Gilbert and Sullivan were to 19th-century England what Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe have been to 20th-century America.
William Schwenck Gilbert, writer, and Arthur Seymour Sullivan, composer, collaborated on 14 musical plays which had phenomenal popularity when they began appearing 103 years ago with "Trial by Jury." Five of their works, "Iolanthe," "H.M.S. Pinafore," "The Mikado," "Princess Ida" and "The Pirates of Penzance," presented by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, will hold the stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House for the next month.
D'Oyly Carte was the firm formed by Richard D'Oyly Carte, who reunited the team after its first collaboration, "Thespis," failed in 1871. With so keen a business sense that he was known as "Oily" Carte, the 31-year-old manager asked Gilbert, then 39, and Sullivan, then 33, to try again with a curtain-raiser for a French import, Offenbach's "La Perichole." Their "Trial by Jury" was such an instant delight in 1875 that Carte moved it to the top of the bill.
A partnership was formed by the three men; and though disputes would cause rifts, there were 13 more collaborations over 18 years.
The firm continues today as a family business. When Richard D'Oyly Carte died, a few months after Sullivan in 1900, his widow and second wife, Helen, kept the company going until her death, two years after Gilbert's, in 1913, Rupert D'Oyly Carte, Richard's son by his first wife, took over from his stepmother and invigorated the productions with fresh casts and new designs until his death in 1948. He was succeeded by his daughter, Bridget D'Oyly Carte, now in her 30th year at the helm.
Another remarkable thing about the firm is that while Britain's most noted theater companies, the National, the Royal Shakespeare, the Royal Court and others enjoy government subsidies, the D'Oyly Carte remains a private, commercial venture. Some of its income stems from the Savoy Hotel on London's Strand, which houses the theater built by the triumvirate. From the theater's name came the name for their collaboration, "The Savoyards." Visitors who stay at London's still luxurious Savoy contribute indirectly to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.
Reginald Allen, once assistant manager of the Metropolitan Opera and son of a co-founder of Philadelphia's "The Savoy Company," now in its 77th season, once summed up succinctly the reason for the continued success of Gilbert and Sullivan: "The works avoid the fleeting specific for the ageless general."
Gilbert's librettos mock lawmakers, generals, admirals, judges, esthetes, women's lib, family pride, the Darwinian theory and other topics that recur each generation. His words inspired musical satire from Sullivan, whose solos, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets and choruses mock such continuing favorites as Donizetti, Wagner, Handel, Mozart, Rossini and many a forgotten more. Above all, Sullivan was a Niagara of melody. Long before TV, radio and recordings, publication of his sheet music caused stampedes at the music stores, where a sale of 10,000 copies a day greeted each new work.
Gilbert was probably the most litigious, cantankerous playwright of them all. He sued everyone from critics to actors, from fellow yachtsmen to the Lord Chamberlain, as well as partners Sullivan and Carte in a celebrated case involving a carpet. On the other hand, he got along better with children than with most adults. Inordinately fond of animals, he walked with his pet fawn on a leash, allowed pigeons to peck at his lighted cigars and refused to tread on beetles "because the mechanism of life is so wonderful."
While Gilbert had reasons to be jealous of Sullivan's knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1883 and had to wait until King Edward in 1907 for his "Sir," there was keen satisfaction in it. He was the first dramatist to be knighted, not for his politics as two other dramatists had been, but for his plays. Characteristically, he snorted: "This indiscriminate flinging about of knighthoods is making me very nervous. It's quite possible they may give one to my butler. He's a very good fellow and I'm afraid it will upset him."
Sullivan was born in 1842 to a poor music copyist and his well-educated wife. He was the second of two musical brothers, brother Frederic becoming a popular singer and comedian. Their father finally won security when he became bandmaster at the Royal Military College.At 12 Arthur became a chorister of the Chapel Royal, two years later won the Mendelssohn Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music and at 16 was sent for classical training to Germany's Leipzig Conservatoire.
Musically, Sullivan's was a split personality. His serious works included such hymns as "Onward, Christian Soldiers," "Golden Harps Are Sounding" and "For Thee, O Dear Country." At the death of brother Frederic, first to play the judge in "Trial by Jury," Sullivan composed "The Lost Chord." In 1913 its manuscript was buried with Mary Ronalds, a Bostonian who had separated from her husband and became an admired London hostess noted for her voice and musical tastes.
Queen Victoria, who honored Sullivan in many ways, admired his serious works - "The Golden Legend," "By the Waters of Babylon," "Light of the World" and "Ivanhoe" - as well as his choral and cathedral activities.
It was generally felt by contemporaries that Sullivan was wasting his genius on Gilbert's frivolous librettos, but oratorios, hymns and Te Deums would not make him rich. Their Savoy musicals made them both wealthy.