Work on the new operetta by both partners was dragging, so that fulfilling the contract for a premiere in America in November 1880 became impossible. Over the winter, however, the venture took shape. Starting with the premise of one of his Bab Ballads about two rival curates, Gilbert evolved a major piece of literary satire, spoofing opposing factions of the “aesthetic school of poets” and the artificialities of faddish artistic taste. The two opposing characters, Bunthorne and Grosvenor, were supposedly modeled on Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne, respectively, though in fact a variety of contemporaneous examples were drawn upon. The title was Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride. Gilbert’s dazzling wit was particularly well-matched by Sullivan’s rousing music, and the constellation of cast regulars was augmented by another new arrival-the soprano Leonora Braham (1853-1931)-ultimately problematical for her recurrent alcoholism, but whose talent, acting skills, and charm allowed her to become the creator of the majority of the G & S soprano lead roles thereafter. The opening night, on April 23, 1881, was a brilliant one, with Oscar Wilde himself in attendance to savor his growing notoriety.
That summer, while Gilbert reveled in his new yacht, Sullivan was taken on a princely cruise by his royal friend, the Duke of Edinburgh. Among their stops was one at Kiel where the Prussian crown prince-the twenty-two-year-old grandson of Queen Victoria and the future Kaiser Wilhelm II of World War I infamy-greeted the composer by singing Sir Joseph Porter’s patter-song from Pinafore. Sullivan was, meanwhile, determined anew not to do another collaboration with Gilbert. This alarmed Carte, who, like Gilbert, saw a continuing output by the team as a secure prospect for future prosperity. Carte, moreover, was now committed to a bold new project: a bigger and better theater, a house all of his own, devoted to his permanent company’s activities, and with G & S operettas as their mainstay. The project had been set in motion in 1880, and progressed through the following year. The site was off the Strand, above the Thames Embankment, near the location of the old Savoy Palace: accordingly, after some shifts in choices, Carte decided to call it the Savoy Theatre. While retaining the lease on the Opéra Comique, where Richard Barker was to continue as manager, Carte decided to open the new house by transferring Patience to it from the old one, in the midst of its continuing initial run. This was accomplished on October 10, 1881, when Sullivan personally directed the performance that inaugurated the Savoy Theatre. Before the performance itself, Carte arranged a demonstration of the theater’s innovative feature, complete electrification of the lighting-the first such lighting system of any of London’s theaters. (Another of Carte’s innovations was to persuade his ticket-hungry public to line up in neat queues at the box office instead of mobbing it in unruly disorder-a discipline that soon became a generally accepted trait of English behavior.)
The Savoy was now the holy-of-holies for the burgeoning G & S cult, even as various touring or licensed companies under Carte’s supervision presented the operettas around England and the U.S.A. Indeed, the collaborators had always spoken of their works as “operas” (not operettas), and these works have come to be known generally as the “Savoy operas”, while adherents of the G & S literature have thus become known as “Savoyards”. To be sure, Carte did not see his empire ending here. His next project was a Savoy Hotel, adjacent to the Theatre, as a vast business investment; to be followed by a full-scale National Opera house-reflecting his sympathy with Sullivan’s ambitions in that idiom.
For now, however, the goal was the next product of the collaborators, who had been bound by a promise for another new work. Its starting-point was another of Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, called “The Fairy Curate”. But the writer soon saw its expansion as an opportunity to spoof British governmental institutions, as he had already done so wittily with the British navy (Pinafore) and the British army (Patience). Going through a series of sketches and title changes, it emerged as Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri. Its period of genesis was spiced by a cruise Sullivan took that spring to Egypt and then through Italy and Paris, followed by visit in August to a spa in Germany with Fanny Ronalds. In between these he was stunned by the death of his beloved mother-a blow that his relationship (still periodically tumultuous) with Fanny could not fully soften. Nevertheless, the project matured to fulfillment for the first premiere to be mounted at the new house, November 25, 1882. (It was also the first of the operettas for which Sullivan personally composed the Overture.)
Sullivan had by now undergone a series of financial setbacks that made him reconsider his desire to end the collaboration and return to “serious” composition: plainly, the operetta business was his guaranteed hope for recovered prosperity. For their part, Gilbert and Carte had no doubts about the logical course. On February 8, 1883, the three signed a five-year contract by which each was entitled to one-third of the net profits, after expenses. But Gilbert hardly required much inducement to move on speedily to the next product. This time, and for the only time, he turned to a pre-existing literary work for his material, and, also uniquely, to a play of his own, which happened to be an adaptation of that literary work. This was his 1870 play, The Princess, based on Tennyson’s poem of the same title. As the new text emerged, each of the two collaborators experienced landmarks in their lives. Gilbert undertook construction of an elaborate new home. For Sullivan that May came the award of his knighthood. That only he should receive this, and not Gilbert with him, was partly a snub of the latter, perhaps disfavored at court for his satirical jibes. Yet only forty-one, Sullivan was, of course, a darling of the court. But the award was almost certainly intended not just to honor his achievements to date but also to direct his future course to a higher level. And, indeed, commentators of the moment saw this as a further reminder of what was expected of him. Wrote one: “Some things that Mr. Arthur Sullivan may do, Sir Arthur Sullivan ought not to do”-clearly pointing to more “serious” activity instead of the pedestrian productivity with Gilbert.
Ready for rehearsal by late autumn, the new operetta was now titled Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant-with the further unique feature for the collaborators of a three-act format, in place of the usual two. One problem arose from an adventurous casting decision. Feeling that their principal soprano, Leonora Braham, was not up to the dramatic requirements of the title character, the collaborators decided to engage for it the American singer, Lillian Russell, then singing in London. But her casual attitude towards attending rehearsals outraged the strict Gilbert and she had to be dismissed; Braham was awarded the role in Russell’s place, confirming her monopoly on G & S soprano leads. The role of the bizarrely grouchy King Gama (often perceived as Gilbert’s secret self-portrait) was tailor-made for Grossmith. The premiere, on January 5, 1884, was a great success, but cost Sullivan’s health dearly. In a state of exhaustion and in great pain, he was not thought able to conduct the opening performance, as was his wont. By drugs and will-power, he managed to assume the podium after all, but following the curtain calls he collapsed.