Letters and librettos of a classic comic team

Harvard exhibition tells of Gilbert and Sullivan's memorable collaboration.

While it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria, the same statement certainly held true about the theatrical collaborations of two of her subjects: William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

From the opening performance of "H.M.S. Pinafore" in 1878 under Gilbert's direction, and with Sullivan in the orchestra pit to conduct, their comic operas became one of England's most beloved exports. Queen Victoria would reward Sullivan with knighthood in 1883; Gilbert was knighted in 1907.

The third member of the triumvirate responsible for mounting the shows was the theater manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte.

"The Gilbert & Sullivan Operas," an extensive exhibition that reflects the lively heritage of the Gilbert & Sullivan repertory, is on display at the Pusey Library at Harvard University through April 13.

Mounted by Frederic Woodbridge Wilson, curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection, the display includes manuscript scores, letters, first editions of the librettos, photographs of actors on both sides of the Atlantic who starred in the shows, early posters, and some of the souvenirs that were sold to capitalize on the popularity of the numerous productions.

Much of the material is owned by the Harvard Theatre Collection, but many items were borrowed from American collectors John S. Wolfson, Jesse Shereff, David N. Stone, and J. Donald Smith. The only original autograph manuscript full scores of the operas remaining in private hands - "The Sorcerer" (1877) and "The Grand Duke" (1896) from the Wolfson collection - are in the exhibition as well.

If ever there were a mismatched pair, it was Gilbert and Sullivan, as was chronicled in the 1999 film "Topsy-Turvy."

Sullivan, born in 1842, had been a musical prodigy. He won the Mendelssohn Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at age 14; by age 18, he was recognized as a musical genius, who might finally establish a reputation for serious English music. He became an important conductor as well as composer, but he is most remembered for the comic operas he wrote with Gilbert.

Among the manuscripts on display at Harvard is the autograph score of Sullivan's cantata, "On Shore and Sea" (1871), and the original manuscript of his "Symphony in E, the Irish Symphony" (1866).

Six years his senior, Gilbert was trained for the legal profession but preferred to publish comic writings, the Bab Ballads, and write serious and comic plays for the London theater. Both men had important reputations when they teamed up to produce "Thespis" in 1871.

This first attempt was such a failure that its music has not survived, but "Trial by Jury" in 1875 set the stage for the partnership. Between them, Gilbert and Sullivan invented the genre of the English comic opera, which poked fun at the pretensions of English society while weaving in lovely romantic relationships and melodies and lyrics to match.

Their partnership lasted for more than 20 years and included such memorable events as the 12 "pirated" (unauthorized) productions of "H.M.S. Pinafore" in 1879 in New York for American audiences eagerly awaiting the show. Appropriately perhaps, "The Pirates of Penzance" was produced in England and New York in 1880, followed by "Patience" 1881, "Iolanthe" 1882, "The Mikado" 1885, and "The Yeoman of the Guard" 1888, among others.

The Harvard exhibition focuses on Sullivan, Gilbert, and Carte together, as well as their individual accomplishments. Carte is pictured with rolled-up plans for the Savoy Theatre and the Royal English Opera House under his arm. Carte was the first to equip a theater - the Savoy - with the newly invented electric lights.

Another cartoon in the show, drawn by Al Hirschfeld in 1934, portrays the D'Oyly Carte company performing in New York. A long row of "carte de visite" photographs, the calling card for the 19th-century actor, lines a case across an entire wall.

Not the least of the pleasures while touring the exhibition, which marks the 100th anniversary of the deaths of Sullivan in 1900 and Carte in 1901 - is listening to the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan, piped in from a number of recordings of the operas dating back to the 1950s.

'The Gilbert & Sullivan Operas' exhibition is on display through April 13 at Harvard University's Pusey Library in Cambridge, Mass. Two free lectures about Gilbert and Sullivan are scheduled for Feb. 13 and April 3. Call 617-495-2445 for more information.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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