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Sir Arthur Unbosoms Himself
"Sir Arthur will see you if you will step this way," said a hall boy of the Hotel Brunswick to a representative of THE MIRROR on Monday morning last. Up the broad flight of carpeted steps, and through a long corridor to a door that bore the number "21," and the scribe’s knock was answered by a cheery "Come in!" The room was elegantly furnished, but even before this fact could be thoroughly noted, the famous composer of Pinafore, The Pirates, The Mikado and a score of other operas, Sir Arthur Sullivan, had stepped forward and cordially greeted the visitor.
"You must, as a representative of the journalistic profession," he began, as the reporter sat down, "pardon me if I do not feel toward you in the kindly spirit that I ought; but I have an impression that the papers have not acted rightly toward me. If a gentleman comes to me and I treat him as a gentleman, why should he not have the courtesy to treat me in the same way? Instead of that, how have the newspapers spoken of me? They have dilated on the fact that I have a slightly bald head, and that I am stout. Why do they not criticise my work instead of my personal appearance? Then the way one paper spoke of the chorus, it was simply shameful. The ladies of the Mikado company are refined and retiring, and but little like the creatures which are pictured to the public. … Why, yesterday I took the entire company up to West Point on the Sylvan Dell, and we had a most delightful time. It would have surprised you to have seen the musical acquisitions of the company. There was a piano on board, and some of the members played such pieces as Chopin’s waltzes, while the ladies sang, accompanying themselves. The menu was printed on pretty Japanese cards. All of the company — at least those engaged behind the scenes — were with us. At West Point we were shown all about, and enjoyed ourselves greatly."
"Were you pleased with your reception last Thursday evening?"
"I was both flattered and delighted at the manner in which I was received. Some of the papers have stigmatized my making a speech on that occasion as in bad taste. After a man has been kicked into the gutter and tossed about like a cork in a whirlpool, hasn’t he any right whatever to retaliate? As for the American public itself, I like it very much. They have the instinct of seeing a point and showing their appreciation on the instant that makes it a pleasure for a company to play before them. I have no right to grumble about either the financial or the artistic success of The Mikado at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, for it has been playing, according to the books, to between $9,000 and $10,000 every week."
"Were you badly disappointed at the Judge’s decision in the Mikado case?"
"Well, I hardly know just what to say about that; but there is one thing I wish to state most distinctly — and that is that I have no wish or desire to complain of the Judge’s ruling. As he himself said, it was not his place to make the law; he was only there to administer it. I am certain that he had no bias in the case, and that if he could have given us the decision he would have done so. Of course, I would much rather have had the decision the other way, for everybody’s sake. This question did not touch the copyright. The Judge’s decision was that the representation by Mr. Duff of my opera with different instrumentation was no violation of anyone’s rights, and was therefore practically justifiable. In point of law, though, I think it is a misrepresentation of my work and should not be allowed. At any rate, I cannot understand why managers should be trying to cut one another’s throats continuously, We were in hopes that the decision of the Judge would be the same as in the cases of Gounod’s Redemption and our Iolanthe in the Massachusetts Circuit, which was directly opposite to that in our case, and both the performances were protected. The Judge held in that case that the work was not given as the composer wrote it, and therefore was not justifiable.
"However, the American public are sharp, and I am much gratified at the large business done by the Fifth Avenue in comparison to the Standard Theatre. I have always said that I would rather play to an American public than any in the world, because they are so appreciative. I think the opera is in for a good run at the theatre, and that it will play there for a long time. In London I think it is likely to run for fully a year yet. This week I shall probably devote a part of my time to rehearsals of McCaull’s Opera company, and the rest of the week I shall spend in seeing friends. I shall not sail on the Servia next Saturday as I had intended to. It is quite uncertain when I leave, as I have had cablegrams which may alter all my plans. In fact, I may stay three or four weeks longer. I have lots to do in London. I am engaged on a most important sacred work that I am writing for the Triennial Musical Festival at Leeds, the greatest musical festival in all England, and which I conduct as well. This festival lasts a week, and on this occasion there is assembled together the finest band and chorus in the world, numbering altogether about 600 people."
"Have you any idea of returning to America?"
"Oh, yes. Probably in a couple of years hence. I have family interests in California, and they will probably draw me over again. That reminds me that that is what I came over for this time. It was only by accident that I was here at the time of the production of The Mikado."
"Can you tell me something about the new opera which Mr. Gilbert and yourself are now writing?"
"Mr. Gilbert is at work on the book now, and all that I know of it is from the papers. I have no idea — not the faintest — as to the subject. There is no necessity for us to hurry it along, for, as I said, The Mikado is likely to run another year yet in London. When I get back Mr. Gilbert will show me what he has written, and we will discuss it. When we are both satisfied with the musical capabilities of the words, then I go to work at the music. The words are always written first, for they give the suggestion for the music. However, I think I’ll hardly be able to write a note for two months after I get back. Speaking of Gilbert’s work, have you noticed what an extraordinary polish there is to his versification? There is never a weak syllable or a halting foot. It is marvellous. He has a wonderful gift, too, of making rhythms, and it bothers me to death sometimes to make corresponding rhythms in music. He will turn up with something in that line occasionally that has never been done before. How he gets them out of his head I don’t know."
"How long does it take you to write an opera?"
"Generally it takes us about four months, or at least we average that for each work. There is constant discussion. We meet night after night, day after day. He will suggest one alteration and I another. When about half of the opera is finished rehearsals begin, and while these are progressing we will be writing the other half, and thus — save time. We never give less than two months to rehearsals, and that is where we get the perfect ensemble and correctness of detail."
"Have either yourself or Mr. Gilbert ever been in Japan? The opera is said to be so truthful to life in that empire."
"Neither of us, but I will tell you how we obtained these accurate details. At the time we were writing the opera, about a year ago, we had in London a regular Japanese village, in which there were about 200 Japanese brought over expressly for the purpose. They built a regular village with streets and shops and tea-houses, and the manager of the concern offered us every facility to obtain information. He was even so kind as to send Japanese up to the Savoy Theatre to rehearse with us. You have seen the girls in the representation put their hands on their knees whenever spoken to, and draw them up toward the lips. That is just as they do. The postures throughout are a part of the dances. These Japanese girls came to rehearse with us, and they taught us one of their dances, which consisted principally of different postures. We couldn’t introduce that into the opera, as it lasted fully half an hour; but we took that same dance, cut it up, and scattered it all over the opera; so that all of the posturing is part of that one dance, and is perfectly accurate. A high Japanese authority visited us and gave us any amount of information regarding the scenes and properties which are used.
"Mr. Mitford, who was for years Secretary of the English legation at Japan, who speaks the language perfectly, and who probably knows more about Japan than any Englishman living, has one of the original dresses worn by the Mikado, and is our authority for both the costume and the queer head-dress which is worn. The costume worn in the opera came also from Japan, and is a true copy of it, though I will not swear that it has ever been worn by a Mikado."
"Sir Arthur Unbosoms Himself." New York Mirror, Oct. 3, 1885, 2.
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