The phrase Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the musical team of librettist W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900). The two are famous for the creation of the British light opera tradition. A light opera - a genre almost entirely composed of Gilbert and Sullivan works - is a comic work in the popular tongue (vulgate), written for mass consumption and enjoyment, often to parody themes of Victorian life. Although some parodies still resonante today, such as the pretentions of Bunthorne in Patience; originally a parody of Oscar Wilde but still relevant to many modern artists. During their lifetimes and work together, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote fourteen light operas (with one, Thespis, being now mostly lost with some of its music recycled in later productions).
Almost as important as Gilbert and Sullivan themselves was Richard D'Oyly Carte, their producer and impresario. The success of the early operas enabled him to build the Savoy Theatre, in which the later operas were mounted. The Gilbert and Sullivan works are often known as the "Savoy operas" and theatre companies devoted to presenting these operas often name themselves "Savoyards." D'Oyly Carte's productions were lavishly mounted and had an element of spectacle to them; for example, the "March of the Peers" in Iolanthe featured elaborate replicas of the ceremonial robes worn by the members of the House of Lords.
Sir Arthur Sullivan found the success of the operettas personally frustrating. He aspired to what he considered to be greater things, and many of his contemporaries, up to and including Queen Victoria, encouraged his ambitions to create serious grand opera on epic English themes. Sullivan did create a cantata, The Golden Legend; an oratorio, The Light of the World; and an opera, Ivanhoe. Today, all of these are obscure and rarely performed, but the Savoy operas remain popular. Gilbert famously quipped that Sullivan aspired to be a Bach, but was only an Offenbach.
However, part of the pleasure audiences take from Gilbert and Sullivan comes from the contrast between Sullivan's refined music and Gilbert's irreverent words.
In the early years the United States did not recognize British copyrights. Unauthorized productions of works such as HMS Pinafore were mounted in the United States almost simultaneously with the first British productions, and were great successes.
Among the better known works by Gilbert and Sullivan are Patience, Ruddigore, Pirates of Penzance, and HMS Pinafore. All of the works were written to parody elements of British life in the Victorian era, especially often mocking the Royal Navy, the linchpin of the British Empire. All of the works are subtitled with a phrase illuming the background of the story - often, the subtitles were meant to foreshadow a theme in the opera, the non-existence of which would become a major comic element. For example:
- Pirates of Penzance, subtitled "The Slave of Duty," foreshadows the main character's conflict between his (illusory) duty and his love of the female lead.
- Ruddigore, subtitled "The Witch's Curse," foreshadows the central theme of the curse on the family of the Baronets of Ruddigore, which is resolved comically.
The "March of the Peers" from Iolanthe is standard band repertoire and familiar to many who do not know it by name. If Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 is the music most frequently performed at high school commencements, Sullivan's March of the Peers is probably the second most frequently performed.