|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > "Blank, Blank!" The New Opera at the Savoy
"BLANK, BLANK!" THE NEW OPERA AT THE SAVOY.
A CHAT WITH MR. GILBERT.
"Title yet unknown?" I asked Mr. Gilbert yesterday afternoon, writes a representative. "At present," replied the famous comic-opera-wright, flinging himself into a chair in a corner of that remarkably comfortable mullion-windowed library in which he works. "We make it a rule never to settle the title until a day before the production. We leave it to the last moment, and thus get a free hand in case of a happy thought suddenly occurring to any of us. ‘The Two Gondoliers’ is the obvious title, but it has no bite. It is easy enough to get a title, but very hard to get a good one. For instance ‘The Mikado’ was a fluke. We had almost settled on ‘Titipu.’ The ‘Pinafore’ was a fluke, too.
The ———— something to rhyme with ‘more,’ ‘semaphore,’ ‘pinafore.’ And ‘pinafore’ went down, just to fill the gap for the time, and was eventually selected. What made me go to Venice? Well, you must go somewhere, and Venice is beautiful, and lends itself to theatrical treatment. You see, you must be able to be a little lavish in the matter of costume. Do I think lavishness essential? Comic opera should appeal both to the eye and the ear."
"That would prevent you from presenting say a modern opera, the scene of which was laid in London?"
"Of course. We have given them modern soldiers, and sailors, and peers and judges, but members of Parliament in their ordinary attire would scarcely appeal to the eye. There would be a want of colour about them which would render them theatrically ineffective. We did try jurymen, but the whole piece only lasted for half an hour."
"How long have you been at work on the opera?"
"About five months. Of course I don’t mean every day, but off and on. I daresay I could write an opera in a week, but it would be a precious bad one. I have always put all I knew into my work, for I think if a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing well. I daresay the public thinks I rattle off my operas as easily as I write a letter. Look here!"
And Mr. Gilbert took me to his writing table and showed me half a dozen manuscript books, each of which was a literary curiosity, and at once showed what labour Mr. Gilbrt bestows upon his work. "You see," said the playwright, turning the leaves over rapidly, "when I am going to write a new opera I sit down, having the idea in my head, and write out an elaborate narrative which is worked out in all directions. That is, here and there there are cross-roads, in which the play may branch off in this direction or that. I pose those and pass on to the end, scribbling suggestions of bits of dialogue on the opposite page, as they occur to me. This done I begin again, and put in the dialogue, and last of all come the lyrics, which I polish and polish until I am satisfied. Take these two verses, for instance," pointing to a sheet of MS. on the table; "they are the essence of a dozen sheets of paper, upon which I have tried every turn possible. So you see I don’t spare myself."
"In the new opera you go back to the topsy-turvy?"
"Yes. I thought ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ about the best thing we had done, but we were told that the public liked the topsy-turvy best, so they are going to get it. Besides my share of the opera, the work at rehearsals should not be forgotten. Five hours a day for weeks drilling the company. I told you once before about my plan of having wooden models to help me in grouping my choristers, but there are many things that can only be done on the boards themselves. For instance, one of the incidents in the new piece is a game of blind man’s buff. It looks simple enough to play that game, but it took me three days to get the fifty players in working order."
"But your company has been accustomed to work with you for years."
"Yes, twelve," replied Mr. Gilbert, "and a very happy family they all are. I don’t believe there is any company so free as ours from those jealousies and heartburnings which abound in theatrical circles. They stick to us."
"Of course, the Savoy is as regular as the Bank of England. No failures, long runs, and sure of their money."
"Many of them have been with us for twelve years, getting salaries at the rate of £85 a year, and working for themselves in the day."
"I suppose the plot of the new opera that has been published is correct?"
"Yes. One of the two gondoliers (who have married two peasant girls) is the heir to the Kingdom of Barataria—throne vacant. Which of the two is it? There are difficulties in the way of the solution which you will see on Saturday night."
"You will be glad when Saturday night is over?"
"I shall," replied Mr. Gilbert. "Then come my holidays. I am going to India for a three months’ pleasure trip."
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