Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Magical World of Gilbert & Sullivan

by Stephanie Cowell

About 15 years ago, one of the most delightful movies in the world burst onto the screen: Topsy Turvy, the story of the gifted composer Arthur Sullivan and the cantankerous, difficult, witty librettist Gilbert – and their creation of the operetta The Mikado in London during one of the times in which they were barely speaking to each other. (There were several times like that.) The Mikado opened on 14 March 1885, in London where it played at the Savoy Theater for 672 performances. Before the end of 1885, it was estimated that at least 150 companies were producing the opera in Europe and America. I hope their royalties were protected.

The two men were brought together by Richard D'Oyly Carte who built the Savoy Theatre in 1881 to present their comic operas and founded the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company which did not close its doors until 1982, about a hundred years after its founding.

W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan (he was knighted by the Queen) were very different people. Gilbert was the son of a naval surgeon and wrote all sorts of things before the famous collaboration. Mike Leigh, the director of Topsy Turvy, said that Gilbert’s gift was “to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way.”

Jessie Bond, original singer in THE MIKADO
Sullivan’s education from his boyhood was in music. His father was a military bandmaster, and by the age of eight, little Arthur could play all the band instruments. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and then at Leipzig, also famous for the works of Bach. He saw himself as a serious composer, and always felt underappreciated and confined by the unprecedented success of his collaboration with Gilbert; he preferred to compose concerti, symphonies, and operas. In fact, some people though his music to be too beautiful for such works as H.M.S. Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado, all created with Gilbert between 1871 and 1896; in that time they finished a total of fourteen comic operas.

One balmy night in 1980 I went to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park New York City to see an outdoor performance of The Pirates of Penzance with my young sons; we had waited in line since eight that morning and as the first in line, sat front row center. The twilight came and the music began. From the wings leapt a young sexy Kevin Kline as the Pirate King and soon Linda Ronstadt came to the stage in a soft flowing white dress to sing a few notes above high C so purely, so demurely. The whole performance was an utter enchantment. It would later be a Broadway and London show and then a movie, but that summer we had only 35 free performances in the park and my sons and I were at one of them. The stars came out, the breeze blew the tree leaves and sometimes (in the imperfect amplification of those days) the sound system momentarily caught the sound of policemen talking on their car radio. Here is Linda Ronstadt and her perfect high notes.

The original G&S singer Richard Temple
Though Gilbert was married, he adored pretty young women and he left the world in service to them when his heart failed him at the age of 75 trying to rescue a young woman who was drowning in a lake. Sullivan’s life was far shorter. He had suffered from kidney disease for a long time which eventually provoked his death from heart failure and bronchitis in 1900. Queen Victoria, in whose later reign both men prospered, died only two months later.

Gilbert and Sullivan operas have been translated into many languages, including Portuguese, Yiddish, Hebrew, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Estonian, Hungarian, Russian, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish etc. I would love to hear one of the famous rapid patter songs sung in Russian. (“I am the very model of a modern major general,” for instance.) Here it is sung by the famous John Reed in English; sorry, can’t find it in Russian!

Timothy Spall who plays Temple in the film.
In 1999, my husband and I walking into a movie theater on a bitterly cold night to see Topsy Turvy, the movie about the creation of The Mikado. It was an art film house (no advertisements or previews) and the bright melodies of the overture filled the theater before the film started. I forgot the cold. Once again afterwards I was swept home filled with joy of the lyricist and composer, Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, who in life grew weary of their endless successes which they saw as trivial but which made them wealthy, and who, a hundred years and more after their death, also fill countless other people with joy.


Stephanie Cowell is the author of

Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of an American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. She has just finished a novel on Shakespeare and his friends called The Year of Hamlet and is revising her novel on the immortal love story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. She lives in New York City with her husband in an apartment full of books and music and has two grown sons. Her website is


  1. Thanks for this post,Stephanie. It's wonderful that G and S operettas are still performed regularly here in England. There were indeed problems with royalties and copyright that infuriated Gilbert! I enjoyed listening to the recordings you included.

  2. I am a true G&S fan. They are brilliant and their music never fails to lift me into the stratosphere.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.