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The First Lit Opera: Gilbert & Sullivan's "Iolanthe"

Original Program Cover to Gilbert & Sullivan's "Iolanthe" at the Savoy Theatre
Victoria and Albert Museum
Original Program Cover to Gilbert & Sullivan's "Iolanthe" at the Savoy Theatre

We take lights for granted nowadays, but lighting was not always so easy to come by. This week, tune in for the first stage production to use lightbulbs - and a fun musical romp to boot - in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe".

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan: Iolanthe

The Lord Chancellor: George Baker
Iolanthe: Marjorie Thomas
Earl of Mountararat: Ian Wallace
Earl Tolloller: Alexander Young
Private Willis: Owen Brannigan
Strephon: John Cameron
Queen of the Fairies: Monica Sinclair
Celia: April Cantelo
Lelia: Heather Harper
Phyllis: Elsie Morison

Pro Arte Orchestra / Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
Malcolm Sargent, conductor

Read along with the libretto to Iolanthe.

Read a synopsis of the story.


It is easy to forget about the lights. You probably hardly think of them at all. You enter a hall with its seats tactfully illuminated, thin strips of lighted runners bordering each row. When you sit, the hall dims and the curtain rises and the stage springs to life with dancers or singers or actors all swimming in seas of colored lights. With the perfect lighting, you suspend your disbelief and become fully absorbed in the action on stage. When the act ends, the curtain flies down, the house lights go up, and you walk to get a snack in the lobby, never once thinking about the lights.

I am the same. But we really should be more awed by the lights. After all, in the grand scheme of things, they are probably the newest things in the theater.

In ancient times, lighting wasn't much of an issue; theater was simply performed outside in amphitheaters. All you had to do was plan the time of day you wanted portrayed in your play, perhaps cleverly use a mirror or two for a desired effect, pray to the gods it didn't rain, and voilà! You had the lighting design wrapped up.

Theater was held in outdoor settings for hundreds of years. Even Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was likely an outdoor theater. As the Renaissance progressed, indoor public theaters became popular as the invention of dimmable oil lamps made indoor theater more convenient. Plays moved from outside to inside, and lighting designs became more daring. Most theaters just used candles, but experiments also took place with oils that burned in different shades, chemicals which burned at various intensities, and systems that turned multiple wicks down at once.

It's nice to imagine: beautiful Baroque theaters standing tall in the middle of some city, whitewashed walls laced with ornate gilding and trimmed with a flourish, filled with beautifully-dressed audiences enjoying a stage bathed in the warmth of hundreds of candles and oil lamps. Mozart would have been at home in a theater like this. 

That beautiful warm glow was actually a big problem, because the warmth could very quickly turn into real heat - namely, fire. Unsurprisingly, indoor illumination by lamp and candle light led to countless theaters burning to the ground. On the whole, candles and lamps did the trick, for a time.

Then in 1879 came Edison and his electric light bulb, and the theater was never the same. Electric lighting allowed for a dramatic (pun intended) increase in what was possible on the stage, with the added benefit of being much less likely to burn the house down, and theaters very quickly took to the new technology.

This is where Gilbert and Sullivan came in. The first theater to use electric lighting was the Savoy Theatre in London, which was built in 1881 by Richard D'Oyly Carte - the impresario responsible for bringing Gilbert and Sullivan together - expressly for Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas.* The Savoy Theatre didn't skimp on the new technology either, employing no fewer than 824 stage lights and 334 house lights. 

The first show to use the lights in the newly-built Savoy Theatre was the operetta Iolanthe, which is featured this week on Sunday Night at the Opera. 

It's hard to imagine today the thrill that the first audiences at the Savoy must have felt when the whole room erupted with electric light. Most people had only candles and oil lamps in their homes. The Savoy had over a thousand light bulbs, each single bulb radiating the equivalent light of 16 candles. I get a shiver just thinking about it myself.

So the next time you to take any evening out to the theater, while everyone else is busily not enjoying the lights, take a moment and bask in the glow, and think of Gilbert and Sullivan. 


William S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900) first came together in 1871 on a project titled Thespis. At that point they were both fairly well-accomplished in their respective fields: Gilbert's plays and reviews giving him a somewhat-known name, and Sullivan's incidental music to Shakespeare plays also getting some notice. But neither was superstar material on his own; it took the combination of their forces to create a musical legacy.

Together, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote fourteen operettas over 25 years, with a combined 4,800 opening-run performances in London alone. Their collaboration changed the musical landscape both in England and in the United States. Without them, musical theater and Broadway would not have flourished as they did.

Not that it was all smooth sailing: when the Savoy Theatre opened, they were just about at each other's throats. Yet, like oil and vinegar, together they were at their finest, and so they continued to collaborate until 1896, when, after a string of failures, the two men parted ways. 

Today, Gilbert and Sullivan's legacy lives on in the dozens of G&S companies scattered around England and the United States (Harvard and MIT alone each boast one) as well as in the continued strength of musical theater around the world. 

Read more about Gilbert and Sullivan via the Huntington Theatre Company


FRANZ LÉHAR: "Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß" from Guidetta
  Anna Netrebko, soprano
  Prague Philharmonia
  Emmanuel Villaume, conductor
Album: Anna Netrebko - Souvenirs

GEORGE BIZET: "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" (i.e. The Flower Aria) from Carmen
  Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
  Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
  Marco Armiliato, conductor
Album: Classical Love Songs

CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS: "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from Samson et Dalila
  Elīna Garanča, mezzo-soprano
  SWF Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden & Freiburg
  Marco Armiliato, conductor
Album: Classical Love Songs

1) Gradual: "Locus iste a Deo factus est"
2) "Ave Maria"
3) "Virga Jesse floruit"
4) Gradual: "Christus factus est pro nobis"
  Corydon Singers
  Matthew Best, conductor
Album: Bruckner Motets - Corydon Singers/Matthew Best

HUGO WOLF: 13 Mörike-Lieder
1) Gebet
2) Fußreise
3) Er ist's
4) Im Frühling
5) Auf ein altes Bild
6) Der Genesene an die Hoffnung
7) Auf einer Wanderung
8) Zitronenfalter im April
9) Der Gärtner
10) Begegnung
11) Der Tambour
12) Jägerlied
13) Nimmersattee Liebe
    Werner Güra, tenor / Jan Schultsz, piano
Album: Hugo Wolf: Mörike-Lieder / Werner Güra

*Fun fact: the first theater in the U.S. to use electric lighting was the Bijou Theatre in Boston. It opened in 1882, also opening with Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe. The theater doesn't exist anymore, but the facade of it does. If you're ever in the theater district, take a look at the second floor of 545 Washington Street (the building right next to the Paramount Theater) and you'll see the first place to have electric theater in the United States.

Image showing the inside of Boston's Bijou Theatre, home of the first electrically lit stage in the U.S. (anonymous artistic rendering)
Credit Wikimedia Commons
Inside of Boston's Bijou Theatre, home of the first electrically lit stage in the U.S. (anonymous artistic rendering)

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.