W. S. Gilbert's Operas for the German Reeds

Overview and Reviews by J. Donald Smith

German Reed
German Reed
W. S. Gilbert
W. S. Gilbert, at about the time these operas were written.
Frederic Clay
Frederic Clay, Gilbert's collaborator on Happy Arcadia and Ages Ago, and the man credited with introducing Gilbert and Sullivan to each other.

From 1869 through 1875, Gilbert wrote six works for Thomas German Reed's Gallery of Illustration, which was designed to make theatre-going respectable among a Victorian public that saw the theatre as an unsavory institution unsuitable for family entertainment.

Gilbert was still experimenting with various dramatic styles, from the absolute farce of No Cards with a few musical numbers, through the multi-act dramatic presentations of Ages Ago and A Sensation Novel in which music is a continual and essential element of the dramatic action.

Since German Reed purchased the performing rights to Sullivan's Cox and Box, as well as as commissioning The Contrabandista from Sullivan and Burnand, one wag has commented that the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were "cradled among the Reeds."

It was at the Gallery of Illustration that Gilbert's and Sullivan's names first appeared on a program together: a double bill of Ages Ago and Cox and Box, and it was here that Frederic Clay, the composer of Ages Ago (which was dedicated to Sullivan) first introduced Gilbert and Sullivan to each other. The interested reader is referred to Jane W. Stedman's Gilbert Before Sullivan (University of Chicago Press, 1967) for the librettos of these works as well as a detailed introduction and analysis.

There is so much in these works that Gilbert developed into well-known aspects of his operas with Sullivan that it is possible to only mention a few here. At every turn in these works there is a situation or a line which is instantly recognizable and helps the viewer instantly to associate them with Gilbert's later efforts. Here one will find:

  • The elderly lady who is "an acquired taste."
  • The picture gallery which comes to life.
  • The youth apprenticed to a pirate instead of a pilot because of a nurse-maid mistaking her instructions.
  • The girl sitting at a spinning-wheel to open an opera.
  • The gentleman who succeeds in cutting off his own head.
  • Attainment of royalty by competitive examination.
  • A man who is sixty-five while his grandmother is seventeen.
  • Belgrave Square and Seven Dials.
  • "…Had you ever a father? No! Nor a mother? Never!"
Gilbert Before Sullivan
Jane W. Stedman, Gilbert Before Sullivan (University of Chicago Press, 1967). This book, an essential read for any Gilbert fan, contains the texts to all six of the German Reed "entertainments," as well as a facsimile of the vocal score to Ages Ago.

The Royal Victorian Opera Company

The Royal Victorian Opera Company has been performing in the Boston area since the early 1980's. Besides the "German Reed" operas, Dr. Charles V. Berney, the group's Artistic Director, has also adapted a sub-plot from Gilbert's The Mountebanks as a self-contained small work which could readily be performed by a small group of players — an essential criterion for this group.

The videos, which are mostly of live performances, range from sophisticated three-camera shoots to single-camera pictures. All of the performances are well done and fully convey the essence of Gilbert's (mostly unknown) work. All are worth having as depictions of Gilbert's pre-Sullivan days.

Videos are available from Dr. Charles V. Berney, 91 Standish Road, Watertown, MA 02172. $30.00 each; $4.00 postage for 1 video, $2.00 for each subsequent one. Checks only.