Of the 14 comic operas (that’s what they called them) created by Arthur Sullivan in collaboration with William S. Gilbert between 1871 and 1896, the least-known is their first, Thespis, or, The Gods Grown Old. The reason is clear: despite what was considered a respectable run at the time (later G&S operas raised the bar), and excellent reviews, the score was not published. Eventually it was lost, for reasons nobody has persuasively explained (even though Sullivan had one with him in New York in 1879 when he was getting HMS Pinafore ready for production and was working on the premiere of Pirates of Penzance, and one number from Thespis had been separately published; more about these later). Gilbert’s libretto survived, and while the pair moved on to bigger and better things and this first effort was consequently largely forgotten, since about 1950, interest in it has revived to the point where some have cobbled together scores based on 1) two numbers from the original that were known to survive, first the one published piece called “Little Maid of Arcadee,” and second “Climbing Over Rocky Mountains,” which Sullivan, Thespis score in hand, pasted into Pirates for a scene it fit well and from which it became one of the popular numbers, and 2) other music by Sullivan that more or less fit Gilbert’s words.
Others have attempted their own scores for the missing 15 of 17 numbers. Last month and this, a distinguished effort received its first fully staged performance in various spots across Long Island and in Manhattan, the composer being eminent record producer Thomas Shepard. He completed his score in 2007; it received a concert performance the next year but remained essentially unproduced until the Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island (which goes by “GaSLOCoLI”) engaged in aggressive fundraising for the six performances just concluded. We caught the last, given July 6 at Flushing (Queens) Town Hall (a former courthouse, Zales jewelry store and much else).
GaSLOCoLI is a longstanding Savoyard troupe, comprising both professional and amateur singers. For this production, they were handsomely accompanied by a 26-piece orchestra of freelance professionals conducted by Matthew Kasper, who teaches at Queens College and conducts both the Queens Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Composers Orchestra. Shepard, with whom we spoke at the performance, said that this was the best one of the run (making us feel like the second mouse, that is, the one who gets the cheese).
Thespis was written as a Christmas entertainment for the Gaiety Theatre, and in contrast to Gilbert’s later librettos does not hone its characters as finely or provide the sustained brilliant wordplay and razor-edged satire of his best work. The story is that the Olympic gods have grown old and stale; the takings, in terms of the quantity and quality of sacrifices humans offer, are down. Espying a troupe of comedic actors scaling Olympus, the gods come up with a plan to swap places for a year, so they can do field research on Earth and the actors can mind the heavenly store. The actors, under the leadership of Thespis (who was possibly a real person: Aristotle described him as the first genuine actor, taking the stage speaking as if a person different from himself; of course it’s from him that “thespian” derives), gleefully take up the assignment, make a horrible botch of it, and are sternly reproved by the returned gods and condemned to return to earth as tragedians, meaning nobody would ever pay to see them perform (a meme echoed in the later Ruddigore, in which the protagonist threatens to donate his ancestors’ portraits to the National Gallery, where nobody would look on them again). The actors-replacing-leaders theme was also the subject of Gilbert and Sullivan’s last opera, The Grand Duke. One could see a further parallel, were one uncharitably inclined, in Shepard’s substitution for Sullivan in G&S, but the magic works this time.
From the first notes of the overture, it was clear that Shepard has conceived his Thespis not as restoration but as renovation. Its harmonies are those that Sullivan (d. 1900) might have employed had he lived perhaps 10 more years and heard more Mahler; the structure of the overture was more symphonically coherent than the fluffy medleys churned out by Sullivan’s assistant Alfred Cellier, and compared favorably with the few Sullivan wrote himself, notably for Yeomen of the Guard. The orchestration, which took cues from Sullivan’s own brilliant use of winds and brass, included keyboard and percussion. This is, then, a kind of postmodern homage to Sullivan, a summum of the entire G&S oeuvre and not, except in a few interesting details, an attempt to re-create the kind of music Sullivan would have written in 1871.
Shepard took cues from Sullivan in other respects. The opening chorus, “Throughout the night,” was a dead-on Sullivan clone, as were many others of Shepard’s melodies. One patter song (Shepard created several for this show, including one for chorus, which may have been rather more than Sullivan would have written), on “I once knew a chap,” drew from newspaper reports about Sullivan’s deliciously onomatopoetic scoring that suggested a steam engine. The result was a delight, abetted by the excellent visuals concocted by stage director David Groeger. Some numbers drew inspiration from other G&S operas; for example, the love duet “On mountain top” between Sparkeion (tenor Joseph Mayon) and Nicemis (two syllables—get it?—and sung by soprano Caitlin Hale) was set on a bench, rather like similar episodes in Pirates and Mikado. At the same time, Shepard’s lyric writing, in many ways tapping into Sullivan’s style, did betray familiarity with Broadway.
As to the performances themselves, for the most part they were all one would wish for G&S: voices powerful enough to reach emotional peaks, diction honed to make Gilbert’s words intelligible (the cast was miked from the front of the stage), and all without excessive “operatacism,” which tends to undermine the fun. The principal singers were all, amateur as well as professional, wonderful actors. Top prizes go to Hale, Terry Hochler as Mercury, Michael Economos as Thespis, and Anthony Edelman as Jupiter. Mayon, as well as Sarah Mahon as Daphne, made favorable impressions. Joseph Anthony as Apollo and Laura Smith as Diana were also effective, although in both cases they employed some rather extreme effects of diction that proved counterproductive; most everyone else used a more natural tone of voice. The cast was large, and as the singers would be unfamiliar to Boston audiences, we’ll forgo mentioning them all. The sets, by Marty Fuller, were appropriate but static, the costumes by Brenda Santana were, well, classic, and Kasper’s conducting was lively and crisp.
Shepard expressed the hope that G&S troupes elsewhere might pick up this piece, and we can endorse it as a solid contender. It will eventually be available on YouTube in a professionally videographed version, but a low-quality snippet from a different performance is here (Mayon was in better voice in the July 6th show). While it can’t be considered definitive inasmuch as it’s not “real” G&S, as G&2S it’s a tantalizing realization and a love letter to the team that reinvented musical theater (and in many respects it might be better than the original). One suggestion would be to provide librettos if supertitles are not within budget; as the least-familiar comic opera of the canon, it’s not one that even hardcore Savoyards are likely to have in memory, and it would benefit the audience to see the words regardless of how good the singers’ diction is.