What is Iolanthe?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
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  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri is an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. Sir William Schwenck Gilbert wrote the libretto, and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan composed the music. Iolanthe was their seventh operetta together, following Patience. Iolanthe premiered in London at the Savoy Theatre, Richard D’Oyly Carte’s new theater, on 25 November 1882. Iolanthe should not be confused with the one-act lyric opera by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky, Iolanta, which opened a decade later in 1892, and which has magic, but no fairies.

The backstory of the opera, a political parody, is the 25 years prior to Act I, the fairy Iolanthe had violated a fairy law and married a mortal. Though the offense was punishable by death, Iolanthe was spared by the Queen of the Fairies, and she was punished with exile instead, on condition that she never see her husband again.

As the opera opens, the other fairies have convinced the Queen to pardon Iolanthe, and she is allowed to return. Iolanthe’s son, Strephon, was raised as a shepherd, and now, in Act I, has fallen in love with Phyllis, a ward of the Court of Chancery, who must have permission from the Lord Chancellor in order to marry. As the Lord Chancellor is in love with Phyllis himself, he denies her request. The Queen agrees to help Strephon win Phyllis.


At the same time, the House of Lords asks the Lord Chancellor to allow Phyllis to marry a peer of her choice, and she initially refuses. But then, not knowing that Strephon is half fairy and seeing him with Iolanthe, whom she has never met and mistakes for a rival, she believes Strephon to be unfaithful and decides to marry one of two peers, Mountararat or Tolloller. Strephon calls upon the fairies for assistance, and the Queen punishes the peers by making Strephon a member of parliament with the power to pass any bill he introduces. The first is to base admittance on an examination, which does not play well with the peers.

In Act II, it becomes clear that the fairies are beginning to feel romantic about mortals, specifically, the peers. Even the Queen hints at her feelings for a sentry. Mountararat and Tolloller decide that their friendship is too important to end it in fighting over Phyllis, and persuade the Lord Chancellor to try again. Meanwhile, Strephon reveals to Phyllis that he is half fairy, which clarifies the situation with his mother, and they reconcile. Iolanthe’s secret, that her husband is actually the Lord Chancellor, is revealed, and despite her sentence of death should she meet with him, she insures that he cannot marry Phyllis by revealing herself as his wife, thus clearing the way for Strephon, their son.

The Queen comes to wreak punishment, only to find that all the other fairies have married peers as well. The Queen has a dilemma because the fairy law states that every fairy “must die who marries a mortal,” but carried out, this law will put an end to fairies. The Lord Chancellor uses his legislative experience to solve the issue, suggesting that the addition of the word don’t will spare the fairy race. The Queen assents, but then finds her own life at risk, so she engages herself to the sentry who had caught her attention earlier, and the opera ends happily for Phyllis, Strephon, and everyone else, with all the peers becoming fairies.


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