The Peer and the Peri
Words: W.S. Gilbert
Music: Arthur Sullivan
Written in: Authored Date:

the making of gilbert and sullivan’s iolanthe

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company was in its second decade. The company had performed five operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan to great acclaim, including HMS Pinafore which enjoyed a record-breaking opening run at The Opera Comique. The principals, such as Grossmith, Barrington and Bond, had become household names and, most significantly, proprietor Richard D’Oyly Carte had commissioned and built a theatre especially for the works of the company, The Savoy.

Patience, the company’s fifth production, was given the honour of opening the new theatre on October 10th 1881 with the Prince of Wales in attendance and the new electric lighting. It became clear, however, that Patience would not run for more than a few more months so Gilbert turned his mind to a new piece for Carte and the new theatre. The Savoy Theatre had been a huge investment for the company; should the next piece fail, its future would be in serious jeopardy.

Sullivan, however, was less inclined to co-operate having suffered a great personal tragedy. He became very close to Mrs Ronalds, a wealthy American who was considered one of the great beauties of the time. On first sight of Gilbert’s first act, whilst holidaying in Cornwall, Sullivan was not impressed and asked Gilbert to meet him and talk it over. They met at the Half Moon Hotel in Exeter and, after several hours of conversation, came up with an alternative opening act for the new piece.

The authors were worried about pirate companies performing the opera, as they had done in the past, and so sent a company to the States to perform the opening nights simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. They were also very secretive about the title of the piece. The company knew the show as Perola until the final rehearsal when Iolanthe was substituted (when sung the old lyric had been “Come Perola” to fit the music).

Gilbert knew his cast well by this time and wrote the characters of Iolanthe with performers in mind. The large and demanding role of the Chancellor went to principal comedian George Grossmith, comic baritone Rutland Barrington was given licence to entertain with the pompous Mountararat and Jessie Bond, soubrette and close friend of Gilbert, was given her largest part to date in the title role. Richard Temple was given the role of Strephon. He was an actor with whom Gilbert took issue and in this show, like many others, Temple found his part reduced dramatically throughout the rehearsal period. In this case Strephon’s song “Fold Your Flapping Wings” was cut from Act Two. Temple left the company a few years later after a succession of smaller and smaller roles were allocated to him.

Sullivan, as usual, was very late in scoring the music. It is interesting that the melodies of Iolanthe, considered by many to be his most beautiful, were all written whilst the composer was suffering great sadness at the death of his mother. Sullivan also received bad news from his stockbroker on the morning of the opening night when he heard that his life savings had been lost.

Gilbert (after a nervous night walking round The Strand) and Sullivan (having conducted the performance despite his personal worries) took their curtain calls on opening night together, to a positive response. It was clear, in spite of the problems that the D’Oyle Carte Opera Company was here to stay.

Iolanthe, January 2005, Nuffield Theatre
Iolanthe, July 1993, Nuffield Theatre
Iolanthe, March 1980, The Guildhall
Iolanthe, April 1965, The Guildhall
Iolanthe, March 1957, The Guildhall
Iolanthe, March 1950, The Guildhall
Iolanthe, April 1938, The Guildhall
Iolanthe, May 1932, Royal Pier Pavilion