Savoy opera

Savoy opera was a style of comic opera that developed in Victorian England in the late 19th century, with W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan as the original and most successful practitioners. The name is derived from the Savoy Theatre, which impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte built to house the Gilbert and Sullivan pieces, and later, those by other composer–librettist teams. The great bulk of the non-G&S Savoy Operas either failed to achieve a foothold in the standard repertory, or have faded over the years, leaving the term "Savoy Opera" as practically synonymous with Gilbert and Sullivan. The Savoy operas (in both senses) were seminal influences on the creation of the modern musical.

Gilbert, Sullivan, Carte and other Victorian era British composers, librettists and producers,[1] as well as the contemporary British press and literature, called works of this kind "comic operas" to distinguish their content and style from that of the often risqué continental European operettas that they wished to displace. Most of the published literature on Gilbert and Sullivan since that time refers to these works as "Savoy Operas", "comic operas", or both.[2] However, the Penguin Opera Guides and many other general music dictionaries and encyclopedias classify the Gilbert and Sullivan works as operettas.[3]

Patience (1881) was the first opera to appear at the Savoy Theatre, and thus, in a strict sense, the first true "Savoy Opera", although the term "Savoy Opera" has, for over a century, included the complete set of thirteen operas that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote for Richard D'Oyly Carte:

Trial by Jury (1875)
The Sorcerer (1877)
H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Lass that Loved a Sailor (1878)
The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty (1880)
Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride (1881)
Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri (1882)
Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant (1884)
The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu (1885)
Ruddigore, or The Witch's Curse (1887)
The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid (1888)
The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria (1889)
Utopia, Limited, or The Flowers of Progress (1893)
The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel (1896)

Other definitions

During the years when the Gilbert and Sullivan ("G&S") operas were being written, Richard D'Oyly Carte produced operas by other composer–librettist teams, either as curtain raisers to the G&S pieces, or to fill the theatre when no G&S piece was available.[4] To their contemporaries, the term "Savoy Opera" referred to any opera that appeared at that theatre, regardless of who wrote it.

Aside from curtain raisers (which are listed in the second table below), the G&S operas were the only works produced at the Savoy Theatre from the date it opened (10 October 1881) until The Gondoliers closed on 20 June 1891. Over the next decade, there were only two new G&S pieces (Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke), both of which had comparatively brief runs. To fill the gap, Carte mounted G&S revivals, Sullivan operas with different librettists, and works by other composer–librettist teams. Richard D'Oyly Carte died on 3 April 1901. If the nexus of Carte and the Savoy Theatre is used to define "Savoy Opera," then the last new Savoy Opera was The Rose of Persia (music by Sullivan, libretto by Basil Hood), which ran from 28 November 1899 – 28 June 1900.

After Carte's death, his wife Helen Carte assumed management of the theatre. She continued to produce new pieces in the G&S style, along with G&S revivals. Counting the pieces that Mrs. D'Oyly Carte and the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company produced, the last Savoy Opera was A Princess of Kensington (music by Edward German, libretto by Basil Hood), which ran for four months in early 1903. This is the point that Cyril Rollins and R. John Witts adopt as the end of the Savoy Operas. After A Princess of Kensington, Mrs. D'Oyly Carte relinquished control of the theatre until 8 December 1906, when she produced two seasons of G&S revivals in repertory, with Gilbert returning to direct.

In March 1909, Charles H. Workman assumed control of the theatre, producing three new pieces, including one by Gilbert himself, Fallen Fairies (music by Edward German). The last of these Workman-produced works came in early 1910, Two Merry Monarchs, by Arthur Anderson, George Levy, and Hartley Carrick, with music by Orlando Morgan. The contemporary press referred to these works as "Savoy Operas",[5] and S. J. Adair Fitz-Gerald regarded Workman's pieces as the last Savoy Operas.[6]

Fitz-Gerald wrote his book, The Story of the Savoy Opera, in 1924, when these other pieces were still within living memory. But over time, all of the works produced at the Savoy by composers and librettists other than Gilbert and Sullivan were largely forgotten. The term "Savoy Opera" came to be synonymous with the thirteen extant works of Gilbert and Sullivan. The first collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan – the 1871 opera Thespis – was not a Savoy Opera under any of the definitions mentioned to this point, as Richard D'Oyly Carte did not produce it, nor was it ever performed at the Savoy Theatre. Given its lack of a D'Oyly Carte or Savoy connection, Thespis has a tenuous claim to be a "Savoy Opera." However, Rollins & Witts include it in their compendium of the Savoy Operas, as does Geoffrey Smith. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as: "Designating any of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas originally presented at the Savoy Theatre in London by the D'Oyly Carte company. Also used more generally to designate any of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including those first presented before the Savoy Theatre opened in 1881, or to designate any comic opera of a similar style which appeared at the theatre".[7]

Complete list

The following table shows all of the full-length operas that could be considered "Savoy Operas" under any of the definitions mentioned above. Only first runs are shown. Curtain-raisers and afterpieces that played with the Savoy Operas are included in the next table below.

TitleLibrettist(s)Composer(s)TheatreOpening DateClosing
ThespisW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanGaiety 26 December 18718 March 187264
Trial by JuryW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanRoyalty 25 March 187518 December 1875131
The SorcererW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanOpera Comique 17 November 187724 May 1878178
H.M.S. PinaforeW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanOpera Comique 25 May 187820 February 1880571
The Pirates of PenzanceW. S. GilbertArthur Sullivan Bijou, Paignton30 December 187930 December 18791
Fifth Avenue, NY31 December 18795 June 1880100
Opera Comique3 April 18802 April 1881363
PatienceW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanOpera Comique 23 April 18818 October 1881170
Savoy 10 October 188122 November 1882408
IolantheW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanSavoy 25 November 18821 January 1884398
Princess IdaW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanSavoy 5 January 18849 October 1884246
The MikadoW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanSavoy 14 March 188519 January 1887672
RuddygoreW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanSavoy 22 January 18875 November 1887288
The Yeomen of the GuardW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanSavoy 3 October 188830 November 1889423
The GondoliersW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanSavoy 7 December 188920 June 1891554
The Nautch GirlGeorge Dance & Frank DesprezEdward SolomonSavoy 30 June 189116 January 1892200
The Vicar of BraySydney GrundyEdward SolomonSavoy 28 January 189218 June 1892143
Haddon HallSydney GrundyArthur SullivanSavoy 24 September 189215 April 1893204
Jane AnnieJ. M. Barrie & Arthur Conan DoyleErnest FordSavoy 13 May 18931 July 189350
Utopia LimitedW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanSavoy 7 October 18939 June 1894245
MiretteHarry Greenbank & Fred E. Weatherly (revised by Adrian Ross)André MessagerSavoy 3 July 189311 August 189441
6 October 18946 December 189461
The ChieftainF. C. BurnandArthur SullivanSavoy 12 December 189416 March 189597
The Grand DukeW. S. GilbertArthur SullivanSavoy 7 March 189610 July 1896123
His MajestyF. C. Burnand, R. C. Lehmann, & Adrian RossAlexander MackenzieSavoy 20 February 189724 April 189761
The Grand Duchess of GerolsteinCharles H. Brookfield & Adrian RossJacques OffenbachSavoy 4 December 189712 March 1898104
The Beauty StoneA. W. Pinero & J. Comyns CarrArthur SullivanSavoy 28 May 189816 July 189850
The Lucky StarCharles H. Brookfield, Adrian Ross, & Aubrey HopwoodIvan CaryllSavoy 7 January 189931 May 1899143
The Rose of PersiaBasil HoodArthur SullivanSavoy 29 November 189928 June 1900213
The Emerald IsleBasil HoodArthur Sullivan & Edward GermanSavoy 27 April 19019 November 1901205
Ib and Little ChristinaBasil HoodFranco LeoniSavoy 14 November 190129 November 190116[8]
The Willow PatternBasil HoodCecil Cook
Merrie EnglandBasil HoodEdward GermanSavoy 2 April 190230 July 1902120
24 November 190217 January 190356
A Princess of KensingtonBasil HoodEdward GermanSavoy 22 January 190316 May 1903115
The MountaineersGuy EdenReginald SomervilleSavoy 29 September 190927 November 190961
Fallen FairiesW. S. GilbertEdward GermanSavoy 15 December 190929 January 191051
Two Merry MonarchsArthur Anderson, George Levy, & Hartley CarrickOrlando MorganSavoy 10 March 191023 April 191043

Companion pieces

The fashion in the late Victorian era and Edwardian era was to present long evenings in the theatre, and so full-length pieces were often presented together with companion pieces.[9] During the original runs of the Savoy Operas, each full-length work was normally accompanied by one or two short companion pieces. A piece that began the performance was called a curtain raiser, and one that ended the performance was called an afterpiece. W. J. MacQueen-Pope commented, concerning the curtain raisers:

This was a one-act play, seen only by the early comers. It would play to empty boxes, half-empty upper circle, to a gradually filling stalls and dress circle, but to an attentive, grateful and appreciative pit and gallery. Often these plays were little gems. They deserved much better treatment than they got, but those who saw them delighted in them. …[They] served to give young actors and actresses a chance to win their spurs…the stalls and the boxes lost much by missing the curtain-raiser, but to them dinner was more important.[10]

The following table lists the known companion pieces that appeared at the Opera Comique or the Savoy Theatre during the original runs and principal revivals of the Savoy Operas through 1909. There may have been more such pieces that have not yet been identified. In a number of cases, the exact opening and closing dates are not known. Date ranges overlap, since it was common to rotate two or more companion pieces at performances during the same period to be played with the main piece.[4]

Many of these pieces also played elsewhere (and often on tour by D'Oyly Carte touring companies). Only the runs at the Opera Comique and the Savoy are shown here.[4]

TitleLibrettist(s)Composer(s)TheatreOpening DateClosing
Played With
Dora's Dream Arthur Cecil Alfred Cellier Opera Comique 17 November 1877 7 February 1878* The Sorcerer
The Spectre Knight James Albery Alfred Cellier Opera Comique 9 February 1878 23 March 1878 The Sorcerer
28 May 1878 10 August 1878 Pinafore
Trial by Jury W. S. Gilbert Arthur Sullivan Opera Comique & Savoy 23 March 1878 24 May 1878 The Sorcerer
11 October 1884 12 March 1885
22 September 1898 31 December 1898
6 June 1899 25 November 1899 Pinafore
Beauties on the Beach George Grossmith George Grossmith Opera Comique 25 May 1878 5 August 1878 Pinafore
14 October 1878 5 December 1878*
A Silver Wedding George Grossmith George Grossmith Opera Comique part of 1878 Pinafore
Five Hamlets George Grossmith George Grossmith Opera Comique ? 1878 12 October 1878 Pinafore
Cups and Saucers George Grossmith George Grossmith Opera Comique 5 August 1878* 20 February 1880 Pinafore
After All! Frank Desprez Alfred Cellier Opera Comique 16 December 1878* 20 February 1880 Cups and Saucers
? Feb. 1880 20 March 1880 Children's Pinafore
Savoy 23 November 1895 4 March 1896 Mikado & Grand Duke
4 April 1896 8 August 1896
7 May 1897 16 June 1897 Yeomen
In the Sulks Frank Desprez Alfred Cellier Opera Comique 21 February 1880 ? Pirates
21 February 1880 20 March 1880 Children's Pinafore
3 April 1880 2 April 1881 Pirates
23 April 1881* 2 May 1881 Patience
Savoy 11 October 1881 14 October 1881
Uncle Samuel Arthur Law George Grossmith Opera Comique 3 May 1881 8 October 1881 Patience
Mock Turtles Frank Desprez Eaton Faning Savoy 11 October 1881 22 November 1882 Patience
25 November 1882 30 March 1883 Iolanthe
A Private Wire Frank Desprez Percy Reeve Savoy 31Mar. 1883 1 January 1884 Iolanthe
The Carp Frank Desprez & Arnold Felix Alfred Cellier Savoy 13 February 1886 19 January 1887 Mikado
21 February 1887 5 November 1887 Ruddigore
Mrs. Jarramie's Genie Frank Desprez Alfred Cellier & François Cellier Savoy 14 February 1888 ? Nov. 1889 Pinafore, Pirates, Mikado, Yeomen
Captain Billy Harry Greenbank François Cellier Savoy 24 September 1891 16 January 1892 Nautch Girl
1 February 1892 18 June 1892 Vicar of Bray
Mr. Jericho Harry Greenbank Ernest Ford Savoy 18 March 1893 15 April 1893 Haddon Hall
3 June 1893 1 July 1893 Jane Annie
Quite an Adventure Frank Desprez Edward Solomon Savoy 15 December 1894 29 December 1894 The Chieftain
Cox & Box F. C. Burnand Arthur Sullivan Savoy 31 December 1894 16 March 1895 The Chieftain
Weather or No Adrian Ross & William Beach Bertram Luard-Selby Savoy 10 August 1896 17 February 1897 The Mikado
2 March 1897 24 April 1897 His Majesty
Old Sarah Harry Greenbank François Cellier Savoy 17 June 1897 31 July 1897 Yeomen
16 August 1897 20 November 1897
10 December 1897 12 March 1898 The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein
22 March 1898* 21 May 1898 Gondoliers
Pretty Polly Basil Hood François Cellier Savoy 19 May 1900 28 June 1900 Rose of Persia
8 December 1900 20 April 1901 Patience
The Outpost Albert O'Donnell Bartholeyns Hamilton Clarke Savoy 2 July 1900 3 November 1900 Pirates
8 November 1900* 7 December 1900 Patience
The Willow Pattern Basil Hood Cecil Cook Savoy 14 November 1901 29 November 1901 Ib and Little Christina
(revised version) 9 December 1901 29 March 1902 Iolanthe
A Welsh Sunset Frederick Fenn Philip Michael Faraday Savoy 15 July 1908 17 October 1908 Pinafore & Pirates
2 December 1908 24 February 1909

*Indicates an approximate date.


  1. See German Reeds, Frederic Clay, Edward Solomon and F. C. Burnand
  2. See, e. g., Crowther, Stedman, Bailey, Bradley, Ainger and Jacobs. Gilbert & Sullivan described 12 of their 14 collaborations as "operas":
    • The Sorcerer: a "Modern Comic Opera"
    • H.M.S. Pinafore: a "Nautical Comic Opera"
    • The Pirates of Penzance: a "Melo-Dramatic Opera"
    • Patience: an "Aesthetic Opera"
    • Iolanthe: a "Fairy Opera"
    • Princess Ida: "A respectful Operatic Perversion of Tennyson's Princess"
    • The Mikado: a "Japanese Opera"
    • Ruddygore: a "Supernatural Opera"
    • The Yeomen of the Guard: an "Opera"
    • The Gondoliers: a "Comic Opera"
    • Utopia, Limited, a "Comic Opera"
    • The Grand Duke: a "Comic Opera"
  3. The New Penguin Opera Guide, ed. Amanda Holden, Penguin Books, London 2001 and The Penguin Concise Guide to Opera, ed. Amanda Holden, Penguin Books, London 2005 both state: "Operetta is the internationally recognized term for the type of work on which William Schwenck Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated under Richard D'Oyly Carte's management (1875–96), but they themselves used the words 'comic opera'". See also the Oxford Dictionary of Opera, ed. John Warrack and Ewan West, Oxford University Press 1992 and The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, 4 vols, ed. Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, New York 1992
  4. Walters, Michael and George Low. "Curtain Raisers", The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, 16 August, 2011, accessed 27 February 2017
  5. See e.g., The Manchester Guardian, 17 September 1910, p. 1, advertising The Mountaineers.
  6. See also Farrell, passim
  7. "Savoy", Oxford English Dictionary", Oxford University Press, June 2017, accessed 9 December 2017 (subscription required)
  8. The Willow Pattern continued to run after Ib and Little Christina closed, as a companion piece to Iolanthe, for an original run of 110 performances.
  9. Lee Bernard. "Swash-buckling Savoy curtain-raiser", Sheffield Telegraph, 1 August 2008
  10. MacQueen-Pope, Walter James. Carriages at Eleven (1947), London: Robert Hale and Co., p. 23


  • Farrell, Scott (2009). The C. H. Workman Productions: A Centenary Review of the Final Savoy Operas. Scott Farrell.
  • Fitz-Gerald, S. J. Adair (1924). The Story of the Savoy Opera. London: Stanley Paul & Co.
  • Rollins, Cyril; R. John Witts (1962). The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in Gilbert and Sullivan Operas: A Record of Productions, 1875–1961. London: Michael Joseph. OCLC 504581419.

Further reading

  • Ainger, Michael (2002). Gilbert and Sullivan, a Dual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bradley, Ian (1996). The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Crowther, Andrew (2000). Contradiction Contradicted – The Plays of W. S. Gilbert. Associated University Presses. ISBN 0-8386-3839-2.
  • Gilbert, W. S. (1994). The Savoy Operas. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd. ISBN 1-85326-313-3.
  • Jacobs, Arthur (1992). Arthur Sullivan – A Victorian Musician (Second ed.). Portland, OR: Amadeus Press.
  • O'Brien, Christopher (2015). Savoy Curtain-Raisers, Musica Britannica series. London: Stainer & Bell.
  • Smith, Geoffrey (1983). The Savoy Operas. London: Robert Hale Limited.
  • Stedman, Jane W. (1996). W. S. Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & His Theatre. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816174-3.
  • Williams, Carolyn (2010). Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-14804-6.
  • Wolfson, John (1976). Final Curtain – The Last Gilbert and Sullivan Operas. London: Chappell & Company Limited.
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