THE two forms of British light opera with which we will deal are comic opera and musical comedy. Both are lineal descendants of the ballad opera, that eighteenth-century protest against the Italian conquest of the London operatic scene, which began with the arrival of Handel, who visited London and produced his opera Rinaldo there in 1712. Beginning with The Beggar's Opera in 1728, ballad operas by Arne, Dibdin, Arnold, Shield, Jackson of Exeter, Hook and others enjoyed great popularity down to the days of Bishop, Balfe and Wallace. After that no native opera enjoyed a lasting popularity until the Gilbert and Sullivan series, which belongs to that very type. The first collaboration was billed as "An entirely original grotesque opera Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old". It was presented as part of a burlesque entertainment at the Gaiety Theatre in 1871 by John Hollingshead, who described himself as "licensed dealer in legs, short skirts, French adaptations, Shakespeare, taste and the musical glasses". It was not a great success; the public was probably not yet ready for Gilbert's wit, and found him too clever and paradoxical for their taste. Their next collaboration produced Trial by Jury, presented in 1875 by a popular lyric actress, Miss Selina Dolaro, at the Royalty Theatre as curtain-raiser to Offenbach's La Périchole. It was the success of Trial by Jury which decided D'Oyly Carte to embark on a policy of British comic opera, and there followed the famous series of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, beginning with The Sorcerer in 1877 and ending with The Grand Duke in 1896. The best wits and the best composers found it impossible to equal the achievements of these great collaborators, though many tried.
THE nearest approach to Gilbert in wit was Basil Hood. He collaborated with Sullivan to produce The Rose of Persia in 1899 and the two were at work on The Emerald Isle when Sullivan died. Edward German was called in to complete the work, which involved harmonizing and orchestrating all the numbers Sullivan had already composed in addition to completing the score. Merrie England by Hood and German followed in 1902, and German's other comic operas were Tom Jones, A Princess of Kensington, and Fallen Fairies to a libretto by Gilbert. Other notable composers of comic opera Alfred Cellier (Dorothy, Doris), Edward Solomon (The Nautch Girl), G.H. Clutsam (Youth England with Hubert Bath), H. Fraser-Simson (The Maid of the Mountains with James Tate), Montague Phillips (The Rebel Maid), Thomas Dunhill (Taintivy Towers), Alfred Reynolds (Derby Day), and Walter Leigh (The Pride of the Regiment, The Jolly Roger).
MUSICAL comedy developed from burlesque, a form of entertainment which started with Madame Vestris' management of the Olympic Theatre in 1831, where she presented Olympic Revels by J.R. Planché. In the early forms of burlesque the words of the songs were fitted to popular tunes in the manner of The Beggar's Opera. Later, when George Edwardes became connected with this form of entertainment, composers like Meyer Lutz and Dr. Osmond Carr contributed original music. The dialogue was in the form of rhymed couplets, interspersed with excruciating puns. Here is a sample from Faust-up-to-date:
- Mephistopheles: "Along the Riviera dudes her praises sing."
- Walerlie: "Oh, did you Riviera such a thing?"
--at which the audience, understandably, groaned.
WHEN George Edwards saw that what John Hollingshead called "The Sacred Flame of Burlesque" was flickering, he abandoned it in favor of musical comedy, a formula of his own invention, which he established successfully with The Shop Girl at the Gaiety Theatre in 1894. This was the first of "The Girls", and there followed The Circus Girl, A Runaway Girl, A Country Girl, The Quaker Girl and many others. The composers of these early musical comedies were Ivan Caryll, Lionel Monckton, Paul Rubens, Sidney Jones (with his enormously successful The Geisha and San Toy), Howard Talbot and Leslie Stuart.
THE lyric-writers were Adrian Ross (Arthur Reeves Ropes, a history don at King's College, Cambridge), Harry and Percy Greenbank, and ArthurWimperis. Some of the stars were Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss, Arthur Roberts, Connie Ediss, Edmund Payne, Huntley Wright, Evie Green, Marie Tempest and Gertie Millar; and later, George Grossmith, jr., Phyllis and Zena Dare, W.H. Berry, Evelyn Laye and Leslie Henson.
LATER milestones include Noel Coward's big hit, Bitter Sweet; and Ivor Novello's persistently successful series of spectacular shows starting in 1935 with Glamorous Night and ending in 1949 with King's Rhapsody. Vivian Ellis always maintained a high standard of melody in shows like Mister Cinders, Jill Darling, Bless the Bride, And So To Bed and The Water Gipsies. Two other phenomenally successful shows were The Boy Friend by Sandy Wilson and Salad Days by Julian Slade.
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