Senior Takes on Gilbert & Sullivan

Oh, don’t the days seem lank and long
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong
And isn’t your life extremely flat
With nothing whatever to grumble at!— Princess Ida by Gilbert & Sullivan

It didn’t take long for Elizabeth Biddle ’13 to fall in love with Gilbert & Sullivan. One turn in the role of Edith, from the opera duo’s The Pirates of Penzance, a Smith theatre production in 2011, and Biddle was hooked.

The Ladies of Gilbert & Sullivan, written and directed by Elizabeth Anne Biddle '13. View the poster (pdf).

The Ladies of Gilbert & Sullivan, written and directed by Elizabeth Anne Biddle ’13. Click the image to view the poster.

Of course, Biddle is not alone. One of the most iconic teams in musical theater history, librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan collaborated on 14 comic operas between 1871 and 1898 that have enjoyed international success, growing broader with time. The duo’s operas—especially H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance—are performed widely to delighted sell-outs, and Gilbert & Sullivan clubs and societies abound worldwide.

But Biddle may be among the first to take her fandom to a higher level. As part of her senior honors thesis in theater, which examines the lives and works of Gilbert & Sullivan, Biddle wrote a full-fledged opera of her own, titled The Ladies of Gilbert & Sullivan, using songs and excerpts from the team’s works, and depicting actual scenes from backstage at the Savoy Theater, which was built in 1881 for the purpose of staging the operas.

Biddle coordinated and directs a stage production of The Ladies of Gilbert & Sullivan, complete with a G&S-sized cast and crew and costumes provided by the Smith theater costume department. Performances are Friday, April 19 (open dress rehearsal); Sunday, April 21; and Sunday, April 28. Free and open to the public, performances will take place in Earle Recital Hall, Sage Hall, at 7:30 p.m.

“I absolutely fell in love with the music, the witty dialogue, and the socio-cultural and political commentary,” says Biddle about Gilbert & Sullivan operas. “Sullivan was a renowned classical composer, and Gilbert was the Shakespeare of his day. Put two and two together, and you get a Gilbert and Sullivan opera!”

After her role in Pirates as a sophomore, Biddle planned to step away from theater for a while, heading to Oxford’s Hertford College for her Junior Year Abroad to study government and philosophy.

“Within a week at Oxford, I joined the Gilbert and Sullivan Oxford Society,” she says. “On Wednesday nights we would sing through a different G&S opera while pub-hopping. They took their G&S operas very seriously.”

Upon returning to Smith for her senior year, Biddle missed the G&S Oxford Society, and set to work researching the comic opera team, and how women are portrayed in their operas.

“In no time, I was writing my own script,” she says, “using songs and excerpts from their operas as monologue songs and dialogues for the characters.”

In The Ladies of Gilbert & Sullivan, actors portray real-life actors who premiered the operas as members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, the long-standing company that originally performed Gilbert & Sullivan operas, and promoted them into the 1980s.

“Over the two-hour show, I span 25 years, covering all of the G&S operas,” explains Biddle. “Audiences will witness the invention of the electric light, the famous ‘carpet quarrel,’ and the final bows of Gilbert and Sullivan on the Savoy stage.”

Tickets to The Ladies of Gilbert & Sullivan are limited; reserve online at ladiesofgs@gmail.com.