondoliers expenditures, the disastrous exchanged, and finally soliciting Sullivan’s support in moving forward.
Sullivan replied gently and noncommittally and proposed a meeting. Letters continued to fly about, each more inflammatory than the last, and Sullivan found himself caught in the middle. While he disliked conflict, he knew that his desire to produce a serious opera might well depend upon Carte. Besides, he agreed with Carte that the carpets were necessary and a shared expense. Sullivan felt that Gilbert was quibbling. Gilbert lawyered up and the quarrel landed in court—and the papers.
“When Mr. Gilbert does quarrel with anybody, they know it.” (The Star, 1890)
Matters were complicated when Carte’s lawyers advised him to hold payment on the next quarter’s profits until the matter was resolved. Gilbert again brought suit, winning this battle, but ultimately losing the war over the carpet. Gilbert proposed arbitration in order to reconcile any other differences.
Sullivan was still bitter and hurt that he had been included in Gilbert’s suit:
I solemnly believe that you plunged without forethought into these disastrous proceedings in a fit of uncontrolled anger greatly influenced by the bad health you were suffering from. I have not yet got over the shock of seeing our names coupled, not in brilliant collaboration over a work destined for world-wide celebrity, but in hostile antagonism over a few miserable pounds.
Once again, a rift had been opened that would be difficult to overcome. Gilbert and Sullivan partnered twice more, but Utopia, Ltd. (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896) were a pale substitute for their former glories.
During the Carpet Quarrel, Gilbert bought a beautiful, stately home, Grim’s Dyke, where he was to live out the rest of his days. Here he could create the idealized fairyland of which he always wrote. He surrounded himself with animals, both exotic and more prosaic. (Gilbert was the first to successfully breed a lemur in England). He and Kitty often entertained the many children of family and friends. He had a lake built, in which, weather and health permitting, he swam daily. He was very happy here and the life within the confines of the manor and its grounds was gracious, peaceful and commodious. Here, he was able to abandon his fractiousness and relax.
Gilbert’s was a distinctive personality. He was quick to take offense and even quicker to demand redress. Yet, within his set of rules, he was always generous, seeking reconciliation as soon as he had won his point, but seemingly incapable of understanding why his olive branches might be rebuffed. He could be doggedly loyal to the point of madness, as when he championed the cause of the mediocre singer, Nancy McIntosh, to the dismay of both Sullivan and Carte. McIntosh would open still more wounds among them after the Carpet Quarrel. But Nancy McIntosh became like a daughter to Gilbert and his wife, and he would have her in his shows, until she stepped aside of her own accord. Gilbert loved animals and children and young ladies (though there is no evidence of impropriety as some biographers have suggested). He was a cynic who believed this world fallen, but a Romantic who longed for a better. He died rescuing a young lady from drowning in Grim’s Dyke’s pond on May 29, 1911.
“It was a very honorable end to a great and distinguished career.”
~~Dr. Gordon Hogg, coroner~~
“I have chosen Music, and I shall go on, because nothing in the world would interest me so much. I may not make a lot of money, but I shall have Music, and that will make up if I don’t.”
~~Arthur Sullivan, aged 13~~
Of course, Arthur Sullivan did make money. A lot of money. And he was the intimate of lords and ladies, politicians, wealthy businessmen, the Prince of Wales, and even, to a limited extent, Her Very Royal Highness, Queen Victoria herself. He was the darling of Victorian society, knighted at 41 (twenty-four years before his collaborator W.S. Gilbert), and touted as the greatest English composer of his age—and his reach well beyond England and the Americas.
“Greatness” is tricky to measure during a lifetime. Sullivan’s “serious” music—the music he wanted to write, that was supposedly “worthy” of him (both in his own mind and in those of his Victorian critics) suffered in the decades after his death. Measured against an “ideal of greatness,” a Romantic Era notion, Sullivan doesn’t stand up. For those using this yardstick, Sullivan couldn’t be great in the way a Wagner or a Beethoven was great. Wagner, who never subjugated anything of himself in his pursuit of gesamkunstwerk, wrote everything himself—libretto and score. Beethoven did not collaborate either, and his one opera, Fidelio, while containing some glorious music, did not inspire him to another. These two towering geniuses are as much a product of philosophy and timing as talent. Sullivan was not a Romantic. He did not have patronage. He was a man from a poor background, in a society with few social safety nets, rigidly controlled by a strict sense of propriety, trying to make his living as a composer in England which, historically, did not have a strong indigenous art music tradition. In order to be heard, necessitated that he write what the public wanted. That Sullivan managed the harmonic and chromatic complexity he did, in a milieu which viewed with suspicious distaste any sort of musical discord is miraculous, and indicative of a talent hampered by his time and circumstance, rather than a lack of native ability.
None should ever question Sullivan’s intrinsic talent. Gilbert’s librettos would be beyond a lesser composer. The words did not allow a composer to express expansive emotion musically. Sullivan’s genius deftly picked through the rough terrain of clever words to lend Gilbert a musicality his libretto’s lacked. The quality that made Arrigo Boito a magnificent librettist for Verdi was his ability to create with his words a canvas for music. Gilbert didn’t much care about that. Sullivan’s music elevated Gilbert’s words, and Gilbert’s words, at their best, demanded resources and creativity of Sullivan that his facile talent might have allowed to lie fallow, had he not been pushed by Gilbert’s challenge.
Sullivan’s father, Thomas Sullivan, said goodbye to his parents at twelve years old, when his soldiering father was transferred to St. Helena. At fifteen, he had completed his education at the Royal Military Asylum (a free school for the children of active-duty soldiers), and having little in the way of options, presented himself at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, where he embarked upon his musical career.
“Thomas Sullivan is one of the most remarkable people we have ever had here—he is what we have lacked—a real musician,” wrote Sullivan Sr.’s commanding officer. He spent fourteen years as a clarinetist in the military band before he was discharged and entered civilian life as a music teacher in London. After establishing himself, albeit tenuously, he married Clementina Coghlan, and settled down to have a family. Following the birth of their second son Arthur (preceded by Frederick), it was apparent that despite his hard work, Thomas could not support his family as a music teacher in the inexpensive neighborhood they could afford, so the young father rejoined the army at Sandhurst, now as the bandmaster.
Young Arthur Sullivan was born into an affectionate, demonstrative, happy family on May 13, 1842. His father’s profession provided a genial introduction to music and an economical route to an intimate knowledge of all of the instruments in his father’s band. Thomas gave his son solid instruction in music theory, and by age eight, Arthur wrote his first church anthem, By the Waters of Babylon, I Sat Down and Wept. This accomplishment convinced his father that Arthur’s musical talent should be nurtured, so he was duly enrolled in a private school which allowed him to study singing and piano. On a borrowed piano. However, young Arthur wanted much more and began to lobby his father to send him to a choir school—and not just any choir school. Arthur wanted the best, so he set his lofty goal on Chapel Royal, the choir of which served the royal family. Here Purcell had been a choir boy, and here Arthur Sullivan wished to go.
Arthur had to work for two years to convince his father to agree to Chapel Royal. Thomas was committed to a strong general education for his son, and he feared too much music would distract him from his studies. There was no real question that Arthur would be anything other than a musician though, and when he was twelve, his father allowed himself to be persuaded.
In due course, Mr. Peel, Arthur’s current headmaster, who had encouraged his talented pupil’s musical enthusiasm, escorted the boy to see Sir George Smart, composer and organist of Chapel Royal, to petition for admittance as a chorister.
“I went to Sir G. Smart yesterday afternoon,” the boy wrote home breathlessly. “He is a funny old gentleman. He patted me on the head and told me I must go to Mr. Helmore on Onslow Square, Brompton.”
Dutifully, Arthur and Mr. Peel called round to Mr. Henmore.
“Little Sullivan has called here this evening. I liked his appearance and manners. His voice is good, and if arrangements can be made to obviate the difficulty of his age being greater than the probationhers in general, I shall be glad to give him a trial...”
While at Chapel Royal, Arthur and the other nine boys in the choir lived with Mr. Helmore and his family about two and a half miles away from the chapel at St. James Palace where the boys sang. Twice each Sunday and feast day the boys, dressed in their chapel finery of heavy red and gold coats, hiked the five mile round trip down the boisterous street which ran along the Thames. The walk was long and tiring and even dangerous. Presenting a vivid contrast to their surroundings in their grand coats, the boys made an easy target for the less-fortunate rowdies on their route, necessitating that they hike up their skirts and hot-foot it home in at least one instance!
Sullivan did well at Chapel Royal and became very popular. He was a handsome boy with an easy air about him. He possessed of a fine sense of humor and a lovely clear treble voice, which earned him many solos (and, in turn, pats on the head and pocket money). He was happy, engrossed in the choir and his musical instruction.
In 1856, his diligence and talent was rewarded. The Royal Academy of Music had newly established a scholarship in honor of Felix Mendelssohn. The scholarship was to provide the funds for one boy to study, first at the Royal Academy and then at the conservatory in Leipzig. Arthur was determined to audition, and after the initial examination on June twenty-eighth, found himself one of only two boys left. He and his rival were once again tested on July fourth and sent home after the grueling examination to await the results. After waiting all afternoon on tenterhooks, Arthur received the letter informing him that he had won the scholarship and would be attending the Royal Academy of Music in the fall. He was ecstatic and credited that day as one of his proudest. He framed the letter and it was in his possession until his death.
That first year at the academy, Sullivan had to split his time between college and chorus. That clear treble of his had not yet broken at a mere fourteen years of age, and his services were still required. His head was abuzz with his new studies: piano, violin, composition and season tickets to the Philharmonic (bought dear by his devoted father).
He completed his first year triumphantly and was again awarded the Mendelssohn scholarship. Following another fine year at the Academy, it was decided that the youth should be sent on to study in Leipzig, a move which would color the rest of his career, both musically, and with the friends he was to make. One of these was Clara Barnett, who would grow up to become an accomplished singer. In her memoir, she gives her first impression of Sullivan:
I turned and beheld, standing in the doorway, a smiling youth with an oval, olive-tinted face, dark eyes, a large generous mouth and a thick crop of dark curly hair, which overhung his low forehead. His whole attitude was so free and unconstrained one would have thought he had always been there!
Clara had, at first, a crush on the young Sullivan, which was not reciprocated as he felt her too young for him. He became close friends with her family, and his friendship with her would, like so many of Sullivan’s acquaintances, last a lifetime. One story will give the reader an idea of Sullivan’s winning ways concern’s the fourteen year old Clara soon after they first met. Clara had written a string quartet, and one evening, after it had just been completed, Sullivan came upon the score on the Barnett family piano. Again from Clara’s memoir:
“Who wrote this?” quoth he.
“I did; it is my Quartet” quoth I, snappishly, at the same time attempting to snatch it from him.
“Oh, no,” he laughed teasingly, “you can’t have it now. I’ve got it. I’m going to keep it till I’ve had a good look at it.”
…After he had examined it attentively, he looked at me curiously from head to foot, as if I was a new kind of creature he had never seen before. “Well done, little girl!” he exclaimed heartily…and behold, I was the happiest, most triumphant being in creation at that moment!”
But Sullivan did not let this “little girl’s” Quartet rest with only his admiration. Conspiring with her mother, he gained access to her score and took it away with him. Knowing it was unlikely that Clara would ever hear her work played, he wrote out the parts to the quartet, rounded up the best players he could find, rehearsed them all in secret, contrived a special dinner party at the Barnett home, and after a pleasant dinner, surprised Clara by playing her quartet.
“What was my bewilderment when I saw the four players seated gravely at their desks, Sullivan near them in a convenient position to turn the leaves—and—what I heard as in a dream was the introduction to the first movement of my Quartet! It was too much! My sensations cannot be described; I only know that I burst into tears, and that I sat listening to my composition, my face hidden from view to hide an emotion which I could not control! It was so wonderful to hear played what had existed only in my imagination!”
During Sullivan’s time in Leipzig, his father was industrious in the background to ensure that his son had the resources (however meager) to continue his studies. When Sir George Smart suggested that Arthur stay on in Leipzig after his scholarship ended to finish his matriculation, Thomas Sullivan took on extra students to enable him to do so. He was to be rewarded by his son’s industry.
“I am writing music to The Tempest,” Sullivan had written his father. In 1861, Sullivan heard part of this score played in a concert. He was called to the stage three times and congratulated personally by Mendelssohn’s brother. Three days later, he received his diploma and soon after, headed home eager to honor his parents and teachers by launching his professional music career. He was nineteen years old.
Once home, he found that making a living as a composer, then as now, was no mean feat. He took on students—which he hated. He was not a gifted teacher, and he did not enjoy teaching, though he was to serve in various educational capacities for much of his life. He also became the organist and choir master at St. Michael’s Church. He loved the work and was at it for eight years. Of his chorus he wrote:
We were well off for somprani and contraltyi, but at first I was at my wit’s end for tenors and basses. However, close by St. Michael’s Church was Cottage Row Police Station, and here I completed my choir. The Chief Superintendent threw himself heartily into my schemes and from the Police I gathered six tenors and six basses, with a small reserve. However, tired they might be when they came off duty, they never missed a practice; I used to think of them sometimes when composing the music for The Pirates of Penzance.
But church music and teaching were not where Sullivan wanted to make his mark. After all, his professors in Leipzig felt that he possessed more natural talent than even Brahms. He could live up to this plaudit only by making his way as a composer. Which would require influential friends to open doors for him.
Henry Chorley was one such friend. Chorley was an important music critic with significant connections. He arranged for selections from The Tempest to be played at a private party and invited George Grove who, at that time, was the secretary of the Crystal Palace where he arranged the concert schedule. Later, he would become the founding editor of The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Grove enthusiastically organized a performance of Sullivan’s work at the Crystal Palace for April 5, 1862. Sullivan reminisced:
It is not exaggeration to say that I woke up the next morning to find myself famous. The papers, one and all gave me most favorable notices and the success was so great that The Tempest music was repeated on the following Saturday.
After [this second performance] was over, Charles Dickens…met me as I came out of the Artists Room. He seized my hand with his iron grip and said, “I don’t pretend to know much about Music, but I do know I have been listening to a very great work.
This, of course, was grand, but one work wouldn’t pay the bills. Years later, Sullivan wrote:
I was ready to undertake anything that came my way. Symphonies, overtures, ballets, anthems, hymn tunes, songs, part songs, a concerto for the violoncello, and eventually comic and light operas—nothing came amiss to me, and I gladly accepted what the publishers offered me, so long as I could get the thing accepted.
For us, Sullivan is inextricably linked to Gilbert and the comic operettas they wrote together, but early in his career, he made his living and reputation with hymns and parlor songs, among other things. He continued writing them throughout his career. Initially, like many other young composers, he sold his parlor songs to publishers for a flat rate, which, given their increasing popularity, was making a lot of money for publishers, but not so much for Sullivan. Grove urged him to change the arrangement:
My next song, Will He Come? went to Messrs. Boosey, on the understanding that I was to have a royalty on every copy sold. And oh! the difference to me! I did very well and never sold a song outright afterward.
The Tempest had opened many doors for Sullivan. Chorley ushered Sullivan into social circles which brought the young composer to the attention of many important people. Soon after the Crystal Palace performance, Sullivan accompanied the wealthy Lehman family, Charles Dickens and Chorley to Paris, where he met Rossini, who admired The Tempest. In what must have been a thrilling moment, Sullivan found himself playing a four hands piano arrangement of the work! Then he was back to work playing organ for the Sunday service. Such was the early career of Sullivan—a heady mix of wealthy drawing rooms filled with the influential and famous, packed auditoriums, and then the completely prosaic routines of his working life. Back in England for less than two years, Sullivan was a rising musical star. His talent, handsome face and pretty manners were making him a favorite guest, which smoothed the path to continued success.
By 1863, he was commissioned to write music for the wedding of the Prince of Wales. After presenting his two marches and song at the Crystal Palace, he was finally able to quit teaching private lessons and set his parents up in a new home where, for the first time, they were able to live alone and have a servant.
Sullivan was on his way. He was writing music the public wanted and was still young enough for critics to continue to expect “great things” without them having to be imminent. Not only did he compose, he kept up a punishing professional schedule of conducting and administration (for scholarship committees, music festivals and eventually for the Royal College of Music.) His social circle was rapidly expanding, and maintaining his friendships took a great deal of time. Sullivan worked hard in intense bursts and then required copious amounts of play—which included gambling and womanizing.
Sullivan had only a handful of serious relationships, only one of which was even remotely likely to have ended in marriage. Sullivan and Rachel Scott Russell were a serious couple from 1865 to 1870, during which time, Sullivan was also an intimate of the family. Rachel’s wealthy parents disapproved of a match with the young composer, unable to imagine to what heights he would soar. Rachel was a hopeless romantic, desperately invested in Sullivan’s “serious” music, sure that the creation of an “immortal masterpiece” equated to his dedication to her. After all, if he could prove himself a great artist, her parents could have no objection to the match. For his part, after a rather frank discussions with Rachel’s mother, Sullivan’s ardor (or at least his honorable intentions) seems to have cooled—a development reflected in Rachel’s sad, confused, and ultimately, irritated letters. In the meantime, a relationship developed with her elder sister, Louise. These two relationships were carried on clandestinely until 1870.
Unlike Gilbert, Sullivan never married, although he enjoyed the circumspect favors of many young ladies. His most emotionally stable relationship was with the wealthy American Fanny Ronalds. Their affair lasted 20 or more years. Fanny was married and never divorced, which provided Sullivan with the useful impossibility of marrying. Though not exclusive—at least on Sullivan’s part—Fanny was as close to a wife as Sullivan would ever get.
Much has been written about Sullivan’s partnership with Gilbert and the conflicts that arose between two such different temperaments. Their individual geniuses seem to have been uniquely suited to be yoked, however—perhaps to the detriment of Sullivan’s ambitions. Sullivan’s facility, musicianship and flexibility were invaluable to their joint projects, and without Sullivan’s peculiarly “external” manner of composing, there would be no G & S. His 1864 description of rehearsals for his ballet, L’Isle Enchantée, illustrates how very lucky Gilbert was to have fallen in with such a one as Sullivan:
On one occasion…I was admiring the “borders” that had been painted for a woodland scene. “Yes,” said the painter, “they are very delicate, and if you could support them by something suggestive in the orchestra, we could get a very pretty effect.” I at once put in some very delicate arpeggio work for the flutes, and Beverley [the artist] was quite happy. The next day…Mr. Sloman [the stage machinist, said] “That iron doesn’t run in the slot so easily as I should like, Mr. Sullivan. We must have a little more music to carry her [a dancer] across. I should like something for the cellos. Could you do it?”
“Certainly, Mr. Sloman, you have opened a new path in the beauty of orchestration,” I replied gravely, and I at once added sixteen bars for the cello alone. No sooner was this done than a [solo dance] was required, at the last moment for the second danseuse, who had just arrived.
“What on earth am I to do?” I said to the manager; “I haven’t seen her dance yet, and know nothing about her style.” “I’ll see,” he replied, and took the young lady aside. In less than five minutes he returned. “I’ve arranged it all,” he said. “This is exactly what she wants”—giving it to me rhythmically—“Tiddle-iddle-um, tiddle-iddle-um, rum-tirum-tirum, sixteen bars of that; then rum-tum, rum-tum, rum-tum, heavy, you know, sixteen bars; and then finish up with the overture to William Tell last movement, sixteen bars and coda.”
With a celebrity which he has equaled on many occasions at a much later date, the composer wrote the necessary quantity of “that” and it was in process of rehearsal in less than a quarter of an hour. (David Eden’s Gilbert & Sullivan: The Creative Conflict, 1986)
Needless to say, Gilbert wouldn’t have gotten that kind of attitude from Wagner.
Sullivan was an established artist by the time that Gilbert and he began to collaborate. Both he and
Gilbert were influential in their respective fields. Their first collaboration was for a Christmas “extravaganza” during the peculiarly English “pantomime season.” The resulting work, Thespis, premiered on December 26, 1871. Many authors have accused this work of being a failure, which is odd, since it ran happily until the end of the panto season, which was certainly all that it was designed to do. We cannot judge for ourselves, as the score has been lost. At any rate, it seems not to have made such an impression upon Gilbert or Sullivan, as they did not pursue further collaborations until the ambitious visionary Richard D’Oyly Carte moved heaven and earth to harness the two together.
Carte wanted to create an English school operetta. At this time in England, a domestic operatic form was practically non-existent. Popular entertainment included adaptations of the French comic operas of Offenbach, Audran or Lecocq. These were often “adapted” beyond recognition or parodied in risqué burlesques, unsuitable for polite audiences. Carte wanted something altogether different, and after Thespis, he saw potent potential in the G & S partnership.
In 1875, after taking up the management of the Royalty Theatre, Carte approached the two for a short comic opera to be an “after-piece” to an Offenbach he was producing. The libretto for Trial by Jury had already been completed by Gilbert, in anticipation of composer Carl Rosa setting it, but Rosa’s wife, and the leading lady, had died unexpectedly, shelving the project. Gilbert dusted it off for Sullivan, who ran with it, and the extraordinary, symbiotic creative industrial complex of Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte began.
After the first night of Trial by Jury, there was no question in Carte’s mind that Gilbert and Sullivan operas were the key to a new English operatic renaissance. He created a company just for comic opera and engaged Gilbert and Sullivan for more operas. They cropped up quickly, starting with The Sorcerer in 1877, which “diverted [the audience] from the rise of the curtain to fall, and the laughter was incessant.” From 1877 to 1884, Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte built an operetta empire, with each opera more popular than the last.
H.M.S. Pinafore, hit the boards in 1878, and though it started a little slow, its popularity soon reached a sort of mania, which so covered the British Isles that it floated over the Atlantic and also infected the Americans. The rather lax copyright laws in the United States prompted Gilbert and Sullivan, led by the enterprising Carte, to premiere their next opera, The Pirates of Penzance the following year. Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882) and Princess Ida (1884) followed in rapid succession, before the first significant crack appeared in the partnership’s professional veneer.
Sullivan was becoming sensitive to how the comic operas were affecting his reputation, and critical reviews like the following did not help:
We cannot suppress a word of regret that the composer on whom, before all others, a national school of music depends should confine himself or be confined by circumstances, to a class of production which, however attractive, is hardly worthy of the efforts of an accomplished and serious artist. (The Times, London, 1878)
Or how about: “Oh, what might have been, or still might be if Mr. Sullivan would attempt a genuine dramatic effort!” (The Times, London, 1879)
Such criticism stung Sullivan. During rehearsals for Princess Ida, Sullivan had become terribly ill. His health was never robust and he suffered from kidney stones throughout his life. This bout of sickness frightened Sullivan and his mortality was in his mind, after having watched his friend and contemporary, Fred Clay, suffer the after-effects of a devastating stroke. Undoubtedly, this contributed to the feeling of urgency that now was the time to turn to serious work and give up comic operas.
Unfortunately for Sullivan, Carte had a contract which stipulated more G & S operas, and as the receipts for Princess Ida dwindled he gave the pair his six months’ notice for a new show. Feeling better, Sullivan was less adamant, but made it clear that he did not wish to continue in the same vein that the operas had taken:
I will be frank. With Princess Ida I have come to the end of my tether—the end of my capability in that class of piece. It has hitherto been word setting. I might almost say syllable setting, for I have looked upon the words everywhere of such importance that I have continually been keeping down the music in order that not one should be lost…I should like to set a story of human interest and probability, where humorous words come in a humorous (not serious) situation, and where, if the situation were a tender of dramatic one, the words would be of a similar character.”
Needless to say, Gilbert felt attacked and his artistry impugned. Prickly in the best of circumstances, Gilbert fired back a letter protesting his lack of understanding of Sullivan’s point and the “considerable pain” the letter had caused him.
Letters flew back and forth, with each man assuring the other of his regard and groping towards an understanding. Sullivan was demanding that Gilbert shake himself out of his rut and come up with a completely new idea. As Michael Ainger in his book Gilbert & Sullivan: A Duel Biography puts it:
[In these letters], we can catch a glimpse of the extraordinary effect each of these two men was able to have on the other. Each of them had a high regard and respect for the professional ability, even genius, of the other, and despite their differences, or rather because of them they interacted to an unusual degree.
Eventually, the differences were patched over (but not truly repaired), and the two entered into a Golden Era of success with the brilliant reception of the masterpiece The Mikado in 1885. Two years later Ruddigore appeared, followed by The Yeomen of the Guard (1889) and The Gondoliers (1889).
Throughout this financially triumphant time (sold-out houses and multiple touring companies performing G & S operas throughout Great Britain—indeed the entire Empire—on the continent, the Americas, and even South Africa), Sullivan was still chafing to write a serious opera—with Gilbert, if possible. In 1883, he had been knighted and the critics carped that comic opera was no longer appropriate for Sullivan’s elevated status. But Gilbert felt that to write a “serious” opera, one in which the words would allow musical ideas and values to be more fully developed and dominant would mean that he would have to subordinate himself: “You are an adept in your profession and I am an adept in mine. If we meet, it must be as master & master—not as master and servant.”
Though this continuing argument was settled brilliantly in The Gondoliers, the last great success for the pair, the partnership was soon to be torn asunder by a financial rift, deeply complicated by the psychology of W.S. Gilbert. This dispute came be called The Carpet Quarrel.
Gilbert was ever suspicious of the motivations of impresarios, having been, in his eyes, cheated by one early in his career. Gilbert never understood or appreciated D’Oyly Carte’s contribution to the success of Gilbert and Sullivan, and held the opinion that he was overpaid. Therefore, he had been increasingly intrusive in his “supervision” of the financial arrangements of the company. He accused Carte of diverting funds that rightfully belonged to him and Sullivan by buying new carpet for the Savoy Theater and charging it to the partners’ expenses. The contract is open to interpretation. Against his will, Sullivan was dragged into the midst of the dispute, and the whole unfortunate, sordid, petty mess wound up in court and the papers, creating an ugly chasm among the three men, which would never wholly be bridged.
What it did do was leave Sullivan free to pursue a “serious” opera, which he did with Ivanhoe (1891), which opened Carte’s new Royal Opera House. Some critics have maligned Ivanhoe, calling it a failure. But Ivanhoe ran an unprecedented 155 consecutive performances, more than any other grand opera. What was a failure was Carte’s Royal Opera House. Carte wanted to establish an English opera repertoire, and so ran Ivanhoe in the theater alone, instead of in repertory with other operas. In addition, the Opera House had to compete with the newly popular musical theater form beginning to take hold of various houses in London. After Ivanhoe closed, he was unable to recoup his costs and was forced to sell the theater.
Musically, Ivanhoe’s reputation has suffered at the hands of critics over the years. A recent 2010 recording conducted by David Lloyd-Jones, starring a wealth of British talent, and played passionately and expertly by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales earned a very positive review from the BBC:
“…this is a terrific achievement. From the lively pomp of the jousting scene, with its brilliant double chorus, to moments of exquisite tenderness and passion, to thrilling battles and powerful drama, this recording makes a compelling case for a monumental work that deserves a modern audience.”
For Sullivan, Ivanhoe was “the most important work I have yet written—not only from its magnitude, but from the strength of the musical work I have put into it.”
During the composition and rehearsals of Ivanhoe, Gilbert and Sullivan were slowly making amends. After the failure of the Royal Opera House, Carte was in need of some capitol post-haste, and the resulting operetta, Utopia, Ltd. (1893) was the answer. The most openly satirical of Gilbert’s libretti, it ran an admirable 245 performances, but the old magic was gone. Critics murmured that the words were far inferior to the music. It just felt “off.” The production of their final opera, The Grand Duke (1896) was even more fraught as Gilbert was insistent in his championing of the mediocre singer Nancy McIntosh taking a large role in the production. The opera was not successful, and the wedge driven between the partners created a gap too wide to allow another.
Sullivan went on to write two more completed operas, The Beauty Stone (1898), a failure, and The Rose of Persia (1899), which is still sometimes seen today, and which, with librettist Basil Hood, captures some of the old Savoy sparkle. A final opera, The Emerald Isle was finished posthumously.
Sullivan’s health was once again in decline. In September, 1900, while working on The Emerald Isle for the Cartes, he was struck with a debilitating and exhausting case of neuralgia. By November, his kidney stones were back, causing more excruciating pain and then he contracted a vicious bronchitis which stole away his voice.
On November 7, 1900, Sullivan was forced to write to Helen Carte (Carte’s second wife) that he would be unable to attend the revival of Patience at the Savoy, where he was to have taken a first night curtain call with Gilbert and D’Oyly Carte—all three from elaborate wheel chairs, due to the trio’s ill health.
Gilbert, unaware that Sullivan was dying, wrote a “conciliatory letter …expressing my regret that he could not come tonight and saying that I had looked forward to that opportunity to shake hands over past differences and I am extremely sorry that he is so ill.”
On November 22, 1900, Sullivan suffered a heart attack which mercifully ended his agonies.
Sullivan’s posthumous reputation was severely damaged by “serious” musical critics in the decades following his death. He was maligned by these “serious” musicians for writing music that was popular and too easy for audiences to digest. Despite Sullivan’s sometimes uneven work (due more to the extreme time pressures and the rapidity with which his facility allowed him to compose), the vehemence of the criticism seems unwarranted, and makes it very difficult for modern audiences to give his “serious” music a neutral hearing. During his lifetime, critics considered that it was he who buoyed Gilbert to greatness. Somewhere along the line, that appraisal has been reversed. But is that fair?
For those of us who appreciate Sullivan’s music, an 1898 review sums up his achievements brilliantly:
Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music is music for the people. There is no attempt made to force on the public the dullness of academic experience. The melodies are all as fresh as last year’s wine, and as exhilarating as sparkling champagne. There is not one tune which tires the hearing, and in the manner of orchestration [he] has let himself run riot… All through, we have orchestration of infinite delicacy, tunes of alarming simplicity, but never a hint of vulgarity.”
One hundred years after his death, we perhaps have enough distance to view Sullivan’s genius both in its context as a Victorian composer and as the musical half of the team responsible for bringing us the greatest English-language comic operas ever written. He was a composer who was always skillful, and at the best of times, he transcends the dual limitations of his era and the perceived failings of his oeuvre to be both popular and great.
Portland Opera Debut
Portland Opera Debut
Daniel Gary Busby
Portland Opera Debut
Daniel Gary Busby
Portland Opera Debut
Talise Trevigne — Mabel
SopranoPortland Opera Debut
Talise Trevigne — Mabel
Portland Opera Debut
A passionate supporter and interpreter of contemporary music, Miss Trevigne is featured on Jake Heggie’s latest CD release, ‘here/after, songs of lost voices’ alongside Stephen Costello, Joyce DiDonato and Nathan Gunn. While still a student at Manhattan School of Music, she made her operatic début under the direction of Julius Rudel as Violetta La Traviata, a role for which she won the coveted Royal Philharmonic Award in the UK in Graham Vick’s 2007 production for Birmingham Opera. In her Australian début, Miss Trevigne appeared as The Beloved in the world premiere of Liza Lim’s The Navigator, directed by Barrie Kosky for the Melbourne International Festival, and presented at the Chekhov International Arts Festival in Moscow and at the Bastille in Paris. In Britain, she originated the title role in the world premiere of Judith Weir’s Armida for the BBC, and made her UK stage debut as June Gibbons in the world premiere of Errollyn Wallen’s The Silent Twins with Almeida Opera.
Nicole Haslett — Edith
Previously at Portland Opera: Big Night Concert (2013).
Nicole Haslett — Edith
Previously at Portland Opera: Big Night Concert (2013).
Cindy Sadler — Ruth
Mezzo SopranoPortland Opera Debut
Cindy Sadler — Ruth
Portland Opera Debut
Melissa Fajardo — Kate
Previously at Portland Opera: Lady with a Hat Box, Postcard From Morocco;Alisa, Lucia di Lammermoor (2014); Page, Salome; Big Night Concert (2013).
Called “lush-voiced” by The Oregonian, Melissa Fajardo is a recent graduate of the Eastman School of Music with a master’s in vocal performance.
Melissa Fajardo — Kate
Previously at Portland Opera: Lady with a Hat Box, Postcard From Morocco;Alisa, Lucia di Lammermoor (2014); Page, Salome; Big Night Concert (2013).
Shalanda Sims — Isabel
Portland Opera Debut
Shalanda Sims — Isabel
Portland Opera Debut
Ryan MacPherson — Frederic
Previously at Portland Opera: Man with a Paint Box, Postcard From Morocco (2014); Ferrando, Così fan tutte (2010); Heurtebise, Orphée; Peter Quint / The Master, The Turn of the Screw...
Ryan MacPherson — Frederic
Previously at Portland Opera: Man with a Paint Box, Postcard From Morocco (2014); Ferrando, Così fan tutte (2010); Heurtebise, Orphée; Peter Quint / The Master, The Turn of the Screw (2009).
Robert Orth — Major General Stanley
Previously at Portland Opera: Voltaire / Pangloss / Cacambo / Martin, Candide (2012); Don Alfonso, Così fan tutte (2010); Richard Nixon, Nixon in China (2006); Barone di Trombonok, The Journey To Reims (2004); Alfieri, A View From The Bridge (2003) ...
Robert Orth — Major General Stanley
Previously at Portland Opera: Voltaire / Pangloss / Cacambo / Martin, Candide (2012); Don Alfonso, Così fan tutte (2010); Richard Nixon, Nixon in China (2006); Barone di Trombonok, The Journey To Reims (2004); Alfieri, A View From The Bridge (2003); Voltaire/Pangloss/ Cacambo/Martin, Candide (2002); Agamemnon, La Belle Helene (2001); Ko-Ko, The Mikado (2000); Truffaldino, The Love for Three Oranges (1998); Sharpless, Madame Butterfly (1996); Eisenstein, Die Fledermaus (1994); Malatesta, Don Pasquale (1990); Mercutio, Romeo et Juliette (1987); Marco, Gianni Schicchi (1985); Silvio, Pagliacci (1985).
Alexander Elliott — Samuel
Previously at Portland Opera: Man with a Shoe Sample Kit, Postcard From Morocco (2014); Big Night Concert (2013).
Alexander Elliott — Samuel
Previously at Portland Opera: Man with a Shoe Sample Kit, Postcard From Morocco (2014); Big Night Concert (2013).
Daniel Okulitch — The Pirate King
Previously at Portland Opera: Title role, Don Giovanni (2012).
This is Canadian bass baritone Daniel Okulitch’s role debut as The Pirate King. Mr. Okulitch has performed throughout Europe and North America, most prominently in the title roles in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro...
Daniel Okulitch — The Pirate King
Previously at Portland Opera: Title role, Don Giovanni (2012).
Kevin Burdette — Sergeant of Police
Portland Opera Debut
Bass Kevin Burdette has been called “the Robin Williams of opera” by The New York Times and “a tour de force of vocal splendor and comic timing” by The San Francisco Chronicle.
Kevin Burdette — Sergeant of Police
Portland Opera Debut
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