As a sophomore at Smith, Elizabeth Anne Biddle ’13 played her first role in a Gilbert and Sullivan production as Edith in The Pirates of Penzance, which led to a performance as the lead in Patience at Oxford University during her junior year abroad—and she was hooked. Enthralled with the works of the Victorian comic-opera duo, Biddle was inspired to create a musical revue, The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan, which will have its U.K. premiere at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Harrogate on August 19, 2014. Biddle, who will study voice at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London this fall, will also perform as Daphne in Thespis at the festival. Here she talks about her study of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the genesis of her opera and how Smith prepared her to follow her passion.
After you performed in Patience, how did you pursue your interest in Gilbert and Sullivan?
I read the autobiography of English singer and actress Jessie Bond—who created many mezzo characters in the Gilbert and Sullivan genre—and Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, and Parody, Carolyn Williams’ book on the gender dynamics in the comic operas, as well as many [related] biographies. I was interested in how Gilbert’s witty socio-political commentary combined with Sullivan’s opera-inspired compositions to create a new musical and theatrical genre that appealed to Britain’s growing Victorian middle class. When I left Oxford, I knew that I wanted to do my senior theatre thesis at Smith on Gilbert and Sullivan.
How did you come to create The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan?
I have always loved research, particularly, finding the similarities and differences between characters written by the same playwright. As I began listening to and watching the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, I noticed explicit musical and theatrical similarities between the female characters of the same voice type across the Gilbert and Sullivan canon. I wanted to create a show that highlighted the female characters of their comic operas, with performers as the original members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Most importantly, the show highlights the contributions of Gilbert and Sullivan to women performers and their respectability in Victorian society.
Describe the play.
It is a three-hour show, not only condensing all 12 full Gilbert and Sullivan operas into their basic story lines, but also telling the backstage story of Gilbert and Sullivan and their female performers. Gilbert, Sullivan, D’Oyly Carte, and Gilbert’s valet Louis act as narrators, informing the audience about what was going on before and after each opera was produced. For example, Gilbert and Sullivan stopped talking to one another for several years after The Gondoliers due to the infamous “carpet quarrel,” where they disagreed over the huge expense of a new carpet for the Savoy Theatre.
What role did Smith play in your creating The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan?
Without the support and guidance of the faculty at Smith, The Ladies of Gilbert and Sullivan would not exist. The show had its premiere at Smith, and could not have been created or performed without the support and guidance of the staff and faculty. I am deeply grateful to theatre professors Ellen Kaplan and Leonard Berkman, (thesis advisers); Karen Smith-Emerson (voice adviser); Jerry Noble (co-music director and accompanist); Nancy Horn (costumes); the Smith cast and crew; Josten Performing Arts Library, and everyone in the Smith music and theatre departments for their generosity.
Abe Loomis is a freelance writer based in Western Massachusetts.