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Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri, is a comic opera with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It is one of the Savoy operas and is the seventh collaboration of the fourteen between Gilbert and Sullivan.

Iolanthe was first produced in Londonmarker at the Savoy Theatre, on 25 November 1882, three days after Patience closed, and ran for 398 performances. It was the first of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas to premiere at the Savoy Theatremarker. The story concerns a band of immortal fairies who find themselves at odds with the House of Peersmarker. The opera satirises many aspects of British government and law.


Programme from 1883 during the original run
The opening night of Iolanthe was an occasion for what must have seemed a truly magical event in 1882. The Savoy Theatre was the first theatre in the world to be wired for electricity, and such stunning special effects as sparkling fairy wands were possible.

Gilbert had targeted the aristocracy for satiric treatment before, but in this "fairy opera", the House of Lords is lampooned as a bastion of the ineffective, privileged and dim-witted. The political party system and other institutions also come in for a dose of satire. Among many potshots that Gilbert takes at lawyers in this opera, the Lord Chancellor sings that he will "work on a new and original plan" that the rule (which holds true in other professions, such as the military, the church and even the stage) that diligence, honesty, honour, and merit should lead to promotion "might apply to the bar". Throughout Iolanthe, however, both author and composer managed to couch the criticism among such bouncy, amiable absurdities that it is all received as good humour. In fact, Gilbert later refused to allow quotes from the piece to be used as part of the campaign to diminish the powers of the House of Lords.

Although titled Iolanthe all along in Gilbert's plot book for a time the piece was advertised as Perola. According to an often-repeated story, Gilbert and Sullivan didn't change the name to Iolanthe until just before the première: "At the final rehearsal of Iolanthe at the Savoy, Sullivan addressed the assembled company: 'Ladies and gentlemen. You have been rehearsing Perola but when the curtain goes up the opera will be called Iolanthe. Will you please change the name Perola to Iolanthe throughout.'" In fact, the title was advertised as Iolanthe as early as November 13, 1882 – eleven days before the opening – so the cast had at least that much time to learn the name. It is also clear that Sullivan's musical setting was written to match the cadence of the word "Iolanthe," and could only accommodate the word "Perola" by preceding it (awkwardly) with "O", "Come" or "Ah". The piece was subtitled The Peer and the Peri.

A glittering crowd attended the first night, including Captain (later Captain Sir) Eyre Massey Shaw, head of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, whom the Fairy Queen apostrophizes in the second act ("Oh, Captain Shaw/Type of true love kept under/Could thy brigade with cold cascade/Quench my great love, I wonder?"). On the first night, Alice Barnett as the Fairy Queen sang the verses directly to the Captain, to the great delight of the audience.

Musical and textual analysis

Inside of the programme
At the time they wrote Iolanthe, both Gilbert and Sullivan were in their peak creative years, and Iolanthe, their seventh work together, drew the best from both composer and author. "[Sullivan] had composed a brilliant new score (his most subtle yet) to a scintillating libretto.... Iolanthe is the work in which Sullivan's operetta style takes a definite step forward, and metamorphosis of musical themes is its characteristic new feature.... By recurrence and metamorphosis of themes Sullivan made the score more fluid...." Much of Sullivan's "fairy" music pays deliberate homage to the incidental music written by Felix Mendelssohn for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Richard Wagner's Ring cycle premiered in London earlier in 1882. The music for the fairies reflects Wagner's style, and the score uses leitmotifs, including a distinctive four-note theme associated with the character of Iolanthe. The Fairy Queen's music parodies that of Wagnerian heroines like Brünnhilde.

Gilbert, too, was influenced by earlier works, including The Mountain Sylph by John Barnett. Two characters in Iolanthe, Strephon and Phyllis, are described as Arcadian shepherds. Arcadia was a legendary site of rural perfection, first described by the Ancient Greeks, that was a popular setting for writers of the 19th century. Gilbert had written an earlier work called Happy Arcadia. Gilbert had also created several "fairy comedies" at the Haymarket Theatremarker in the early 1870s. These plays, influenced by the fairy work of James Planché, are founded upon the idea of self-revelation by characters under the influence of some magic or some supernatural interference. Several of Iolanthe's themes are continued from Patience, including The war between the sexes and the satire on legal and political themes. Iolanthe is one of several of Gilbert's works, including The Wicked World, Broken Hearts, Fallen Fairies, and Princess Ida, where the introduction of males into a tranquil world of women brings "mortal love" that wreaks havoc with the status quo.


"She kisses just like other people!"
  • The Lord Chancellor (comic baritone)
  • George, Earl of Mountararat (baritone)
  • Thomas, Earl Tolloller (tenor)
  • Private Willis, of the Grenadier Guards (bass)
  • Strephon, an Arcadian Shepherd (baritone)
  • Queen of the Fairies (contralto)
  • Iolanthe, a Fairy, Strephon's mother (mezzo-soprano)
  • Celia, a Fairy (soprano)
  • Leila, a Fairy (mezzo-soprano)
  • Fleta, a Fairy (speaking role/chorus)
  • Phyllis, an Arcadian Shepherdess and Ward in Chancery (soprano)
  • Chorus of Dukes, Marquises, Earls, Viscounts, Barons and Fairies


Act I

Twenty-five years prior to the beginning of the opera, Iolanthe, the mistress of fairy revels, who arranged all the fairy dances and songs, committed the capital crime (under fairy law) of marrying a mortal human. The Queen of the fairies commuted Iolanthe's sentence of death to banishment for life on the condition that Iolanthe left her husband and never communicated with him again. After the passage of 25 years, the fairies, still missing Iolanthe deeply, plead with the Queen to pardon Iolanthe and to restore her place in fairyland.

by the Fairy Queen, Iolanthe rises from the frog-infested stream that has been her home in exile. The Queen, unable to bear punishing her any longer, pardons Iolanthe, and she is warmly greeted by the other fairies. Iolanthe tells her sisters that she has a son, a half-fairy, half-human named Strephon ("He's a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal"). The fairies laugh that Iolanthe appears too young to have a grown son, as one of the advantages of a fairy's immortality is that they never grow old. Strephon, a handsome Arcadian shepherd, arrives and meets his aunts. He tells Iolanthe joyously of his love for the Lord Chancellor's ward of court, the beautiful Phyllis. Phyllis does not know of Strephon's mixed origin. Strephon is despondent, however, as the Lord Chancellor has forbidden them to marry – partly because he feels that a shepherd is unsuitable for Phyllis, but partly because he wishes to marry Phyllis himself. In fact, so do half the members of the House of Lordsmarker. The Fairy Queen promises her assistance. Soon Phyllis arrives, and she and Strephon share a moment of tenderness as they plan their future and possible elopement.

A cadre of the peer of the realm arrive. They are all smitten with Phyllis, and they have appealed to the Lord Chancellor to decide who will have her hand. The Lord Chancellor is hesitant to act upon his own regard for Phyllis passion due to his position as her guardian. The Lords send for Phyllis to choose one of their number, but she declares that she won't marry any of them, as virtue is found only in a "lowly" cottage. The peers are unhappy at her rejection and beg her not to scorn them simply because their blood is excessively blue. Strephon approaches the Lord Chancellor, pleading that Nature bids him marry Phyllis. But the Lord Chancellor wryly notes that Strephon has not presented sufficient evidence that Nature has interested herself in the matter. He refuses his consent to the marriage between Strephon and Phyllis.

Disappointed, Strephon calls on Iolanthe for help. She appears and promises to support him in every way. Spying on the two, the peers — led by the brainless and stuffy Earls Tolloller and Mountararat — together with Phyllis, see Iolanthe and Strephon in a warm embrace. All three jump to the obvious conclusion, since the centuries-old Iolanthe appears to be a girl of seventeen. The peers scoff at the seemingly absurd claim that Iolanthe is Strephon's mother ("She is, has been, my mother from my birth"). Phyllis angrily rejects Strephon for his supposed infidelity and declares that she will marry either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat ("...and I don't care which!"). Strephon at last calls for help from the fairies. They appear on cue, but are mistaken by the peers for a girls' school on an outing. Offended, the Fairy Queen pronounces a magical "sentence" upon the peers: Strephon shall not only become a Member of Parliament, but will have the power to pass any bill he proposes, including throwing the peerage open to competitive examination. The curtain closes with the fairies threatening the peers.

Act II

The fairies have come to Westminstermarker and tease the unhappy peers with the success and pronouncements of MP Strephon. As the Fairy Queen threatened in Act I, Strephon is advancing a bill to open the peerage to competitive examination. The peers ask the fairies to stop Strephon's mischief, stating that the House of Peers is not susceptible of any improvement. Although the fairies say that they cannot stop Strephon, they have become very much attracted to the peers, whom they find handsome and delightful. The fairy Queen is dismayed by this. Pointing to Private Willis of the First Grenadier Guards, who is the sentry on duty, the Queen claims that she is able to subdue her response to the effects of manly beauty.

"In friendship's name!"
Phyllis cannot decide which of the two selected peers, Tolloller or Mountararat, she ought to marry, and so she leaves the choice up to them. However, Tolloller tells Mountararat that his family's tradition would require the two Earls to duel to the death if the latter were to claim Phyllis. The two decide that their friendship is more important than love, and renounce their claims to her. Meanwhile, the Lord Chancellor has a nightmare due to his unrequited love for Phyllis. The two peers try to cheer him up. At their urging, the Lord Chancellor determines to make another effort to convince himself to award Phyllis to himself.

Although Strephon now leads both parties in Parliamentmarker, he is miserable at losing Phyllis. Seeing Phyllis, he finally explains to her that his mother is a fairy, which accounts for a good many things! Phyllis and Strephon ask Iolanthe to go to the Lord Chancellor and plead for him to allow their marriage, for "none can resist your fairy eloquence." Impossible, she replies, for the Lord Chancellor is her husband. The Lord Chancellor believes Iolanthe to have died childless, and she is bound not to "undeceive" him, under penalty of death. However, to save Strephon from losing his love, Iolanthe decides to present his case to the Lord Chancellor in disguise.

Although the Lord Chancellor is visibly moved by her appeal, which evokes the memory of his lost wife, he declares that he himself will marry Phyllis. Dismayed, Iolanthe desperately unveils, despite the warnings of the unseen Fairies, revealing that she is his long-lost wife, and that Strephon is his son. The Lord Chancellor is amazed to see her alive, but Iolanthe has again broken fairy law, and the Fairy Queen is now left with no choice but to punish Iolanthe with death. As she prepares to execute Iolanthe, the Queen learns that the rest of the fairies have all now chosen husbands from among the peers, thus also incurring death sentences—but the Queen blanches at the prospect of slaughtering the whole company of fairies. The Lord Chancellor suggests a solution: change the law by inserting a single word: every fairy who "don't" marry a mortal shall die. The Fairy Queen cheerfully agrees and, to save her life, the dutiful soldier, Private Willis, agrees to marry her. Likewise, seeing no reason to stay in the mortal realm if peers are to be recruited from persons of intelligence, the peers agree to join the fairy ranks. They all sprout wings, and "away [they] go to fairyland."

Musical numbers

  • Overture

Act I
  • 1. "Tripping hither, tripping thither" (Celia, Leila, and Chorus of Fairies)
  • 2. "Iolanthe! From thy dark exile thou art summoned" (Queen, Iolanthe, Celia, Leila, and Chorus of Fairies)
  • 3. "Good-morrow, good mother" (Strephon and Chorus of Fairies)
  • 4. "Fare thee well, attractive stranger" (Queen and Chorus of Fairies)
  • 4a. "Good-morrow, good lover" (Phyllis and Strephon)
  • 5. "None shall part us from each other" (Phyllis and Strephon)
  • 6. "Loudly let the trumpet bray" (Chorus of Peers)
  • 7. "The law is the true embodiment" (Lord Chancellor and Chorus of Peers)
  • 8. "My well-loved Lord" and Barcarole, "Of all the young ladies I know" (Phyllis, Lord Tolloller, and Lord Mountararat)
  • 9. "Nay, tempt me not" (Phyllis)
  • 10. "Spurn not the nobly born" (Lord Tolloller and Chorus of Peers)
  • 11. "My lords, it may not be" (Phyllis, Lord Tolloller, Lord Mountararat, Strephon, Lord Chancellor, and Chorus of Peers)
  • 12. "When I went to the Bar" (Lord Chancellor)
  • 13. Finale Act I (Ensemble)
    • "When darkly looms the day"
    • "The lady of my love has caught me talking to another"
    • "Go away, madam"
    • "Henceforth Strephon, cast away"
    • "With Strephon for your foe, no doubt / Young Strephon is the kind of lout"

Act II
  • 14. "When all night long a chap remains" (Private Willis)
  • 15. "Strephon's a member of Parliament" (Chorus of Fairies and Peers)
  • 16. "When Britain really ruled the waves" (Lord Mountararat and Chorus)
  • 17. "In vain to us you plead" (Leila, Celia, Chorus of Fairies, Mountararat, Tolloller, and Chorus of Peers)
  • 18. "Oh, foolish fay" (Queen with Chorus of Fairies)
  • 19. "Though p'r'aps I may incur thy blame" (Phyllis, Lord Mountararat, Lord Tolloller, and Private Willis)
  • 20. "Love, unrequited, robs me of my rest" ... "When you're lying awake" (Lord Chancellor)
  • 21. "If you go in you're sure to win" (Lord Tolloller, Lord Mountararat, and Lord Chancellor)
  • 22. "If we're weak enough to tarry" (Phyllis and Strephon)
  • 23. "My lord, a suppliant at your feet" (Iolanthe)
  • 24. "It may not be" (Lord Chancellor, Iolanthe, and Chorus of Fairies)
  • 25. "Soon as we may, off and away" (Ensemble)

Deleted songs

  • 18a. "De Belville was regarded as the Crichton of his age" (Mountararat) appeared soon after Mountararat's Act II entrance (after Phyllis's comment about Strephon going about with a mother considerably younger than himself.) After a short dialogue (which would also be cut) about how people become peers, Mountararat sings a song about De Belville, a polymath whose talents ranged from painting to literature to inventions. Government was at a loss as to how to reward him – until he inherited millions and obtained a seat in Parliament and "a taste for making inconvenient speeches in the House marker". He was promptly rewarded by being removed from that House by being given a peerage. The long song was cut soon after the first night. In fact, according to Reginald Allen's The First Night Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as contemporaneous reviews, it was not actually sung on the first night, but rather recited, and the middle stanza omitted. The music has been lost, except for a leader violin part found in a private collection of band parts in 1999.

  • 21a. "Fold your flapping wings" (Strephon) was sung on the first night and cut soon afterwards. The song, preceded by a recitative for Strephon ("My bill has now been read a second time") appeared shortly after #21, following the exit of the two Earls and Phyllis and the entrance of Strephon. It is a dark song, and the lyrics suggest that the only reason for bad behavior by the underclasses is circumstance: "I might be as bad – as unlucky, rather – if I only had Fagin for a father." The music to this song survives, and the song has been used in some modern productions. It also makes an interesting concert piece. However, its angry, dark tone is a departure from the generally genial tone of Iolanthe, and most productions continue to omit it.


Iolanthe, the first opera to premiere at the new Savoy Theatre, had a successful initial run in London of 398 performances, spanning the holiday seasons of both 1882 and 1883. In an unprecedented first, the New York premiere was given on the same date — November 25, 1882, with the composer's assistant, Alfred Cellier, conducting. In Australia, it was first seen on 9 May 1885 at the Theatre Royal, Melbournemarker, produced by J. C. Williamson.

In the British provinces, Iolanthe played — either by itself, or in repertory — continuously from February 1882 through 1885, then not again until late 1891. From then on, it was always present in the D'Oyly Carte touring repertory, being included in some part of every season until the company's closure in 1982. Iolanthe was not revived in London until 1901, making it the first of the operas to be revived after the composer's death the year before. It was also included in two Savoy repertory seasons, in 1906–07 and 1908–09.

Iolanthe had the distinction of being the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera performed professionally in London by a non-D'Oyly Carte company. It was produced by the Sadler's Wells Opera on 24 January 1962 at the Sadler's Wells Theatremarker, less than one month after the Gilbert copyrights expired.

The following table shows the history of the D'Oyly Carte productions in Gilbert's lifetime:

Theatre Opening Date Closing Date Perfs. Details
Savoy Theatre November 25, 1882 January 1, 1884 398
Standard Theatre, New York November 25, 1882 February 24, 1883 105 Authorised American production
Savoy Theatre December 7, 1901 March 29, 1902 113 First London revival
Savoy Theatre June 11, 1907 August 23, 1907 43 First Savoy repertory season; played with three other operas. Closing date shown is of the entire season.
Savoy Theatre October 19, 1908 March 27, 1909 38 Second Savoy repertory season; played with five other operas. Closing date shown is of the entire season.

Historical casting

The following tables show the casts of the principal original productions and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company touring repertory at various times through to the company's 1982 closure:

Role Savoy Theatre
Standard Theatre
Savoy Theatre
Savoy Theatre
Savoy Theatre
Lord Chancellor George Grossmith J. H. Ryley Walter Passmore Charles H. Workman Charles H. Workman
Mountararat Rutland Barrington Arthur Wilkinson Powis Pinder Frank Wilson Rutland Barrington
Tolloller Durward Lely Llewellyn Cadwaladr Robert Evett Harold Wilde Henry Herbert
Private Willis Charles Manners Lithgow James Reginald Crompton Overton Moyle Leo Sheffield
Strephon Richard Temple William T. Carleton Henry Lytton Henry Lytton Henry Lytton
Fairy Queen Alice Barnett Augusta Roche Rosina Brandram Louie René Louie René
Iolanthe Jessie Bond Marie Jansen Louie Pounds Bessel Adams Jessie Rose
Celia May Fortescue Mina Rowley Agnes Fraser Violette Londa Dorothy Court
Leila Julia Gwynne Kate Forster Isabel Agnew Beatrice Meredith Beatrice Boarer
Fleta Sybil Grey Billie Barlow Winifred Hart-Dyke Ernestine Gauthier Ethel Lewis
Phyllis Leonora Braham Sallie Reber Isabel Jay Clara Dow Elsie Spain

Role D'Oyly Carte
1915 Tour
D'Oyly Carte
1925 Tour
D'Oyly Carte
1935 Tour
D'Oyly Carte
1945 Tour
D'Oyly Carte
1951 Tour
Lord Chancellor Henry Lytton Henry Lytton Martyn Green Grahame Clifford Martyn Green
Mountararat Frederick Hobbs Darrell Fancourt Darrell Fancourt Darrell Fancourt Eric Thornton
Tolloller Walter Glynne Sidney Pointer John Dean Herbert Garry Leonard Osborn
Private Willis Leo Sheffield Leo Sheffield Sydney Granville L. Radley Flynn Richard Watson
Strephon Leicester Tunks Henry Millidge Leslie Rands Leslie Rands Alan Styler
Fairy Queen Bertha Lewis Bertha Lewis Dorothy Gill Ella Halman Ella Halman
Iolanthe Nellie Briercliffe Aileen Davies Marjorie Eyre Marjorie Eyre Joan Gillingham
Celia Ethel Armit Hilary Davies Ann Drummond-Grant Ana Nicholson Enid Walsh
Leila Betty Grylls Beatrice Elburn Elizabeth Nickell-Lean Doreen Binnion Joyce Wright
Fleta Kitty Twinn Dorothy Gates Kathleen Naylor Margaret Mitchell Henrietta Steytler
Phyllis Elsie McDermid Winifred Lawson Doreen Denny Helen Roberts Margaret Mitchell

Role D'Oyly Carte
1955 Tour
D'Oyly Carte
1965 Tour
D'Oyly Carte
1975 Tour
D'Oyly Carte
1982 Tour
Lord Chancellor Peter Pratt John Reed John Reed James Conroy-Ward
Mountararat Donald Adams Donald Adams John Ayldon John Ayldon
Tolloller Leonard Osborn David Palmer Meston Reid Geoffrey Shovelton
Private Willis Fisher Morgan Kenneth Sandford Kenneth Sandford Kenneth Sandford
Strephon Alan Styler Thomas Lawlor Michael Rayner Peter Lyon
Fairy Queen Ann Drummond-Grant Christene Palmer Lyndsie Holland Patricia Leonard
Iolanthe Joyce Wright Peggy Ann Jones Judi Merri Lorraine Daniels
Celia Maureen Melvin Jennifer Marks Marjorie Williams Margaret Lynn-Williams
Leila Beryl Dixon Pauline Wales Patricia Leonard Helene Witcombe
Fleta Margaret Dobson Elizabeth Mynett Rosalind Griffiths Alexandra Hann
Phyllis Cynthia Morey Valerie Masterson Pamela Field Sandra Dugdale

Selected recordings

Of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company recordings of this opera, the 1930 and 1960 recordings have been the best received, and the latter includes the dialogue. The revived D'Oyly Carte's 1991 recording contains Strephon's cut number "Fold Your Flapping Wings" as a bonus track.

On video are the 1982 Brent Walker production and various performances from the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, including its 2002 professional G&S Opera Company video.

  • 1930 D'Oyly Carte – Conductor: Malcolm Sargent
  • 1951 D'Oyly Carte – Conductor: Isidore Godfrey
  • 1960 D'Oyly Carte (with dialogue) – New Symphony Orchestra of London, Band of the Grenadier Guards, Conductor: Isidore Godfrey
  • 1982 Brent Walker Productions (video) – Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Alexander Faris; Stage Director: David Pountney
  • 1991 D'Oyly Carte – Conductor: John Pryce-Jones

Cultural influence

Popular perceptions in Britain
Iolanthe offers a satirical portrayal of elements of the British constitution, such as the House of Lordsmarker and the position of Lord Chancellor that has influenced modern public debate concerning these institutions. Lord Falconer, who served as Tony Blair's second Lord Chancellor, was reportedly influenced by Iolanthe in his moves to reform or disband the office.

Impact upon Chief Justice Rehnquist
William H. Rehnquist, former Chief Justice of the United States, was a great Gilbert and Sullivan fan. He was inspired to add four golden stripes to the sleeves of his judicial robes after seeing the costume of the Lord Chancellor in a production of Iolanthe. The next Chief Justice, John G. Roberts Jr., has not continued the practice. Rehnquist, while an Associate Justice, quoted the Lord Chancellor ("The Law is the true embodiment/Of everything that's excellent./It has no kind of fault or flaw/And I, My Lords, embody the Law.") in his dissenting opinion in the 1980 case of Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia. Rehnquist played the silent role of Mr. Bunthorne's Solicitor in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, Patience, with the Washington Savoyards in 1986.

The Ratepayers' Iolanthe was a 1984 musical adapted by Ned Sherrin and Alistair Beaton. Sherrin directed won a Laurence Olivier Award for the musical's "conception".

The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov was a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. His Foundation Trilogy was inspired by Iolanthe. Also, in "Runaround", a story in Asimov's I, Robot, a robot, while in a state similar to drunkenness, sings snippets of Gilbert and Sullivan songs, including "The Nightmare Song" from Iolanthe.

In Michael Chabon's 2004 novel The Final Solution, Bruno the parrot sings bits from Iolanthe.

See also

  • Mount Araratmarker, after which one of the characters, Lord Mountararat, is named.



  • Also, five supplements, privately printed.

External links

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