Thespisor, The Gods Grown Old
Act 1: Olympus — the mountain of the gods — is in a shambles. The buildings and grounds are in ruins and the gods themselves are the worse for wear despite their immortality, having to rely heavily on hair-dyes, cosmetics, and pills stolen from the mortals on earth. These deities, led by Jupiter, are worried because they cannot understand why their popularity has dwindled over the centuries. Their peace is shattered as the sacred mountain suddenly swarms with mortals preceded by two young lovers, Sparkeion and Nicemis. It is their wedding day and they are glad to get away from the rest of the party, despite being jealous of previous relationships each other has had. The mortals are all members of a theatrical troupe led by their manager, Thespis, and having caught up with the two lovers in the ruins of the Thespis — 2002 Temple of the Gods, they pause for a picnic. The gods, hidden from sight, listen to their bickering conversations with mounting frustration until, irritated with this intrusion of their privacy, they reveal themselves with as much splendor as they can muster and Jupiter scares the mortals away by displaying his powers. But Thespis approaches Jupiter and introduces himself, and the latter, recognizing Thespis as a manager of obvious influence, questions him as to why the popularity of the gods has dwindled on earth. Thespis suggests that the gods should descend to earth and find out first hand the reasons for their lack of popularity since this would place them in a stronger position to effect improvements in their standing. The manager offers to lend his troupe to take the places of the gods on Olympus whilst they are away and Jupiter agrees, leaving Mercury behind to assist and to check on the mortals' progress.
Act 2: A year has passed and on the surface everything on Mount Olympus appears to be satisfactory. The temple has been repaired with theatrical props and now looks magnificent. But the reality is a different matter. The roles of the gods have been unevenly distributed to the actors and their management has been weak, resulting in a series of major problems. Nicemis, for instance, plays the moon goddess Diana, discharging her duties at night but, as she gets cold and frightened when in the dark alone, her lover Sparkeion accompanies her. But Sparkeion is playing Apollo — the sun god — and so the sun now shines at night. The role of Cupid is played by a youth who has an eye for pretty girls to such an extent that he fires arrows only at the girls and forgets all about the men. The time has come for the annual heavenly court where all the complaints of mortals everywhere are discussed. Mercury calls the court to order and this is presided over by Thespis. Jupiter, Apollo and Mars have returned in disguise to Olympus. They are shocked by the changes they see, tackle Mercury and Thespis and remain in disguise — unrecognized by the rest of the actors. A long list of grumbles is read out to the court. Athens has experienced a foggy Friday in November every day for the last six months because Thespis forgot to turn off the rain. Grapes now contain only ginger beer since Tipseion, the new god of wine, has taken the pledge. But as the catalogue of disasters is presented, the fury of the gods is aroused and they reveal themselves, and dispose the actors who are banished back to earth. Their punishment is to become a troupe of tragedians whom no one ever goes to see, whilst the gods begin to sort out the problems which the actors have left behind.
NOTE: Most of the music for this first-ever opera by Gilbert and Sullivan has been lost to time. Enthusiasts, intrigued by this "G&S Holy Grail", have attempted to perform it today only in reconstructions using other Sullivan music.
The version OMP performed as part of our 25th Anniversary Season had all-new music, in Sullivan's style, by composer Quade Winter.
The Quade Winter version of Thespis:
Tradition at the time of Gilbert & Sullivan was to sell copies of the sung words and dialogue for audience members to buy. As time and performance demands caused necessary changes (the piece was created in less than three weeks and rehearsed for one week), early copies of these audience programs contained numerous errors. Nevertheless, the audience program for the premiere production of Thespis is all that remain's of Gilbert's work. It is known, through newspaper reviews, cast and audience interviews, and personal documents of the duo, that the published libretto isn't quite what ran for those 64 performances (dialogue, musical numbers, even characters are missing), but it is close enough.
The Quade Winter version of Thespis is also close enough. Some word changes here and there — to match the new music or to substitute for an out-dated word — were made. Some material was removed or reordered, and new material was inserted from other Gilbert sources.
So until that G&S Holy Grail — a true vocal score for Thespis is found, this version is as close in spirit to that December 26, 1871 night as we can hope for.
"Venus" and "Stupidas":
The character of "Venus" does not appear in the published libretto. Yet the program lists her (and the actress originating the role) as one of the leads, as do newspaper reviews of the time. Certain reconstructionists have tried to discover and compensate for the discrepancy.
"Venus" and "Stupidas", a minor character with few lines, do not appear in the Quade Winter version.
The role of "Mercury" is a "pants" or "trousers" role — in other words, a male character intended to be played by a female. Created for a popular comedienne, this would have been considered quite racy at the time (even though theatre tradition since Shakespeare's time had males performing female roles). Gilbert and Sullivan later swore never to write such another role in deference to middle-class Victorian opinion.
Nonetheless, this is the only G&S show where a female has the patter song.
Despite playing longer than most of the year's pantomimes, Thespis was not a lasting success. Critics claimed the work to be too esoteric, while the costumes were "more than unusually indecent". A late curtain and insufficiently rehearsed performance with a less-than-talented cast, left a bad taste despite fair reviews. Both Gilbert and Sullivan conveniently forgot their earlier days in Victorian burlesque and their first collaboration. So even in Sullivan's lifetime the music was known to have 'disappeared', (although it is rumored a copy of the vocal score was held secretly by a firm of music publishers in London, but was accidentally destroyed in a fire in 1964). Sullivan is believed to have claimed that the best parts of it had been reused in other works — for example, one part of The Mikado is used in The Zoo. (Also noteworthy, is that an original working title for The Grand Duke was Thespis Recaptured.) Consequently many reconstructions have simply re-set Gilbert's original words to Sullivan's melodies from later operas, but searches for true fragments of the original score have been fruitless. Some critics were able to report what the original score sounded like: "Tuneful throughout, always pretty, frequently suggestive, the songs and dances are quite in character with the author's design". The song "I Once Knew a Man" was "orchestrated with a railway bell, a railway whistle, and some new instrument of music imitating the agreeable sound of a train in motion." It was encored every night!
Using this as a guide, Quade Winter set out to construct a score, without imitating any particular source, to make Sullivan proud.
"Little Maid of Arcadee":
Since no recording (television, radio, phonograph, 8-track, cassette, CD, MIDI, MP3, whatever) of the original performances were available to the 1800's public, the only available way to get the music from a show was to buy the published sheet music. Happily, the only sheet music form Thespis was for the Act II ballad "Little Maid of Arcadee". The song became popular in the music hall and drawing room circuit, and has continued to be noteworthy as part of the lost G&S work, Thespis.
Quade Winter's version of Thespis uses the original Gilbert and Sullivan "Little Maid of Arcadee".
"Climbing Over Rocky Mountain":
New York, 1879: Gilbert and Sullivan were finishing The Pirates of Penzance, when Sullivan discovered to his horror that he had left all his sketches for the first act in London. Gilbert later recollected: "Almost the only 'number' that he could not recall was the chorus that accompanies the entrance of the Major General's daughters in Act I, and as the situation was practically identical with the entrance of the troupe of Greek comedians in Thespis, I suggested that he should transfer the music and the words, as they stood, from one piece to the other. This he did very successfully." The Thespis words crossed out, minor word changes here and there penciled in, scoring and structure touched up a bit, and the old pages were sewn into the new Pirates score. This makes a bit of sense when considering the terms of Pirates. Why would the daughters be singing 'climbing over rocky mountain' when they are at the seashore?
However, does this story ring true? Would Sullivan remember something we wrote eight years earlier for a show they were trying to forget, when he could not remember something he had written a few weeks earlier? Would Sullivan have remembered to bring his Thespis score with him, but left his latest project — the first act for Pirates behind? This seems to be the case. Is there more of Thespis in Pirates than just that one song? Lots of theories abound.
Quade Winter's version of Thespis uses the original Gilbert and Sullivan "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain".
The Ballet Music:
Since this was the first pairing of Gilbert and Sullivan, before they had established a pattern with the D'Oyly-Carte company, they followed certain traditions rather than creating them. One such tradition for all mock opera-bouffes was an interpolated ballet, allowing the professional dancers an opportunity to shine. It was while assembling the papers referring to his second ballet Victoria and Merrie England that Sullivan's secretary included a manuscript whose head read 'Act 2. Ballet No. 1'. In the L'lle Enchantée collection he also included two pieces describing themselves as 'Act 2. Ballet No. 3' and 'Galop'. These pieces were in a different handwriting and different pagination, and on different paper from the rest of the works, but were consistent with each other. Of these three, only the Galop was known to belong to L'lle, but in this case it appears in a truncated score for a small theatre pit orchestra rather than in the version for a large ballet orchestra. These three pieces, though they were now separated, were clearly identified by their page numbers as being Numbers 1, 3, and 5 of a ballet, but from the page numbers the length of Numbers 2 and 4 could be calculated. The designation 'Act 2' shows this ballet belonged to some kind of opera, for Sullivan divided his early ballets into 'scenes', while his incidental music for plays is well documented. Indeed the only opera to which this could belong is Thespis. Final confirmation of this piece of detective work comes in the only undoubted part of Thespis — the original sheet music of 'Climbing over Rocky Mountain', with the Thespis words crossed out and the new Pirates words penciled in. The Thespis words are in the hand of the same copyist, are on the same type of paper, and would have consistent pagination as the Pirates 'Climbing Over' material. Examining drawings of the Thespis rehearsals revealed the presence of a harp, most unusual in an orchestra at the Gaiety, and also of a comic dragon scene. There is another dragon scene in Victoria which used the music from scene 4 of L'lle, while the use of harp and length of the piece would fit perfectly with part of the second section of L'lle. As a result, it is a good guess that these pieces would fit into the gaps. The lost ballet from Thespis, discovered in 1990, could at last be reconstructed.
A CD recording of the Ballet Music for L'lle Enchantée and Thespis is available at Amazon.com.
Quade Winter's version of Thespis does not use this ballet music.