|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > A Rehearsal at the Savoy
A REHEARSAL AT THE SAVOY.
HOW THE NEW OPERA IS PREPARED.
It was very well to have Mr. Gilbert’s polite letter saying that I could attend the rehearsal, but the production of it by no means satisfied the stage-door keeper. That careworn person who not only guards the gate, but supplies the company with afternoon tea, started by trying to send me about my business before he found out what it was; then he examined the letter as carefully as a bank clerk examines a note. Whether he thought it a forgery I hardly know; at any rate he would not act on it, but sent in my card to Mr. Gilbert. Soon came a boy who told me to follow him, and led me down interminable stairs. After this I was taken into a little room, where I swore a fearful oath, such an oath as bound the members of the Vehm Gericht or the Clan-na-Gael, not to reveal "the details of plot and effects" to any human being. Then I was admitted to the stalls of the theatre, which looked cold and dreary. It was all covered with white sheets, and only lighted by the skylight over the gallery, one or two electric lights in the dress circle, and a lamp in the prompt side stage box. The 32 gentlemen of the orchestra in straw hats, "bowlers," and "tubes," as French slang calls the silk hat, were in their place, but not their places, and a good half-hour was spent in arranging their seats, a difficult task carried out by Mr. Arthur Cellier. For a long time we — that is, about half-a-dozen people in the stalls, sat gazing at the gorgeous pale amber silk brocade curtain which in the gloomy half-light looked dull and dingy. Then Sir Arthur Sullivan, in a suit of dark-grey "dittoes," appeared and helped Mr. Cellier in seating the orchestra, and the difficulty of the task caused him to remark that "next time he would write all the music pizzicato, so as to save the room taken up by the violin bows." At last that business was arranged, and the voice of Mr. Charles Harris was heard — it is a voice which is always heard with ease — telling someone to stop the gallery lights. Mr. Harris scarcely seemed himself, and, in fact, those who have heard him rehearsing a company when he is master of the situation, would hardly have recognised him in the subdued-looking person who sat mum in a corner of the stalls most of the time. At last Sir Arthur took his seat, the overture was soon played, and the curtains parted, disclosing a picture of tropical scenery, and some pretty girls in fantastic costumes, with splendid wigs that caused Mr. Clarkson, who sat in the stalls, to beam with pride and pleasure. The opening chorus sung — did ever a comic opera begin otherwise than by a chorus? — the real business of a rehearsal began.
"I don’t think there are enough young ladies for a good volume of sound," said Sir Arthur. "Nor I," answered Mr. Gilbert; "we must send on the others at once." Then he ran round to the stage, some more young ladies arrived, and he began to arrange them, pushing and pulling them about gently, and calling them, as custom demands "My dear." In a few minutes he came back to the stalls, and, sitting down by the side of Mrs. Gilbert, looked at the result of his handiwork. "You, miss, you in yellow, and you, miss, next to her, will you put your arms round one another’s necks — if you’re on good terms," called the author, and turning round said, "they aren’t always, you know." Still, he was not satisfied. "You two at the back incorporate yourselves — I mean embrace one another. Sullivan, may I put one right at the back on the mound; will the voice be right?" "Certainly, Gilbert." "Now, my dear, go right back and take your skin with you — never go anywhere without your skin."
It was a joke about the tiger-skin she had to lie upon—a mild joke if you like, but mild jokes are as successful at rehearsal as in a Court of Justice. At last they were posed even to the satisfaction of Mr. Percy Anderson, who designed the boldly-coloured dresses. Then Mr. Gilbert came close to me. "How are the rehearsals going?" I asked.
"Very well indeed," he replied, "they couldn’t go better. I never had pleasanter rehearsing — no jars or unpleasantness at all. It’s going beautifully, but of course they’ll all lose their heads later on — they always do. How’s my gout? Oh, better, though I haven’t had time to attend to it — at the beginning of the rehearsals I had to be wheeled about in a bath chair. Any politics in the piece? Yes and no. They’re vague. You’ll find many references to the state of England and some hits at existing abuses, but nothing of a party character. It doesn’t do to divide the house. Hi, miss, you in green on the left — I can’t tell which is which now they’ve got their wigs — lie down at once on your face — I’ve told you about it before."
The young lady began to expostulate or explain, but he stopped her firmly yet amiably. Both he and Sir Arthur act on the suaviter in modo fortiter in re principle. The musician is exceedingly courteous, but has sharp little bursts of impatience promptly subdued; Mr. Gilbert is a genuine Job. A Savoy rehearsal is indeed a study in propriety of demeanour, and too refined for many Parliamentary terms to be used at it. What a difference to other theatres, where nothing is done without a quantity of highly-decorated language! In truth, at the Savoy, there is a charming family tone — everyone seems polite and respectful, and there appears to be a genuine feeling of good-fellowship all round.
"You know," said Mr. Gilbert to me, "I’ve told that girl about it before. Tell a thing once to a man, and he never forgets it. Tell it to a woman, and — well, they’re thinking all the time about the question how they and their neighbours look. One rehearsal went almost to pieces till I thought of making them all take off their bonnets and then they did attend to me. Oh, that won’t do!" and off he dashed to the stage, and the scene was done over again and again. The dialogue went well enough, for most of the company proved to be word perfect; very funny it is too, and I long to let some of the jokes out of the theatre, but there’s the oath! The orchestra laughed so heartily at times that it could not play. The music, too, was well known — only one chorus, a very pretty accompanied sextette, went wrong; Sir Arthur’s keen ear felt the basses were in error, and Mr. Cellier pointed out that they dropped to a C instead of G, which weakened the harmony, and possibly made consecutive fifths or octaves. The dances, exits, and entrances gave the trouble. When it is correctly done it seems quite natural that after a complicated movement all the performers should be exactly in a picture at the end of a musical phrase, but when such an affair goes wrong it seems impossible to get it right. The royal drawing-room gave the greatest trouble. With great pains an exact copy of a St. James’s reception is given: all the proper officials are there, and the Life Guardsmen average over 6 ft. 3in! There are a dozen or so of débutantes in gorgeous Court dresses — fifty guineas apiece they cost. The young ladies look lovely, or most of them do, for a prettier set of girls than the Savoy chorus could hardly be found, and they wear their dresses and manoeuvre the tremendous trains as if to the manner born. However, to get all the debutantes and their trains off the stage, mass the gorgeously clad officials, then call the young ladies back again and bring the whole splendid group up to the footlights exactly at the last chord of rich procession music, seemed for a while impossible; but by patience and skill it was done. This Drawing Room scene, which will make every woman in the land bully her husband, father, brother, or sweetheart, as the case may be, to take her to see "Utopia, Limited," is the great effect of the second act. The first tells how Utopia was happily governed by King Paramount (Mr. Rutland Barrington), whose government was despotism tempered by dynamite. However, his eldest daughter, Princess Zara (Miss Nancy McIntosh), had been sent to Girton, and came back a rabid Anglomaniac, bringing with her half a dozen "imported flowers of progress" in shape of gentlemen who, according to her and themselves, represent the chief factors of English greatness. The King is induced to Anglicise his Court and country, and the Drawing Room is one of his greatest efforts. The process succeeds admirably in some respects, but causes dissatisfaction in others. How the trouble arises, and how, with a truly Gilbertian stroke, it is settled, I may not tell, nor can I speak of the many quaint and charming songs, brilliant jests, curious dances, and laughter-moving pieces of business that enliven it.
"What do you think of our new prima donna?" said Mr. Gilbert when she came on the stage. "I’ll tell you with pleasure," I replied — "on Monday." He was enthusiastic, and said they had never had an artist who sang so well, acted so cleverly, spoke so charmingly, and looked so pretty as Miss Nancy McIntosh. In the past there were sopranos who, perhaps, outstepped her at each particular point, but she surpassed them all in general excellence. However, if you want to know more about the young lady you can find out all about her in THE WESTMINSTER BUDGET of September 8. The rehearsal began at about half-past 11, there was half an hour’s rest for change of scene, and it was half-past five when Mr. Rutland Barrington uttered the last word but one of the dialogue. Not the last word, for to utter the tag would have terrified everyone. Members of the profession are superstitious, almost as superstitious as seafaring folk, and believe that if that last word were said before the first night, at the best the piece would be a failure, and perhaps an earthquake might happen. "You can’t sing the finale to-day," said Sir Arthur, "for a new one is to be written. When can we rehearse again, Mr. Harris?"
"In twenty-four hours," answered Mr. Harris, "at the least."
"Why is that?" I asked.
"The floor is being parqueted for the Drawing-Room scene," answered Mr. Gilbert. "We’ve spared no expenses, I can tell you; in fact, the production has cost no less than ———." He mentioned a sum that is as much as most of us earn in 15 years, and I who had noticed the gorgeous mounting, the countless electric lights in the palace scene, and the splendid dresses, was not a bit surprised. "So little as that?" I replied. He smiled gravely. Seeing how much there is in the new opera that must charm everybody, I felt disposed, even anxious, to offer to become partner, and risk a share of that tremendous sum already spent on the production, for I fancy that it would be a capital investment.
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