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The Comic Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan

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The Comic Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan | William Schwenk Gilbert - Dramatist | Sir Arthur Sullivan - Composer | 'HMS Pinafore'
'The Pirates of Penzance' | 'Patience' | 'Iolanthe' | 'The Mikado' | 'Ruddigore' | 'The Yeoman of the Guard' | 'The Gondoliers'
The D'Oyly Carte Company

Together, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 comic operas (or operettas), most of which are still as popular today as they were when they were first performed more than 100 years ago. Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842 - 1900) studied at the Royal Acadamy of Music and the Leipzig Conservatory. He regarded his religious and orchestral compositions as his 'serious' music, but although he received critical acclaim for this work, it was never greeted with the popularity afforded to his collaborations with Gilbert. William Schwenk Gilbert (1836 - 1911) was a noted satirist before he began to work with Sullivan, but as was the case with his partner, his greatest success came from their long-term collaboration.

The pair were brought together in 1871 by one John Hollingshead to compose a comic opera for his Gaity Theatre. The result was Thespis, which although not a huge success clearly showed what Gilbert and Sullivan were capable of. They followed it up in 1875 with Trial by Jury, the first operetta they wrote for Richard D'Oyly Carte, who was from then on ever-present in the partnership. Carte formed his own company in 1877 to perform Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer, and the company is still regarded as the premier performer of the duo's work.

From the premiere of HMS Pinafore in 1878 until The Gondoliers just over ten years later, each operetta produced by Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte was more successful than its predecessor. In fact, Pinafore was so successful that numerous pirated versions sprang up in America, prompting its authors and the D'Oyly Carte Company to present their original production of the piece in New York, and then following it up with The Pirates of Penzance - a huge success but regarded by some as merely a piratical version of Pinafore.

After the production of The Gondoliers in 1889, the partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan famously, and acrimoniously, broke apart. It was a rupture that had been imminent since The Mikado of 1885 (recently depicted in Mike Leigh's film Topsy Turvy). Both men tended to ridicule the mannerisms and poses of their partner, and each was jealous of the other's acclaim, neither above criticising the other. The final rift was said to be due to a new carpet Richard D'Oyly Carte ordered for the company's Savoy Theatre (the expenses of which were shared equally between the three men). Gilbert - never an extravagant man - thought the $500 carpet a ridiculous expense and fell out with Carte over the subject. Then when Gilbert demanded to know Sullivan's position (the composer had previously been neutral) and Sullivan sided with Carte, Gilbert wrote to his partner putting an end to the collaboration and stated that he had served Carte notice not to produce any of his work after the end of 1890.

After this split both men returned to their individual work, though neither in this nor in their brief reunions for Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke could they capture the brilliance or the success of their earlier work. Sullivan's life disintegrated fairly rapidly after this as he lost his money and energy in the casinos of Monte Carlo, and died alone in London after a bout of bronchitis. Gilbert survived Sullivan by 11 years. He was knighted in 1907 and died of heart failure in 1911 whilst trying to help a swimming pupil in trouble. Their works are still performed regularly around the world and are beloved of amateur operatic societies for their family-pleasing capabilities. The music of Sullivan still provokes audiences into humming along, and the satire of Gilbert still shines through.

The Complete Works of Gilbert and Sullivan


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