An Introduction to Iolanthe

Much-loved operatic duo, Gilbert and Sullivan, are perhaps best known for their many comic operas including the witty fairytale Iolanthe. Keep reading to find out more…


Iolanthe is one of librettist, W.S Gilbert, and composer, Sir Arthur Sullivan‘s many comic operas. The Victorian duo were brought together in 1875 by theatre manager, Richard D’Oyly Carte, whose Savoy Theatre was established as a showcase for their works.

Gilbert and Sullivan are perhaps best known for their operetta’s The Pirates of Penzance (1879) and The Mikado (1885). An operetta tends to be shorter than opera and mixes song with spoken dialogue, as well as impressive dance numbers. The famous duo favoured satirical operettas, and would often poke fun at the establishment or use wit and humour as a way of expressing political opinion.

A beginners guide to Gilbert & Sullivan


Based on W.S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballard, ‘The Fairy Curate’, Iolanthe is set 25 years after fairy Iolanthe committed the ultimate crime: marrying a mortal. Her half-human, half-fairy son now wishes to marry a mortal – a crime punishable by death – leaving Iolanthe and her fairy friends no choice but to challenge the law. It is a comedy – we promise!

Before its opening at the Savoy on the 25 November 1882, Iolanthe was known as Perola, although Gilbert ensured his production got the name he preferred in the end.

Read the full synopsis



The opening night itself was a success with the audience, even though they spent more time reading the libretto than watching the actual production. This was due the fact that, for the first time ever, the production was powered entirely by electricity. This illuminated the auditorium more than gas ever could, so audiences could actually see the libretto well enough to read it!

The principal fairies all wore incandescent star lights in their hair. The battery-powered dazzling lights, were made by the Swan United Electric Light Company, which was founded by Joseph Swan. The term ‘fairy lights’ has been used ever since.


Our production is directed by award-winning comedy director, Cal McCrystal, who is perhaps best known for One Man, Two Guvnors and Paddington 2.

Embracing the chaotic physical comedy and irreverence that are his hallmarks, hear from Cal McCrystal and ENO favourite, Samantha Price, as they talk about the topsy-turvy world of Iolanthe. 

Psst… they’ll be a lot of fairies, catchy tunes and plenty of moments that’ll make you laugh out loud!

Production Images

Production Images

Take a sneak peek at our 2023 production

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Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes

A unique view from the side of the stage.

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Music from Iolanthe