Iolanthe Trivia

Iolanthe Trivia No. 1.

Stage fairies were a very popular feature of the Victorian theatre, not only in pantomime, extravaganza and burlesque but in non-musical plays in which fairies and humans interacted, usually (but not always) with comic effect.  Besides Iolanthe, Gilbert used fairies in several plays: one of the cleverest and most original is Foggerty’s Fairy, which presents the complications that result when a fairy grants a man the opportunity of undoing one event in his past.

Iolanthe Trivia No. 2.

The original Fairy Queen, Alice Barnett, was nearly six foot tall and proportionally well-built: a fact which is pointedly referred to in her line “I see no objection to stoutness, in moderation” and the references to her curling up inside a buttercup, swinging upon a cobweb, etc.   She also created Lady Jane in Patience, who describes herself as “Not pretty – massive”.   The fact that she was much taller than George Grossmith, who played Bunthorne and the Lord Chancellor, added to the effectiveness of their comic interplay in both operas.

Iolanthe Trivia No. 3.

Captain Shaw, mentioned in the Fairy Queen’s song, is Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, a former military officer from Ireland who became superintendent of the London Fire Brigade in 1861 and held the post till 1891.  During his term of office the size and efficiency of the fire brigade was greatly increased. Gilbert sent him a complimentary ticket in the centre of the stalls for the first night of Iolanthe, and the Fairy Queen, knowing where he was seated, faced him directly while singing her lines “Oh, Captain Shaw…”.  Shaw had not expected this, but reportedly he responded by standing up and taking a bow.  

Iolanthe Trivia No. 4.

In 1880 Henry Irving, one of the most renowned actors and theatre managers of the Victorian era, produced a play called Iolanthe, an adaptation of King René’s Daughter  by the Danish dramatist Henrik Hertz.  D’Oyly Carte, at Gilbert’s request, applied to Irving for permission to re-use the name in the opera.  Apart from the name (which means “purple flower” and actually should be pronounced “YO-lanthe”), the play and the opera are wholly unrelated; Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta, however, is based on the Danish play.

Iolanthe Trivia No. 5.

During the rehearsal period of Iolanthe, in order to prevent speculation in the press or attempts at plagiarism, the name used for the title character was “Perola”, the entire company being under the impression that this was in fact to be her name.  To accommodate the four-note setting of “Iolanthe”, which occurs as a miniature leitmotif throughout the opera, chorus and principals sang “Come, Perola” or “Ah, Perola”.   A few days before the opening, the company members were understandably disconcerted on being instructed to sing a different name.  Sullivan’s comment was “Use any name that happens to occur to you!  Nobody in the audience will be any the wiser, except Mr Gilbert – and he won’t be there!”

Iolanthe Trivia No. 6.

On the opening night of Iolanthe, the Fairy Queen and the three principal fairies wore headdresses each containing a small electric light bulb, powered by a battery (that is, a sealed glass jar containing two metal plates suspended in sulphuric acid) concealed in the costume.  These were switched on at a given moment during the finale: a spectacular effect in those days when electric lighting was itself a novelty. 

Iolanthe Trivia No. 7.

The notebooks in which Gilbert recorded the development of his ideas for Iolanthe show that his original intention was to have the fairies in confrontation with a chorus of lawyers; and that he later considered making them politicians, with the male principals including members of the Cabinet such as the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary.  It may well have been the need for a more striking visual effect than those would have afforded that led him to change this plan, making the decision written in the notebook as “They MUST be peers”.

Iolanthe Trivia No. 8.

Iolanthe is unusual in that neither of the two romantic leads has an extended self-contained solo, but Gilbert originally wrote a full-scale song for each of them.  On the first night, Strephon had a song beginning “Fold your flapping wings, soaring legislature!” which was cut after being adversely criticised as too pointed in its socio-political content.  A song for Phyllis, beginning “My love for him is dead”, was planned to precede her second-act scene with the two Earls; but Gilbert decided against using it and it was dropped before the opening.

Iolanthe Trivia No. 9.

The threat by the Queen in Iolanthe to end “The cherished rights you enjoy on Friday nights” is a reference to the fact that Friday was “short sitting day” in Parliament, business ending at 6 p.m. to enable members to return to their constituencies.  When the opera was first performed short sitting day was Wednesday, and the line was changed from “Wednesday nights” to “Friday nights” in 1902 in response to a change in the practice.

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