The Zoo is a one-act comic opera, with music by Arthur Sullivan and a libretto by B. C. Stephenson, writing under the pen name of Bolton Rowe. It premiered on June 5, 1875 at the St. James's Theatre in London, concluding its run five weeks later, on June 28, 1875, at the Haymarket Theatre. There were brief revivals in late 1875, and again in 1879, before the opera was shelved.
The score was not published in Sullivan's lifetime, and it lay dormant until Terence Rees purchased the composer's autograph at auction in the 1960s and arranged for publication. The first modern production was in 1971, and the first professional recording was in 1978.
The opera is in one act without spoken dialogue, running about 40 minutes. Like Trial by Jury and Cox and Box, it has been staged as a curtain-raiser to the shorter Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Triple-bills of Sullivan's three one-act operas have also proved successful.
Genesis of the work
How Sullivan came to collaborate with Stephenson is uncertain. Just ten weeks before The Zoo opened, Trial by Jury premiered at the Royalty Theatre, with a libretto by Sullivan's more famous collaborator, W. S. Gilbert. But in 1875, Gilbert and Sullivan were not yet a permanent team. Sullivan had already written two operas with F. C. Burnand, and in late 1874 he had traveled to Paris to see one of Offenbach's librettists, Albert Millaud, although it is not known if anything came of that meeting. (Ainger, pp. 107–8; Jacobs, p. 84).
In late January 1875, the The Times ran advertisements for the Royalty Theatre: "In preparation, a new comic opera composed expressly for this theatre by Mr. Arthur Sullivan, in which Madame Dolaro and Nelly Bromley will appear." Reginald Allen (Allen 1975b, p. 28) and other writers took this as an advertisement for Trial by Jury. However, the advertisement does not mention a librettist, a peculiar omission if it was to have been W. S. Gilbert, who was at that point better known to London theatregoers than Sullivan. Moreover, Trial has no place for two principal ladies (but The Zoo does).
George McElroy (1984) demonstrated that the January advertisement definitely wasn't for Trial, when he discovered a further advertisement in The Era of March 14, 1875, which noted that "In consequence of the continued success of La Périchole, the production of Mr. Sullivan's two-act opera is postponed." (McElroy, p. 40). That two-act work must have been something entirely different from Trial by Jury, which is in one act, and which opened just eleven days later.
It has been suggested that The Zoo was mounted hastily to capitalize on Trial's success. For instance, Hughes (1959, p. 16) writes, "Sullivan was so bitten by the stage bug that at the request of another manager he dashed off The Zoo, with a librettist whose identity it would be kinder not to reveal since he afterwards did good work under a nom-de-plume."
But McElroy (p. 50) wonders "how Sullivan came to discover and set this libretto, by a relative beginner, so quickly?" He notes (p. 51) that a March 13, 1875 gossip column in the Athenæum said that Sullivan was working on new music for a piece at the St. James's, although for a different opera. From this, McElroy speculates that Stephenson was already working on the libretto of The Zoo for the St. James, while Sullivan was still busy preparing for the opening of Trial:
David Russell Hulme (1984) provides further evidence that the music of The Zoo, or at least part of it, was already in existence before Trial by Jury opened. He notes that Sullivan's sketch manuscript for Trial contains the first sixteen bars of a solo for the Usher that was deleted before the opera's premiere. Aside from a key change, it is the same tune that Sullivan would use for Carboy's aria in The Zoo, "I loved her fondly." But because Sullivan entered only a bit of the tune in his sketch, Hulme concluded that the composer "needed only a few notes to remind him of his intentions. (Nowhere else in the sketches do we find similar curtailment.) It is reasonable to suggest that he was able to do this because he intended drawing on ready-made material."
The opera opened on June 5, 1875 at the St. James's Theatre in London under the management of Marie Litton, sharing the bill with a W. S. Gilbert play, Tom Cobb. Trial by Jury was still running at the Royalty with La Périchole. Terrence Rees observed:
The Zoo ran for three weeks until the end of Litton's season, then transferred to the Haymarket Theatre on June 28, 1875, closing on July 10, 1875. Its five-week run, between the two theatres, was not the hit that Trial by Jury had been, although Gänzl (1986, p. 90) suggests that it "achieved a certain degree of success." There was a second production of The Zoo" at the Philharmonic Theatre, Islington, from 2–30 October 1875, with Richard Temple (the future principal bass-baritone in the Savoy Operas) as the nobleman-in-disguise at the zoo, Thomas Brown.
The opera then went on the shelf, although other producers were interested in reviving it. Allen (1975a, p. 74) quotes a letter of June 22, 1877, in which the composer wrote in the third person, "Mr. Sullivan begs to inform Mr. Cowper that the 'Zoo' has not yet been published, nor will it until considerable alterations have been made." In a letter to his friend Alan Cole on November 22, 1877, he wrote, "They want to revive the 'Zoo' at the Strand. Will you rewrite it with me?" Both letters suggest that the composer was less than satisfied with what he had done in 1875.
The final production of Sullivan's lifetime was at the Royalty Theatre from April 14, 1879 to May 3, 1879. Sullivan is not known to have made any of the revisions he had contemplated in 1877. By 1885, he almost certainly had abandoned any further hopes of re-staging it, as "I loved her fondly" — the same tune that he had nearly used in Trial by Jury and did use in The Zoo — was reused (with only a slight transformation) in part of "A wand'ring minstrel I," in The Mikado.
It was once believed that Sullivan had re-used a good deal more of The Zoo. In 1927, Herbert Sullivan and Newman Flower wrote, "The Zoo was a trifle composed by Sullivan in 1875.... It was never printed, and much of the music was used up again by the composer in his later Savoy operas." (Sullivan and Flower, p. 79). Aside from "I loved her fondly," however, no re-use of music from The Zoo has been identified.
In 1965, Dr. Terence Rees bought the score of The Zoo at auction and commissioned the creation of orchestra parts and a vocal score. The modern premiere was given by the Fulham Light Opera in 1971, and the opera was recorded professionally by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1978. The Light Opera of Manhattan production in New York City in 1980 (together with Trial and Cox and Box) appears to have been the first professional American production.
At a zoological gardens, the proud and opinionated British Public gather to look at the animals. Æsculapius Carboy is discovered standing on a chair with a rope around his neck. The chorus insist that if he is going to commit suicide, he must first tell them the reason why.
Carboy happily obliges. He had wooed Lætitia Grinder, the daughter of a prosperous grocer. Her father, Mr. Grinder, disapproved of their relationship, but Carboy, an apothecary (pharmacist), was able to communicate with her "in prescriptions." But one day, owing to a mixup, the labels for a dose of peppermint for Lætitia and a lotion for her father's back were switched. Carboy, believing that he has killed his love, has despaired of all hope. He intends to kill himself, but Eliza Smith, the no-nonsense keeper of the refreshment stall at the zoo, forbids it.
Eliza's beau, Thomas Brown, appears, and the two sing a happy duet. Thomas begins to purchase and rapidly eat an astonishing amount of Eliza's refreshments. Lætitia enters, looking for Carboy. He is surprised to find her alive, but she explains that she did not drink the lotion, as he had feared. They sing a fond duet, which becomes a quartet as Eliza lists the remarkable catalogue of the food that Thomas has just eaten. Thomas explains that he has eaten all of her wares to prove his affection for her.
Thomas then faints, which concerns the chorus greatly. Carboy, explaining that he is a physician, asks the crowd to stand back and steps in to help. After making a quick diagnosis, he writes a prescription, which Eliza takes to be filled. Thomas now revives briefly, and before passing out again, makes a delerious comment that implies he is of noble birth. Carboy unfastens his patient's jacket, and the crowd are shocked to find that Thomas is a Knight of the Garter. Thomas revives, and it turns out that he is the Duke of Islington. He had disguised himself as a commoner so that he could search for a humble, virtuous wife without revealing his true rank. Now that his secret is discovered, Thomas makes a garbled but well-received speech and, taking the perceptive chorus's advice, resolves to propose marriage to Eliza as soon as he can change into his "native guise." He exits.
Mr. Grinder enters, looking for Carboy and Lætitia, but the chorus won't help him. Eliza returns, and is upset to find that Thomas has disappeared. The crowd amuse themselves by telling her, mysteriously, that he will return soon. Still upset, Eliza laments that she is a simple little child who cannot understand why wealthy men have always showered her with gifts and invitations. Meanwhile, Grinder appears, confronting his disobedient daughter and her beloved pharmacist. Lætitia begs her father to let her marry Carboy, but Grinder once again refuses. Hearing this, Carboy repeats his request to the chorus for a rope with which to hang himself. Failing at that, and after bidding Lætitia a lengthy farewell, he heads for the bear pit in the hopes of being killed by the fearsome creatures.
Thomas Brown re-enters, now dressed as befits the Duke of Islington, and grandly proposes to make Eliza his Duchess. She bursts into tears, reluctant to leave her beloved animals behind, but Lord Thomas tells her not to worry: He has bought them all! Carboy re-enters. His suicide attempt has failed, this time because the bear pit is being renovated and the bears have been moved. He vows to head for the lion's den, but the Duke stops him. The Duke has reached a financial settlement with Mr. Grinder, who is now willing to accept Carboy as his son-in-law. The two pairs of lovers are united, and all ends happily, with the public proudly singing that "Britons never, never will be slaves!"