One of classical music’s greatest guilty pleasures—the music of Gilbert & Sullivan—celebrated an historic event in late October when the famed D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, the 144 year-old company founded by the team’s original producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, sold some of their last remaining original Gilbert & Sullivan treasures to the British Library. It had long been feared these possessions, which include the celebrated signed manuscript to the team’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, might be sold to private collectors and unavailable for public perusal and consumption.
The collection contains important materials that will now allow any researcher to look into the inner workings of one of the most famous theatrical producing companies in history. The rarest part of this collection, at least in this writer’s opinion, is the unique documentation of a company’s production methods. An amazing collection of Gilbert’s prompt books, costume and set design materials, press cuttings, correspondence with artists and agents, stage management reports, details of fundraisers and special events, pay lists, reel to reel recordings of cast members, important Sullivan scores, band parts, the aforementioned Iolanthe score, and an amusing audition journal dating from 1905-1910 containing frank, sometimes extremely cruel, audition notes regarding potential artists. There is also a very rare collection of peg dolls dressed in the costumes of H.M.S. Pinafore, created by Jo Adnam.
The British Library reportedly paid £400,000 ($618,000 USD) for the priceless collection and funds from the sale will allow the newly reformed D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to continue a new partnership of co-productions with the Scottish Opera. The partnership, arranged by D’Oyly Carte’s current General Manger, Ian Martin, produced a very successful 2013 tour of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance and will now be able to produce a 2016 tour of The Mikado, no doubt due to this lucrative sale.
The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company produced continuously from 1871-1982, but suffered in the following years due to financial and leadership issues. The company was completely dormant from 2003-2013, but has recently found resurgence by teaming with the Scottish Opera. Richard D’Oyly Carte and his opera company are also responsible for one of England’s most famous theatres, the Savoy, which was built in response to the extreme popularity of the works of Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir William Gilbert and the marketing and producing genius of D’Oyly Carte.
The cost to preserve, catalogue, and make available to the public this collection would never have been possible for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company as they exist today and this sale to the British Library will allow the collection to remain in the UK indefinitely at a location that also houses Handel’s signed copy of The Messiah, Schubert’s original An die Musik, and William Byrd’s 1591 Ladye Nevell’s Booke, a book of famed keyboard pieces—not to mention the signed Sullivan scores to Patience, The Gondoliers and Ruddigore. The British Library also houses Gilbert’s personal papers. Important Gilbert & Sullivan materials are also housed at the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, and the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Sir Arthur Sullivan’s diaries are kept at Yale University in the United States.
Any lover of operettas and musicals cannot underestimate the value of Gilbert & Sullivan’s works to the American musical theatre tradition and reciprocally, without the popularity of their works on American shores, Gilbert & Sullivan’s fame might not have endured for the better part of two centuries. Gilbert & Sullivan are often considered the grandfathers of American musical theatre and it could easily be argued that without the fertile soil they created with theatrical works containing sophisticated music and intellectually stimulating lyrics which share equal footing, there might never have been classics like Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma.
I will be booking a plane ticket to London so I can visit this collection when it is finally catalogued and available. I can’t wait to continue to trace Gilbert & Sullivan’s theatrical ancestry back to its protoplasmal primordial atomic globule.
Featured image: HMS Pinafore Cast by C. Kelly Roberts. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.