Opera has a long history in England, with roots in dance, masque, and tragedy (like Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas). Throughout the Baroque period, English music was heavily influenced by continental tastes. German opera composers such as G. F. Handel worked for the new Hanoverian (Georgian) kings in competition with English concert producers, and Italian stars rivaled local talent throughout the early 1700s. Several distinct forms of comic theater thrived.

English ballad operas combined spoken text with current popular tunes: the most influential was John Gay’s popular The Beggar’s Opera (1728). British politicians were wary of the success of such a low-brow form and took steps to stifle this budding branch of British theater.

Comic opera was imported from Italy and competed with French styles up to the revolutions of the 1770s-90s. In 1843, Parliament clamped down on popular entertainment by passing the Theatres Act: it specified that saloons, gardens, and cafés providing music could only be licensed if run as “theatres,” and that the Lord Chamberlain could vet and prevent any new plays threatening “the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace.” Spoken drama was limited to the patent theatres, where grand opera also thrived (originally only the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden in London), so promoters began to raise funds to establish new venues.

Early Romantic operetta provides a bridge to later masterworks. Parisian composers Hervé (a.k.a. Florimond Ronger, 1825-1892) and Adolphe Adam (composer of Giselle, 1803-1956) are considered to have created the first operettas (with spoken dialogue instead of sung recitative). The French government, which sponsored all grand opera, limited independent musical productions to one-act works, with no more than three characters. Jacques Offenbach’s dozens of successes of the 1850s established the operetta form as a viable financial endeavor, and resulted in the three-singer limit being lifted in 1858.

High British comedies of the same period required newly composed musical scores with recitatives instead of spoken dialogue; they were billed as comedy operas, comic operas, and light operas. Michael Balfe’s wildly popular opera The Bohemian Girl (1845) told of members of the nobility raised by gypsies, and its English arias spawned popular hits (like Balfe’s “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” still heard in recitals today). Light-hearted stories were buoyed by melodies that could appeal to popular taste, combining the best of several contrasting types of music theater.

Arthur Sullivan

In this heady climate, Arthur Sullivan began a career as a composer of both “serious” music (he had trained in the Chapel Royal, the Royal Academy of Music, and in Leipzig on a Mendelssohn scholarship) and of “light” music (his father was a theatre musician who became an army bandmaster). He was the conductor of the Leeds Festival for almost twenty years, a recital accompanist for the royal family (knighted in 1883), and “incomparably the greatest English musician of the age” according to author William Schwenck Gilbert.

Sullivan became famous overnight after a successful 1862 performance of his incidental music for The Tempest in the Crystal Palace. Over the next decade, he published his only song cycle (The Window, to texts by Tennyson), a cello concerto and symphony, several dramatic cantatas, and popular hymn tunes such as St. Gertrude (adopted as Onward, Christian Soldiers by the Salvation Army). Large-scale works of this period include huge commissions for the Crystal Palace (Festival Te Deum, 1872), the Three Choirs Festival (an 1869 three-act oratorio, The Prodigal Son), and the 1873 Birmingham Festival (The Light of the World).

Sullivan met his longtime collaborator, W. S. Gilbert, in 1870 and was commissioned to write the burlesque-style comic opera Thespis with him for the Gaiety Theatre the following year. After this project, they went their separate ways until late 1874, but the decade was filled with other theatrical commissions, including suites of incidental music for Shakespeare plays, and eventually a series of one-act comic operas.

Richard D’Oyly Carte, the manager of the Royalty Theatre, commissioned Trial by Jury as a short one-act to fill out a bill with Offenbach’s La Périchole. Starring Sullivan’s brother Fred as the Learned Judge, the work was a surprise hit (running over 300 performances) and established “Gilbert & Sullivan” as a formidable team who would create twelve more operas together. During the development of Trial by Jury, and premiering only three months later, Sullivan also collaborated with B. C. Stephenson on The Zoo.


Benjamin Charles Stephenson (1839–1906) was a Victorian dramatist, lyricist, and librettist who wrote under the pen name Bolton Rowe. The pseudonym came from his grandfather’s last address in Mayfair, on Bolton Row.

Stephenson was the librettist for The Zoo, and also contributed libretti for pirate-themed operettas by Frederic Clay and for Alfred Cellier’s successful one-act operetta Charity Begins at Home (1872, over 200 performances). He made an English adaptation of Lecocq’s operetta Le Petit Duc (1878) and was lauded for his translations of Victorin Sarou’s plays Nos intimes (as Peril) and Dora (as Diplomacy) for the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London.

Stephenson’s most well-known piece was Dorothy (1886), with music by Alfred Cellier (mostly composed in 1876). Dorothy was the most successful English comic opera of the period, running for 931 performances in London, frequently revived for two decades, and starring Lillian Russell in the first American production (1887). Composer Arthur Cellier had sung with Arthur Sullivan in the Chapel Royal as a boy, served as Sullivan’s music director for D’Oyly Carte from 1877-1883, and conducted every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta from Sorcerer to Mikado.

Stephenson and Cellier’s success with Dorothy terrified Gilbert and Sullivan, competing for audiences and leading singers. Henry Leslie, who had been sold the production during its initial run at the Gaiety, made so much money from Dorothy that he was able to build his own theater in London, christening it the Lyric Theatre.

The Zoo

Sir Arthur Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London on 13 May 1842 and died in London on 22 November 1900. The Zoo is a comic opera in one act with a libretto by B. C. Stephenson, writing under the pseudonym “Bolton Rowe.” Overshadowed by the premiere of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury three months earlier, The Zoo opened on 5 June 1875, at the St. James’ Theatre, as an afterpiece to Gilbert’s farce Tom Cobb. It ran 18 performances, and then transferred to the Haymarket from 28 June-10 July. It was revived on 2 October 1875 at the Philharmonic Theatre where it ran for a month. When The Strand Theatre considered a revival in 1877, Sullivan asked his friend Alan Cole to help rewrite the libretto, but the original work was next produced at the Royalty Theatre from 14 April-3 May 1879.

This forty-two minute one-act English opera published under the subtitle “a musical folly” dates from the beginning of Sullivan’s theatrical career, with sprightly, charming music that is now most often heard as a curtain raiser for his later Savoy operas.

Present-day interest in the opera traces back to Terence Rees’s purchase of the autograph score at a Sotheby’s auction in 1966. A new edition spawned successful runs of the work by Fulham Light Opera in 1971 (directed by Max Miradin), and the D’Oyly Carte opera company in 1978. The Zoo has also been recorded by the BBC, and broadcast on a number of occasions.

The Bear

Sir William Walton was born in Oldham, Lancashire, England on 29 May 1902 and died in Forio, Ischia (off the coast of Naples) on 8 March 1983. The Bear is an opera in one act based on a comic vaudeville by Anton Chekhov. It premiered at Jubilee Hall at the Aldeburgh Festival (founded by Walton’s younger colleague Benjamin Britten) on 3 June 1967.

Born in the far northwestern corner of England, Walton was a chorister and an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford. The Sitwell siblings were his lifelong sponsors, supporting ballets such as Façade (1923), his career in London, and his early modernist works. Successes of the next decade included his viola concerto (premiered by composer Paul Hindemith as the soloist), the massive choral cantata Belshazzar’s Feast, and the Crown Imperial march for the coronation of George VI.

During World War II, Walton was exempted for military service to compose music for six wartime films, but German bombs destroyed his house in 1941. He composed slowly, sometimes spending more than five years on a large commission (the opera Troilus and Cressida was his major project from 1947 to 1954).

In 1956, Walton and his wife moved from London to a small island near Naples, Italy. The Boston Symphony premiered his cello concerto the following year and he continued to score films. He accepted a second opera commission in 1958 from the Koussevitzky Foundation (that idea would become The Bear eight years later) and completed the score while convalescing from successful surgery for lung cancer.

Walton’s second opera is a forty-two minute “extravaganza in one act” full of satirical parodies. Its English libretto was based by the composer and Oscar-winning British screenwriter Paul Dehn (1912-1976) on Anton Chekhov’s 1888 Russian “farce-vaudeville” The Bear: A Joke in One Act (Медведь: Шутка в одном действии, sometimes alternately titled in English The Boor). It was familiar to American audiences through an English translation that had premiered in London in 1911 and in the United States in 1915. Chekhov’s one-act comedy had been inspired in turn by the 1865 French play Les Jurons de Cadillac by Pierre Berton; the works share the conceit of a male “bear” being tamed by a woman.

Co-librettist Paul Dehn (pronounced “Dane,” as in “the melancholy”) had been stationed at Camp X in Ontario, Canada, where spies and Special Forces teams were trained during World War II. After taking part in missions in Norway and France, he narrated films, wrote plays and film score lyrics, and collaborated professionally with composers such as James Bernard, Lennox Berkeley, and Walton. During the last decade of his career, Dehn concentrated on screenwriting for espionage films (notably Goldfinger and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) and thrillers (the four Planet of the Apes sequels and Murder on the Orient Express).

Both Chekhov’s play and Walton’s opera surprised their creators due to their warm critical reception. Chekhov remarked in Moscow in 1888, “I’ve managed to write a stupid vaudeville which, owing to the fact that it is stupid, is enjoying surprising success.” Walton had become so used to criticism in the press that he was amazed by his opera’s enthusiastic reception at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1966: “There must be something wrong when the worms turned on some praise.”

©Laura Stanfield Prichard 2015.

Leave a Reply