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The Origins of Comic Opera

Comic opera, which was hugely popular in the English theatre during the Edwardian era, traced its origins to Italy in the early eighteenth century. In Naples at that time, a trend developed in mainstream opera productions of rounding off the acts with short comic pieces. At first these would stem directly from the overall plot of the production, but over time they began to become increasingly seperate from it, developing into self-contained short pieces with a separate plot of their own. Called 'intermezzi', these comic opera interludes soon proved to be the most popular part of the show, so it was inevitable that they would break away from the mainstream and become full operas, of the comic variety, in their own right.

In 1752, an Italian comic opera company appeared in Paris and delighted the Parisians with this new form of musical entertainment. Normal French fare at the time was similar in form to the English ballad opera but the success of this Italian venture soon led to the French developing their own interpretation of the comic genre. Distinguished french dramatists and composers of the day tried their hand at it with much success and the French form soon became firmly established.

Whilst its popularity spread on the continent however, England at first resisted the introduction of this new form. Ballad opera remained popular, but the need for more light hearted musical entertainment was amply served by a peculiarly British form of entertainment that was developing at the time - Music Hall. Even so, it would only be a matter of time before the continental form of comic opera invaded London and established itself in the British Isles.

It began with a few French touring companies who proved that the form could succeed in England. For the insular British, performances in English were needed and the first presentation of true comic opera in English took place at the Covent Garden with "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein" opening on 18th November 1857. It was an adaptation of a French production, with English libretto penned by Charles Lamb Kenny to a musical score by Jacques Offenbach.

Comic opera, delayed for so long arriving in England, soon became enormously popular. More french productions and adaptations followed and British librettists and composers began to turn their pens to the new form. On 26th December, 1871, the Gaiety theatre in London staged a production of a what would prove to be the forerunner of a quintessentially British form of comic opera - "Thespis; or the Gods Grown Old". Although this work was really a burlesque rather than a comic opera, it marked the first collaboration of a librettist and composer whose names were to become synonymous with the very best of comic opera - William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

Gilbert and Sullivan

Sir Arthur Sullivan
John Hollingshead was responsible for the first collaboration between these two luminaries. When he needed a musical entertainment for his Gaiety theatre for the Christmas of 1871, he employed Gilbert to write the book. Gilbert had worked for Hollingshead before and had written the book for a burlesque entitled "Robert the Devil" which had been staged on the opening night that theatre three years previously. For the music, Hollingshead employed Arthur Sullivan, as relatively inexperienced with stage work. The resultant 'operatic extravaganza', "Thespis; or the Gods Grown Old", received generally poor critical reviews giving little forewarning of the greatness the pair would go on to acheive.

W. S. Gilbert
It would be four more years before the pair would work together again. This time it was Richard D'Oyly Carte who commissioned them to write a one act play, the result being "Trial by Jury". This time the success was in no doubt (it ran for 300 performances). Although their personal relationship was to be somewhat turbulent, Gilbert and Sullivan produced twelve more enormously popular operettas (a total of 14 collaborative works).

The full list was:

What made the Gilbert and Sullivan productions particularly appealling to British audiences was their topical nature parodying the establishment and conventions of the day. A second factor was the often patriotic flavour of many of Gilbert's librettos - after all, the British Empire was at its height and these were patriotic times. But the musical quality and the freshness of the productions made them almost equally to foreign audiences. Would American audiences hve recognised the Captain Shaw mentioned in 'Iolanthe' as a reference to that worthy who was then head of the London Fire Brigade? Would American hearts have been so stirred by Ralph's rendition of "I am an Englishman" in 'HMS Pinafore'? Even without these benefits the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas took that continent by storm.

Gilbert and Sullivan had made comic opera their own. And there the story of the origins of comic opera must end since with them it reached its zenith. Never before or since have any of their productions been equalled let alone exceeded.

Primary Sources: "Nights of Gladness", McQueen-Pope 1956; Oxford Companion to the Theatre, 1st Ed. 1951; Plus various other online and literary sources.

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