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Recreating Thespis


Ronald Orenstein

There have been many attempts to produce a stageworthy version of Thespis. Some involved the composition of a new score; others replace the missing music with other melodies by Sullivan, both familiar and unfamiliar.

Our edition has a long history. It began in 1971, when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My friend Tom Petiet, director of the U of M Gilbert and Sullivan Society Small Company (later to become the Comic Opera Guild), decided to stage a touring production of Thespis in honour of the opera's centennial. The late Roger Wertenberger and Gersh Morningstar and I selected music taken mostly from lesser-known Sullivan works, and Roger — the musician on the team — arranged the score. Our production (in which I also played Jupiter) toured southeastern Michigan in 1972.

When it came time to prepare a score for the St. Pat's Players production, John Huston and I decided that the Wertenberger version, though useful as a basis for our own, needed to be thoroughly revised. For example, both finales in Roger's score had been drawn from Utopia Limited, which St. Pat's was at that time planning to stage the following year [p.s. — we did Patience instead], and all this music needed to be replaced. For other numbers, John and I felt that there were better choices available. In fact we have only used four numbers from Roger's edition: Nos. 2 (Entrance of Mercury), 5 (Oh incident unprecedented), 7 (Climbing over rocky mountain, in Roger's arrangement for full chorus except for the first chorus, for which Sullivan's arrangement exists), 15 (You're Diana - I'm Apollo) and 16 (Oh rage and fury). A march from The Foresters we use, but in a different place.

Most importantly of all, we now have substantially more of the original score to Thespis at our disposal, thanks to the recent discovery that sections of Sullivan's ballets L'Ile Enchantee and Victoria and Merrie England actually formed the ballet placed, at various performances, either in Act I or Act II during the original production of Thespis. Besides using the "new" ballet itself, courtesy of the Pierpont Morgan Library and Selwyn Tillett, we have been able to fit all of its sections to Thespis lyrics. The St. Pat's edition of Thespis, therefore, contains more of the music Sullivan actually wrote for the opera than in any production since the original run ended in 1872.

Our goals, in both 1971 and 1992, have been the same: to produce an all-Sullivan score; to avoid familiar melodies unless we intended a deliberate joke (we didn't want the production to degenerate into a game of "Name That Tune"); to introduce audiences to some delightful Sullivan music most of them have never heard; and, of course, to produce as close an approximation as we can to a living, breathing version of Gilbert and Sullivan's first opera. As our chief intention was to produce an entertaining piece, we have not hesitated to alter voice lines and keys, or to cut and rearrange phrases, to make Sullivan's music seem as natural a fit as possible to Gilbert's lyrics. However, both in arranging and orchestrating, we have otherwise been as faithful to Sullivan as possible; this is not a "souped-up" score. If someone else wants to produce a "Hot Thespis", let them do so.

However, Sullivan scholars, will want to know where the music came from. Herewith, for those interested, is the answer to that question:

  • No. 1 (Throughout the night): The orchestral lead-in and playout are from Section 2 of the Thespis ballet; the chorus itself uses "In the heights of Glentoun" from The Emerald Isle.
  • No. 2 (Entrance of Mercury): This is the introduction to "Hobble, hobble, now we've caught her" from The Beauty Stone.
  • No. 3 (Oh, I'm the celestial drudge): A shortened and slightly rearranged version of "My name is Crazy Jacqueline", also from The Beauty Stone.
  • No. 4 (Entrance of Jupiter): A concert band arrangement of the Grand March from Sullivan's incidental music to Shakespeare's Henry VIII.
  • No. 5 (Oh, incident unprecedented): This number draws on three different operas. It opens with "The Sultan's executioner" from The Rose of Persia, and continues with the galop from The Grand Duke. The third portion is "Kind Captain" from Pinafore.
  • No. 6 (Here, far away from all the world): The principal theme from the second movement of Sullivan's Cello Concerto.
  • No. 7 (Climbing over rocky mountain): A Thespis original, later re-used in The Pirates of Penzance. The Pirates manuscript, up to the first solo entrance, consists of Thespis sheet music, so that Sullivan's full choral arrangement survives to that point.
  • No. 8 (Music for Preposteros and Stupidas): A selection from the ballet L'Ile Enchantee.
  • No. 9 (I once knew a chap who discharged a function): This is "From rock to rock" from The Contrabandista, with added train effects.
  • No. 10 (Presumptuous mortal): The Gods' challenges to Thespis are sung to "Down with churches, down with steeples" from Haddon Hall.
  • No. 11 (Act I Finale): The finale begins with "In days of old, when men were bold" from Haddon Hall. Thespis' solo and the ensuing chorus are set to the first section of the Thespis ballet. Sparkeion's solo is sung to the third section of the ballet. Nicemis' solo is "Hassan, thy pity I entreat" from The Rose of Persia. Timidon and the chorus sing the final section of "Who'd to be robber chief aspire" from The Contrabandista. Calliope's solo is taken from a Sullivan song that some may recognize [the lost chord, of course], and the finale concludes with the fifth section of the Thespis ballet.
  • No. 12 (Of all symposia): Act II opens with the Act II opening chorus from The Beauty Stone; Sillimon's solo, set to "We have thought the matter out" from Haddon Hall, requires the chorus to sing the following words by Sydney Grundy, its librettist: "Singing Tra la la". We apologize to Gilbert's shade.
  • No. 13 (Little maid of Arcadee): Another Thespis original, and the only song from this opera to be published as sheet music (the reason it survived).
  • No. 14 (Olympus is now in a terrible muddle): "Bolero, bolero, the robber's pet" from The Contrabandista.
  • No. 15 (You're Diana - I'm Apollo): This is "If you ask me to advise you" from The Rose of Persia. Or is it the other way round? With a few minor adjustments, this music seems to me to fit the Thespis lyric better than it does the somewhat nonsensical lyric in Rose; it even modulates in the right spots. The Rose of Persia was Sullivan's last completed opera, and he was not a well man at the time of its composition. His diary records great difficulty with this particular number; he complains that he "cannot get it right". Could it be that he gave up on it, and substituted music from Thespis? We may never know for sure; but we know that only a short while before he had used the Thespis ballet in Victoria and Merrie England. The number in Rose is a trio, and concludes with quite a bit of coloratura that Sullivan undoubtedly added for his soprano, Ellen Beach Yaw. We have removed it; the finish prepared by Roger Wertenberger may - if I am right - be an act not of alteration, but of restoration.
  • No. 16 (Oh rage and fury! Oh shame and sorrow!): First-night reviewers in 1871 complained that this number was too "church-like". We have decided to allow Sullivan to respond to his critics, using music from Princess Ida [Death to the invader]. Thespis's words, during the brief reprise of this number later in the scene (No. 16a), are taken from Gilbert's entertainment No Cards.
  • No. 16b (Entrance of the Thespians): Words and music from The Grand Duke [the Eloia chorus reprise].
  • No. 17 (Finale): The Gods' anger is expressed to "Big bombs, small bombs" from The Grand Duke. The contrite Thespians react with the fourth section of the Thespis ballet - a close enough fit to make me suspect that this was the music actually written for the words "Jupiter, Mars and Apollo". The other Gods return to "Now the King is home again" from The Foresters. The Thespians plead for mercy to a section from L'Ile Enchantee; Jupiter responds with one of Sullivan's hymn tunes [onward, christian soldiers], and sends the Thespians packing to "In the heart of my hearts" from The Rose of Persia. The opera ends with a well-known tag [What, no one? No, no one] and the reprise of "From rock to rock" from the Act I finale of The Contrabandista.

Quite a few people helped us to lay our hands on all of this obscure, and not so obscure, music. They include Tom Petiet, Larry Garvin, Mitch Gillett, John Krueger, and Selwyn Tillett, and they all deserve our thanks — as, of course, does Roger Wertenberger, who may be discussing the results with Sullivan himself as you read this.


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