Gilbert & Sullivan planned on producing their seventh Savoy Opera, Iolanthe, simultaneously in London and New York, at the end of November 1882. The title of this latest Savoy opera was kept a closely guarded secret, with the character Iolanthe being called Perola, in an effort to keep even the cast in the dark. The biggest problem was Henry Irving had already used Iolanthe as a title, so Gilbert & Sullivan were anxious to gain permission to use it, prior to letting the title out to the world at large – and they finally started advertising the true operas name just eleven days before the opening.
Gilbert usually destroyed his working notes after he’d finished with them. The working notes detail plot, from basic outline through to the almost finished plot. Unusually however, the rough plot book for Iolanthe is one of the few that survived. It’s now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. It illustrates Gilbert’s penchant for writing on the right-hand side of the page – leaving the left side for doodles (particularly cartoon heads) and brief notes.
Iolanthe is a memorable piece of art, set in both an imaginative world and a political one. The plot book goes some way to highlight how Gilbert struggled to find the right setting for his initial idea – finally settling on immortal fairies being at odds with the House of Peers. This allowed him to include various tones, including whimsy, fantasy, romance, wit and political satire.
Production and premier
Sullivan met up with Gilbert several times during the summer months, before commencing the bulk of the score until the last moment – something he was well known to do. This was followed by several all-night sessions through September and October to allow completion – ready for rehearsals to start in October.
Iolanthe was premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 25th November 1882. It was the first play to be shown in the newly electrified theatre – the first theatre in the world to be lit with electricity. This made for a magical experience, especially due to the world the Opera was set in – allowing for sparkling fairy wands and illuminated fairy headdresses.
Iolanthe’s initial run totalled 398 performances in London, with105 performances in New York and subsequent performances in Australia in 1885.
Sullivan’s subsequent knighthood
Five months after Gladstone attended Iolanthe, Sullivan was knighted on 22nd May 1883. It was unheard of for a dramatist at that time to be honoured – so Gilbert, sadly missed out on that honour and, understandably felt like he’d been passed over. The knighthood however, left Sir Arthur Sullivan battling with the serious music critics over the ‘correctness’ of a Sir writing for comedy opera and the need to be writing more serious pieces of music.