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Gilbert & Sullivan Biography

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Librettist W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) collaborated on a series of fourteen comic operas in Victorian England between 1871 and 1896.

The Gilbert and Sullivan works have enjoyed broad and enduring international success, particularly in the English-speaking world. H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates Of Penzance and The Mikado, in particular, introduced innovations in content and form that directly influenced the musical theatre of the 20th century. Their works have become known as the Savoy Operas, after the Savoy Theatre in London, which was built in 1881 by their producer, Richard D'Oyly Carte, to present their operas.

Gilbert, who wrote the words, created fanciful worlds for these operas, where an absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion. In these worlds fairies rub elbows with English lords, flirting is a capital offense, gondoliers ascend to the monarchy, and pirates turn out to be noblemen who have gone wrong. The lyrics employ double (and triple) rhyming and punning, and served as a model for such 20th century Broadway lyricists as P.G. Wodehouse, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Lorenz Hart. Sullivan, the composer, who also wrote many hymns, oratorios, part songs and orchestral works, contributed tuneful and memorable melodies that could convey both humour and pathos, and his musical ingenuity and craft equaled or surpassed that of many important classical composers.

Gilbert and Sullivan sometimes had a strained working relationship, partly caused by the fact that each man saw himself allowing his work to be subjugated to the other's, and partly caused by the opposing personalities of the two – Gilbert was often confrontational and notoriously thin-skinned (though prone to acts of extraordinary kindness), while Sullivan eschewed conflict. In addition, Gilbert imbued his libretti with "topsy-turvy" situations in which the social order was turned upside down. After a time, these subjects were often at odds with Sullivan's desire for realism and emotional content. In addition, Gilbert's political satire often poked fun at those in the circles of privilege, while Sullivan was eager to socialize among the wealthy and titled people who would become his friends and patrons.

For over a century, until it closed in 1982, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performed the Gilbert and Sullivan operas (controlling the British copyrights to the works until 1961) and exercised great influence over the style and traditions for performing these works. Today, many cities, churches, schools, and universities have their own amateur Gilbert and Sullivan performing groups. The most popular G&S works are also performed from time to time by major opera companies, and there are a number of professional repertory companies that specialize in G&S. In addition, every summer, there is a 3-week long International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England.
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