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Haute Savoy! Six essential Gilbert and Sullivan facts

Mon Apr 15 2019

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This week it’s Trial by Jury, our first ever concert of music by Gilbert and Sullivan, the prolific Victorian-era standard bearers of English comic opera.

Are new to ‘G&S’? Then here are 6 essential facts about the wonderful world of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte

A man on a mission. For Gilbert and Sullivan’s success, we can thank Richard D’Oyly Carte, a theatre impresario on a mission to introduce “high-quality, family-friendly English comic opera” to edge out the more risqué French works on the London stage. His D’Oyly Carte Opera Company staged each of the partnership’s 13 most successful operas, which became known as the ‘Savoy Operas’.

Librettist W.S. Gilbert

Breaking records. Trial by Jury (1875) was Gilbert and Sullivan’s first triumph, with 131 London performances and then a massive UK tour. Then came the first full-length operas, The Sorcerer (1877) and HMS Pinafore (1878) – the latter racking up 571 consecutive performances after some clever experiential marketing at Covent Garden and Crystal Palace.

Poster for an unofficial US production of HMS Pinafore

The Pirates of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t just the UK where the duo were popular – the seemingly very English humour of HMS Pinafore was also a huge hit in the USA, with six productions running simultaneously in Philadelphia alone. With no international copyright law, 100s of rogue G&S productions launched there, from which Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte didn’t make a dollar. As a result, The Pirates of Penzance was written for the American market and premiered in New York before London so the trio could secure the US royalties.

Dolly Parton

What a way to make a living. These early successes gave D’Oyly Carte the clout to build a brand new theatre. The Savoy, opened in 1881, was state of the art and the first building in the world to be lit entirely by electric lights. It’s still there, and if you were to go tonight, you would see 9 to 5 the Musical, featuring the songs of Dolly Parton.

The Savoy Theatre on The Strand

On the road. D’Oyly Carte died in 1901, but his family continued the Company, which finally closed in 1982 – hit by a combination of rising costs, changing tastes, and the expiry of copyright ending its monopoly on the Savoy Operas. During that time it would often perform for as many as 48 weeks a year, including 35 weeks on tour with its cast, chorus and orchestra.

Composer Arthur Sullivan

Alive and well. You can still see lots of Gilbert and Sullivan today. Each year since 1994, the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival has taken place in England (Buxton and Harrogate host in 2019), with three weeks of performances. Meanwhile, there are more than 100 UK amateur G&S societies, including at least 12 at universities.

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