So, just in case you came in late and need a refresher, here is a list of all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. (Just to be even more basic, William S. Gilbert wrote the words and Arthur Seymour Sullivan wrote the music.)
Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old (1871 Christmas entertainment for John Hollingshead’s Gaiety Theatre, where it received its first performance on December 26, 1871 and ran for 63 performances. Although it has often been described as a failure, it outlasted most of the Christmas entertainments that season.)
Plot: The gods on Mount Olympus are old and tired, so they decide to take a holiday. Since somebody has to stay and do their godly jobs while they’re gone, they delegate all their responsibilities to a troupe of travelling actors – with hilarious consequences!
Most of the original music for this opera has been lost, so performances today either adapt music from other Sullivan scores, or use a score by one of the several composers who has written a replacement for the lost music.
Trial By Jury (Premiere March 25, 1875, original run 131 performances) Richard D’Oyly Carte asked the two men to collaborate on a short opera to be played as an after piece to Offenbach’s comic opera, La Périchole. The witty, tuneful and very “English” piece was an immediate hit with Londoners. It is quite short, only forty minutes, and alone of the operas contains no spoken dialogue. The story is set in an English courtroom, where a breach of promise case is underway – Gilbert, a barrister by training, thoroughly enjoyed lampooning everyone involved, from the judge, jury and lawyers, to the plaintiff and defendant! His witty libretto inspired Sullivan to write some of his most sparkling music. The part of the judge in the first production was played by Fred Sullivan, the composer’s brother.
The Sorcerer (Premiere at the Opéra Comique, on November 17, 1877. The original run of the piece was a satisfactory 175 performances.) After the success of their one-act opera Trial By Jury, producer Richard D’Oyly Carte asked Gilbert and Sullivan to create a full-length work together. Gilbert’s story is based on one of his favorite dramatic themes: a magic spell that makes everyone do the exact opposite of what they’d usually do. In this case, the sorcerer is hired to put a magic love potion in the village tea pot at an engagement party, with the result that everyone falls in love with the wrong partner.
It was enough of a success to encourage Gilbert & Sullivan to continue to collaborate, which led to their next piece, H.M.S. Pinafore. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The fourth collaboration between Gilbert & Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore, was their first major success. Using elements from several of his comic poems, the “Bab Ballads”, Gilbert poked fun at a variety of English attitudes: He poked fun at the class distinctions that keep true lovers apart, at high-minded efforts to keep sailors from using bad language, and at the notion that the First Lord of the Admiralty should be a purely political appointment whose holder need never have been to sea. In the end, “love can level rank,” and therefore, through a supremely silly switched-at-birth moment, the humble sailor marries the Captain’s daughter, the Captain’s daughter doesn’t have to marry the First Lord, and the Captain himself marries the bumboat woman.
The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty (Simultaneous premieres in England and in the USA on December 30 and 31, 1879; the opera finally opened April 3, 1880 at the Opéra Comique in London, where it ran for 363 performances, having already been playing successfully for over three months in New York.)
This was done to make sure that Gilbert and Sullivan controlled the copyright to Pirates in America – unfortunately, American performing companies had presented unauthorized versions of H.M.S. Pinafore before Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte had a chance to establish their rights over the work. To keep this from happening again, the dual premiere arrangement was conducted.
The main character of The Pirates of Penzance is Frederic, apprenticed as a child to a band of pirates. He’s turning 21 years old and announces he’s free of his indentures, only to discover that he was apprenticed until his 21st birthday – and since he was born on February 29 in a leap year, that birthday won’t be reached by him for another 60 years!
.By the end of the opera, the pirates, a Major General who knows nothing of military strategy, his large family of beautiful but unwed daughters, and the timid constabulary all contribute to a cacophony that can be silenced only by Queen Victoria’s name.
Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride. (Premiere on April 23, 1881 at the Opera Comique and ran for 578 performances, moving on October 10, 1881 to D’Oyly Carte’s new theatre, the Savoy, the first theatre in the world to be lit entirely by electric lights.)
Patience satirizes the “aesthetic craze” of the 1870’s and ’80s, when it was all the fashion to love “art for art’s sake” and to admire blue-and-white china, Japanese screens, and rare things of natural beauty. High-minded, spiritual and esoteric, the poetry and art of the day was considered by some to be empty and self-indulgent.
Patience is a simple village milkmaid who doesn’t understand poetry, is cheerful and uncomplicated and happy. She doesn’t care when all the well-born young ladies in the village, rapturously caught up in aestheticism, fall in love with two contrasting aesthetic poets — a “fleshy” poet and an “idyllic” poet. But both poets are in love with Patience! The military men who are in love with the well-born ladies try to turn aesthetic to please the girls. Patience discovers that love has a prickly side. In the end, everyone ends up with a suitable partner, even if it is only a tulip or lily.
In this “fairy opera,” the House of Lords is lampooned as a group of ineffective, privileged and dim-witted men, who are being challenged by a troupe of female fairies.
Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, wants to marry Phyllis, a Ward of Chancery. But Phyllis’ guardian, the Lord Chancellor, and half the peers in the House of Lords are sighing after her, so chances of Strephon winning the Lord Chancellor’s approval for the marriage are slim to none.
The fairies are on Strephon’s side, because he is half fairy (his upper half — his legs are mortal!) and when the Lord Chancellor insults the Queen of the Fairies, the ladies take over.
Phyllis does not know he’s a half-fairy, so when she sees him kissing a seemingly young woman, she assumes the worst. But her “rival” turns out to be none other than Strephon’s own mother, Iolanthe, a fairy — fairies never grow old.
Soon the peers and the fairies are virtually at war, and long friendships are nearly torn asunder. But all is happily sorted out, thanks to the “subtleties of the legal mind”.
Both Gilbert and Sullivan were at the height of their creative powers in 1882, and many people feel that Iolanthe, their seventh work together, is the most perfect of their collaborations.
Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant( Premiere on 5 January 1884 at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 246 performances.)
It is the only three act Gilbert and Sullivan Opera and the only one with dialogue in blank verse. This is because Gilbert based his libretto on his earlier play The Princess which, in turn, he described as “a perversion” of Tennyson’s poem of the same name.
Prince Hilarion had been married in babyhood to Princess Ida, daughter of King Gama. The Princess, however, has set up a college for women from which all men are barred. Hilarion and his friends infiltrate the castle and ultimately the men, led by Hilarion’s father, King Hildebrand, stage a full-scale invasion. Ida is abandoned by her women and finally surrenders to her Prince.
Princess Ida was produced between Iolanthe and The Mikado when its creators were at the height of their powers. The score is Sullivan at his best, and some people consider that Gilbert’s libretto contains some of his funniest lines.
The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu (The most popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and maybe the most popular opera ever written, premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 14 March, 1885 and ran for 672 nights.)
The plot of “The Mikado”, as Mr. Adair Fitzgerald mentions in his book “The Story of the Savoy Opera”, came to Gilbert through a Japanese sword, which hung on the walls of his study, suddenly falling down.
Ko-Ko, the cheap tailor, was sentenced to death for flirting, until someone in Titipu got the idea to make him the Lord High Executioner. Then the Mikado’s only son Nanki-Poo, disguised as a Second Trombone (apparently Sullivan kept asking for a second trombone player for his orchestra, so Gilbert gave him one), arrives only to learn that his beloved Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko’s ward, is about to be married to Ko-Ko. In despair, he plans to kill himself.
Meanwhile, the Mikado has noticed a sad lack of executions in Titipu, so he gives them a month to carry out his orders. In a hurry, Ko-Ko agrees that Nanki-poo can marry Yum-Yum as long as he’s willing to be beheaded in one month’s time, thereby getting the good out of his self-sacrifice.
When the Mikado shows up, the villagers all agree that they have carried out the sentence – upon the Mikado’s heir, which is a serious crime. In order to induce Nanki-poo, who is still alive, to announce that he’s not dead, Ko-Ko must marry Katisha. So everyone gets a mate and with joyous shouts and ringing cheer, everything ends well.
Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse (Premiere on January 21, 1887 at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 288 performances.)
This “supernatural opera” is a parody of the stock melodrama — the villain who carries off the maiden; the poor-but-virtuous-heroine; the hero in disguise, and his faithful old retainer who dreams of their former glory days; the snake in the grass who claims to be following his heart; the wild, mad girl; the swagger of fire-eating patriotism; ghosts coming to life to enforce a curse; and so forth. But of course, this is Gilbert – so we can expect that everything will be turned upside down~ Good becomes bad, bad becomes good, and heroes take the easy way out.
The Baronets of Ruddigore are cursed. Anyone who succeeds to the title has to commit a crime every day — or perish in inconceivable agony. Robin Oakapple, is a shy young farmer who loves Rose Maybud, though both are too timid to admit it. But Robin also has a secret. He is really Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, the rightful Baronet of Ruddigore, in disguise. He faked his death and now his younger brother, Despard, has assumed the title. Robin’s foster brother, Richard, seeking Rose for himself, tells Despard of Robin’s deception, and Robin is forced to accept his true position, losing Rose to Richard in the process.
Now the Baronet of Ruddigore, Robin is confronted by the he ghosts of his ancestors who step from their picture frames in the gallery of Ruddigore Castle to confront him for failing to conscientiously commit his daily crime. Fortunately for all, Robin eventually finds a way of satisfying his ancestors’ demands while leading a blameless life.
The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and His Maid (Premiered October 3, 1888, at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 423 performances.)
It is different from the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas in that it ends with a broken-hearted main character and at least two reluctant engagements, rather than the usual plethora of happy marriages. However, Gilbert finds plenty of opportunity to introduce comedy into his libretto.
Many believe that the score is Sullivan’s finest. Indeed, some enjoy Yeomen particularly because of its ever-changing emotional balance of joy and despair, love and sacrifice.
The setting of Yeomen is the Tower of London in the sixteenth century. The plot concerns Colonel Fairfax, a gentleman, soldier and scientist, who has been sentenced to death on a false charge of sorcery. To avoid leaving his estate to his accuser (a cousin), and with the help of the Lieutenant of the Tower, Fairfax secretly marries Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer. The bride agrees to be blindfolded during the ceremony and expects to be a well-paid widow within the hour. With the help of the Meryll family, Fairfax escapes, throwing the Tower into confusion and the astonished Elsie (and her companion, the jester Jack Point, who is in love with her) into despair. But Fairfax, disguised as Leonard Meryll, woos Elsie, and after a number of plot complications are worked out, she falls in love with Fairfax and leaves Jack Point broken-hearted.
The Gondoliers, or, The King of Barataria. (Premiere on December 7, 1889 at the Savoy Theatre, The Gondoliers ran for 554 performances.)
It was the last of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas to achieve wide popularity. Its lilting score has, perhaps, the most sparkling and tuneful music of them all and calls, perhaps, for the most dancing.
Two just-married Venetian gondoliers are informed by the Grand Inquisitor that one of them has just become the King of “Barataria”, but only their foster mother, presently at large, knows which one. As Barataria, needs a king to put down unrest in the country, they travel there to reign jointly, leaving their wives behind in Venice until the old lady can be interviewed. It turns out that the king was wed in infancy to the beautiful daughter of the Spanish Duke of Plaza Toro, and so it seems he is an unintentional bigamist. Of course, the beautiful daughter is in love with a common servant! When the young Spaniard and the two Venetian wives all show up wanting to know which of them is queen, complications arise. No worries: The true identity of the king is revealed, and all is settled happily by the end.
Utopia, Limited, or The Flowers of Progress (Premiere October 7, 1893 at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 245 performances.)
King Paramount of the south seas island of Utopia decides that his people should adopt all English customs and institutions, but he goes a bit overboard and decrees that the kingdom and each of its inhabitants should become a “company limited” based on the English “companies act” of 1862. The king’s daughter, Princess Zara, brings six “flowers of progress” from England to train the Utopian people in “English” customs. But the reforms are too successful, which upsets the judges of the Utopian Supreme Court, the “Public Exploder” and ultimately the entire populace, which revolts against them. Zara realizes that an essential element has been forgotten, namely “government by party”. Introduce that and the result would be “general and unexampled prosperity”.
The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel (Premiere on March 7, 1896 at the Savoy Theatre, London. This last G&S opera ran for only 123 performances.)
In the Grand Duke, Gilbert and Sullivan come full circle, back to the theme of their first collaboration: A troupe of actors takes political power. The Grand Duke suffers from many of the same problems as Utopia Limited — it has a long and rambling libretto — and it calls for more principal quality voices than the typical G&S opera. Nevertheless, the story contains a number of hilarious moments and funny characters, the settings are colorful and the music is cheery. Some find this opera to be the most underrated of the G&S works.
Ludwig, an actor, replaces the company manager, Ernest, and then he replaces the miserly Grand Duke Rudolph of Pfennig Halbpfennig, after “killing” each of them by drawing the ace from a deck of cards in two “statutory” duels. By winning the statutory duels, Ludwig assumes all of Ernest’s and Rudolph’s rights and obligations. Soon he finds himself with far more wives, and prospective wives, than he knows what to do with. Never fear: once again, a lawyer solves the problem and all ends happily.