Gilbert & Sullivan

Gilbert & Sullivan

Possibly the best known librettist/composer duo in history, W.S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan’s works often parody the Victorian-era society in which the pair created their operettas, with elements of the absurd and fantasy peppered in.

Known world-wide for their comic operettas like The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, Iolanthe and The Yeomen of the GuardG&S’s works have gained a cult following amongst lovers of humour, opera and pastiches on society at large.

Here at the ENO, we have a long standing relationship with G&S’s output, performing many of his works in recent years to overwhelmingly positive reception, and we continued this with The Yeomen of the Guard, a brand-new production in 2022.

Musical style

Sullivan’s music, especially in his collaborations with Gilbert, is never less than superbly crafted, full of superb melodies and orchestrated with an ear for appropriate dramatic colour. His musical style draws on British and European traditions, with elements of Victorian church music, the drawing-room ballad and the operas of Donizetti, Bellini and middle-period Verdi melded into one. This fusion of different genres and traditions made Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas a huge success throughout Europe and overseas.

Sullivan’s gift for matching Gilbert’s often tongue-twisting words to memorable melody is particularly noteworthy in Sir Joseph Porter’s patter song in HMS Pinafore, or the Modern Major General song from Pirates of Penzance. However, Sullivan can be as subtle as Schubert when necessary (e.g. the opening women’s chorus in Pirates). Take a look at some of the best-loved Gilbert and Sullivan songs.

Freed of the copyright restrictions of previous generations, the G&S repertoire, when presented in wholly fresh interpretations such as Jonathan Miller’s non-Japanese Mikado set in a 1930s English seaside hotel, has won new audiences for their most famous operas.

The pair were first brought together in 1871 to produce a Christmas extravaganza for West End theatre owner John Hollingshead, but their first operatic collaboration wasn’t until 1875, where Gilbert’s libretto for Trial by Jury was in need of a composer, leading to a first operetta and the start of a working relationship then endured for many years.

The pair’s collaboration reached its peak in the late 1870s and 1880s, following the encouragement of Richard D’Oyly Carte whose company produced popular Gilbert and Sullivan works at London’s Savoy Theatre and elsewhere. The D’Oyly Carte company was dedicated to the Gilbert & Sullivan oeuvre, and continued long after the deaths of composer and librettist, keeping a somewhat moribund performance tradition alive right into the 1970s.

Despite the success of their work together, Sullivan always felt subservient to Gilbert and their relationship was often difficult and tense. When knighted in 1883 by Queen Victoria, the sovereign took the opportunity to encourage Sullivan to write a grand opera. The result was Ivanhoe (1891), after Scott’s celebrated novel, which enjoyed an impressive initial run of performances but failed to establish itself in the repertory and is now a rarity.

Notable Operas