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A Greek Remark


Arthur Robinson

Although the score of Thespis, the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera, has long been lost, several people have tried to reconstruct it, either composing new music for Gilbert's lyrics or using music from other operas by Sullivan. But in all four versions that I have encountered — the version presented at the 1989 "Basingstoke" conference in Pennsylvania with music by Bruce Montgomery, a recording issued by Rare Recorded Editions, another recording made by the University of Michigan in 1972, and a vocal score by yet another Neo-Sullivan composer, Eugene Minor, published in 1974 — the names of two major characters, the newlyweds Sparkeion and Nicemis, are mispronounced. In each version the stress is placed on the first syllable of Sparkeion's name (SPARK-ei-on); the heroine's name is pronounced "NICE-miss" (two syllables) in the first three versions mentioned above, and "NI-ce-mis" (three syllables, with the stress on the first) in Minor's score. Arthur Jacobs, in his biography Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician (2d ed., 1992, p. 72), seems to assume a similar pronunciation, since he states that these names are puns (e.g., "sparky one"). But according to the rules of pronunciation of ancient Greek (with which Gilbert was familiar), these names would be pronounced "Ni-KAY-mis" and "Spar-KEI-on".

That Gilbert intended the names to be so pronounced is clear from the meter of the lyrics in which the names are sung:

The god of day, the god of day,
That part shall our Sparkeion play. . . .
The lamp of night — the lamp of night,
Nicemis plays to her delight.     [Act I Finale]
As Sparkeion is Apollo
Up in this Olympian clime,
Why, Nicemis, it will follow,
He's her husband, for the time.
When Sparkeion turns to mortal,
Joins once more the sons of men,
He may take you to his portal,
He will be your husband then.     [Thespis's verse in I'm Diana, You're Apollo]

Thus the four modern versions mentioned above not only mispronounce the names of these two characters but, more importantly, distort the meter. This may seem a minor matter, but Gilbert was notorious for insisting that every syllable be spoken as he wrote it; and anyone who mounts a future production of Thespis should beware the wrath of Gilbert's shade which is liable to swear a big, big D (or its Greek equivalent, a big, big Delta).

This article appeared in Issue 42 (May 1995) of Precious Nonsense, the newsletter of the Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Posted by permission of Sarah Cole, Society Secretary/Archivist. For information on Society membership write to: The Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society, c/o Miss Sarah Cole, 613 W. State St., North Aurora, IL 60542-1538.

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