The comic operas of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are some of the best loved, and most well-known works in the history of musical theatre. Between 1871 and 1896 Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 comic operas and although they both produced comic opera with other collaborators, none was ever as successful as those they wrote together. Despite their success, their partnership was often problematic. Both men were Londoners but their backgrounds were very different.
Music sheet cover for Gilbert and Sullivans' opera The Princess Ida Quadrille, published by Chappell and Company, late 19th century
Every new Gilbert and Sullivan opera was eagerly awaited and the vocal score was always ready to be sold at the theatre on the first night. The following day, versions of the tunes could be heard everywhere, on street organs and at ballad concerts. Medleys of dance music based on the tunes were also published soon after the first nights, few of them arranged by Sullivan himself. (As you can see, this quadrille arrangement is by P. Bucalossi.) They appeared in various forms, the most popular being the waltz, the quadrille, the lancers and the polka. Each of these was arranged for piano solo, piano duet, septet or octet, full orchestra and even military band but only the piano solo versions had illustrated covers. Until 1881 they were produced in several colours but after 1881 the colour was reduced, to save money. The images on the music sheet covers are all realistic representations of the scenery and the costumes, since artists were sent to the theatre to sketch them. Here we see Castle Adamant, Princess Ida in her chain-mail costume, Hilarion, and the crotchety old King Gama.
Design for Robin Oakapple's costume in Act I of the original Gilbert and Sullivan production of Ruddigore, artist unknown, 1886, watercolour on paper with attached fabric swatch
A swatch of fabric is pinned to the design as a sample for the costumier and handwritten notes on the design include those on the front: 'Robin 1st Dress', and 'large lay down collar', and one on the back saying that the gaiters should have seven buttons! Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas became famous for their superb costumes and sets. On Gilbert’s advice, D'Oyly Carte commissioned the very best designers, and if Gilbert liked working with them, they were used again. Every design had to be approved by Gilbert, and if Gilbert didn't like a design, he would sometimes sketch it himself and return it to the designer for reference. The look of a play or an opera was always an integral part of Gilbert's concern from the moment he started writing. He was a talented artist himself sketches of his characters often feature in the margins of his plot books, and he designed costumes for some of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas himself.
Alfred Bryant, cartoon caricature of W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911) as The Ironmaster at the Savoy Theatre, from The Entracte Annual, London, 1885
Spy (Leslie Ward), cartoon of Richard D'Oyly Carte, reproduced in Vanity Fair, 1891, pencil, watercolour and bodycolour, given by Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte
Programme cover for Gilbert and Sullivan's opera Iolanthe, printed in brown, gold and white on card, Savoy Theatre, London, 1882
This programme was for Iolanthe, or, the Prince and the Peri, Gilbert and Sullivan's seventh comic opera. By November 1882 when it opened, the Savoy Theatre boasted electric light, which features as a motif on this programme. At the finale, there was another novel effect when the fairies switched on electric lights on their foreheads, wired to batteries strapped on their backs. This was an example of Gilbert’s sure instinct for a really theatrical moment. Operas by Gilbert and Sullivan were so popular by 1882 that unauthorised versions were produced in America, based on information leaked during rehearsals. Trying to foil piracy, Gilbert rehearsed Iolanthe as Perola and the cast was not told its real name until the final rehearsal. When they voiced their doubts about remembering the new name, Sullivan replied that it didn’t matter, as long as they sang the right music! It was given premieres in New York and London on the same day, in an attempt to copyright the authentic version on both sides of the Atlantic.
Programme for Gilbert and Sullivan's opera Trial by Jury, Royalty Theatre, London, 1875
In 1875, when Richard D’Oyly Carte was managing the Royalty Theatre in London’s Soho, he commissioned Trial by Jury, Gilbert and Sullivan's second comic opera. They had collaborated on Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old at the Gaiety Theatre four years before, but without Carte it is doubtful that they would ever have worked together again. Carte was about to produce La Périchole, a French comic opera by Offenbach, and needed another short piece to fill the evening. Gilbert had already written the libretto, about a trial of ‘breach of promise of marriage’, but needed a composer. Carte suggested Sullivan, by this time a successful composer and conductor. Gilbert read him the libretto, Sullivan liked it, claiming later that ‘the words and music were written, and all the rehearsal completed within a space of three weeks’. This programme cover includes portraits of Offenbach (top, centre) Selina Dolaro, director of the theatre and star of La Périchole, flanked by Gilbert and Sullivan as winged cherubs.
Hawes Craven (1837-1910), design for the setting of Act I of Gilbert and Sullivan's production of The Mikado, Savoy Theatre, London, 1885, watercolour and bodycolour over pencil on drawing board, given by Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte. Museum no. S.252-1999
Madame Ilka Von Palmay and Rutland Barrington as Julia Jellicoe and Ludwig in Gilbert and Sullivan's production The Grand Duke, Savoy Theatre, London, 1896
Programme cover for Gilbert and Sullivan's opera The Pirates of Penzance, published by Letts, Son & Company, Opera Comique, London, 1881
This programme for The Pirates of Penzance at the Opera Comique is illustrated with some of the characters and scenes in the opera. In the top left, one of the Major General’s daughters, Mabel, is shown with the police who she encourages to capture the pirates in the central roundel, the Major General’s daughters are seen with him in the night-wear costumes of Act II and below that is the coast of Cornwall with the Major General in military uniform standing above the pirates and his daughters. On the far right are Mabel and Frederic, while the Pirate King on the left is recognisable from his skull and crossbones hat. The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty, was inspired by nautical melodrama, popular in Gilbert’s youth, and by the fact that Gilbert and Sullivan’s works were being ‘pirated’ in America. In an attempt to copyright the correct version on both sides of the Atlantic, two of D’Oyly Carte’s companies performed the work for the first time in America and England a day apart, in December 1879.