Gilbert's libretto satirises limited liability companies, and particularly the idea that a bankrupt company could leave creditors unpaid without any liability on the part of its owners. It also lampoons the "Stock Company Act" by imagining the absurd convergence of natural persons (or sovereign nations) with legal commercial entities under the limited companies laws. In addition, it mocks the conceits of the late 19th-century British empire and several of the nation's beloved institutions. In mocking the adoption by a "barbaric" country of the cultural values of an "advanced" nation, it takes a tilt at the cultural aspects of imperialism. The libretto was criticised as too long and rambling by the critics and later commentators, and several subplots introduced in Act I are never resolved.
Utopia is performed much less frequently than most other Gilbert and Sullivan operas. It can be expensive to produce, requiring a large principal cast and two costumes ("native" and "drawing room") for most of the performers. The subject-matter and characters, including the specific government offices, are obscure for modern audiences, although its themes of corporatisation of public institutions and scandal in the British Royal family are evergreen. And although it contains some fine music, it perhaps has less than Sullivan's usual quota of unforgettable tunes. Still, Utopia has its fans. George Bernard Shaw wrote in his highly favourable October 1893 review of the show in The World, "I enjoyed the score of Utopia more than that of any of the previous Savoy operas."
In 1893, the year Utopia, Limited was produced, Princess Kaiulani of the independent monarchy of Hawaii attended a private school in England. She was the talk of the society pages, with much speculation as to the influence English "civilization" would have on the Princess and eventually her homeland. Two decades earlier, in 1870, Anna Leonowens wrote about her six-year stint as governess to the children of the king of Siam (Thailand). The first of these books was called The English Governess at the Siamese Court.... The famous stories of two ladies likely influenced the characters of Princess Zara and Lady Sophy, respectively. Another impetus for Gilbert in the genesis of the work was his disdain for England's Limited Liability Act of 1862, which he had begun to explore in the previous opera with Sullivan, The Gondoliers.
By using an imaginary setting, Gilbert was emboldened to level some sharp satire at British imperialism, the monarchy, party politics and other institutions that might have touched a more sensitive nerve if the opera had a British setting. In this work, Gilbert returns to the idea of an anti-Utopia, which he had explored, in various ways, in his early one-act operas, Happy Arcadia, The Happy Land, Our Island Home, Topsyturveydom, and some of his other early works. The previous Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Gondoliers, also concerns an imaginary island kingdom where the rules of court are considerably different from those in Britain. In Utopia, the island begins as a virtual paradise, is thrown into chaos by the importation of "English" influences, and is eventually saved by an English political expedience. The satiric themes of acting through limited liability entities that are not required to honor their obligations and scandal in the monarchy were effective in 1893 and still resonate today. In addition, the show satirises "practically everything English – English prudery, English conversation, English company promoting, the English party system, the English War Office and Admiralty, the County Council, and the English Cabinet." Apart from satirical elements, in Utopia, Gilbert indulges in some small guilty pleasures throughout the libretto. For instance, he was up-to-date in his technology references (as he had been in H.M.S. Pinafore with the mention of the telephone), by mentioning George Eastman's new product, the Kodak camera, and its slogan. Gilbert also throws some barbs at the Lord Chamberlain's office, as he loved to do. In addition, The Court of St. James's is mockingly confused with St James's Hall and its minstrel shows.
Utopia introduced Gilbert's last protégée, Nancy McIntosh, as Princess Zara, and the role was much expanded to accommodate her. According to scholar John Wolfson, in his book, Final Curtain, this damaged and unbalanced the script by detracting from its parody of government. Commentators agree that McIntosh was not a good actress, and during the run of Utopia, her lack of confidence and health combined to affect her performance. Utopia, Limited was to be McIntosh's only part with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, as Sullivan refused to write another piece if she was to take part in it. Discussions over her playing the role of Yum-Yum in a proposed revival of The Mikado led to another row between the two that prevented the revival, and Gilbert's insistence upon her appearing in His Excellency caused Sullivan to refuse to set the piece. Three more years would pass before Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated again, on their last work, The Grand Duke.
Utopia ran for 245 performances. It turned a profit and was considered a success by the standards of the late Victorian theatre. After the original production, four D'Oyly Carte touring companies played Utopia in the British provinces, and the piece was included in tours until 1900. There was also an 1894 New York production and performances in the South African tour of 1902-03. After this, however, Utopia was not revived by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company until 4 April 1975, during the company's centenary season. Various amateur companies had performed the opera during the 20th century, and it enjoyed occasional professional productions by the American Savoyards in the 1950s and 1960s and the Light Opera of Manhattan in the 1970s and 1980s. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players also gave a staged concert performance in celebration of its centenary. Although productions are still less frequent than those of the better-known Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and professional productions are rare, Utopia is regularly presented by some of the amateur Gilbert and Sullivan repertory companies and can be seen most summers at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England.
Imported Flowers of Progress
On the fictional South Pacific island of Utopia, the monarch, King Paramount, has sent his daughter, Princess Zara, to Girton College in England. He hopes that her training will contribute to his plan to civilise his people. The Public Exploder, Tarara, disturbs the languor of the Utopian maidens ("In lazy languor, motionless") to remind them of his duty to blow up the King if the two "Wise Men", Scaphio and Phantis, order him to do so. The Wise Men appear, heralded by the chorus ("O make way for the Wise Men") and note that their duty is to spy upon the King ("In every mental lore"). The senior wise man, Scaphio, is in love with the Princess Zara ("Let all your doubts take wing").
The King soon arrives ("A King of autocratic power we"). He presents his two younger daughters, Nekaya and Kalyba, as models of English-style deportment ("Although of native maids the cream"), and their English governess, Lady Sophy, explains how young ladies should behave when approached by amorous gentlemen ("Bold-faced ranger"). The king joins the two Wise Men, commenting that life is a farce ("First you're born"). The King is quite upset about the Wise Men's power over him: he is unable to marry the Lady Sophy because of self-mocking articles that Scaphio and Phantis have forced him to write under a pseudonym. Lady Sophy discovers the articles to her horror ("Subjected to your heavenly gaze").
Princess Zara now returns to Utopia with six British gentlemen (the "Flowers of Progress") in tow ("Oh, maiden rich in Girton lore"). She has become romantically involved with one of them, Captain Fitzbattleaxe ("Ah! gallant soldier"). Meanwhile, both Scaphio and Phantis have become smitten with love for the princess and agree to duel one another for her hand ("It's understood, I think"). Fitzbattleaxe comes up with a clever way to stall the Wise Men, by saying that in England, two rivals must entrust the lady at the centre of the controversy to an officer of household cavalry "as stakeholder". Thus, he and Zara can remain together.
Soon, the Utopians assemble, and Zara introduces the Flowers of Progress one by one – Fitzbattleaxe (of the army), Sir Bailey Barre (Q.C. and MP), Lord Dramaleigh (a Lord Chamberlain), Mr. Blushington (of the county council), Mr. Goldbury (a company promoter) and Captain Corcoran (of the navy – a joking reference to the character from Gilbert and Sullivan's early popular opera, H.M.S. Pinafore). The Utopian people are duly impressed, and they listen as Mr. Goldbury explains the British Limited Liability Companies law. The King decides to transform his entire country into a limited liability corporation – an innovation that even England herself has not yet accepted. Everyone but Scaphio, Phantis and Tarara is enthusiastic.
Fitzbattleaxe is concerned that the fervour of his love has affected his singing ("A tenor, all singers above"). He and Zara share a tender scene ("Words of love too loudly spoken"). Utopia has transformed itself into a "more perfect" replica of Britain – it has built an army, a navy, and courts, purified its literature, and wholeheartedly adopted Mr. Goldbury's proposal, so that every person now is a limited liability entity.
The Flowers of Progress exult in their success ("Society has quite forsaken"), and the people, pleased with English fashion, sing of the country's newfound glory ("Eagle high in cloudland soaring"). Scaphio and Phantis are furious because the change poses a threat to their power ("With fury deep we burn"). They demand that Paramount revoke the change, and when he refuses, they remind him of their power over his life ("If you think that when banded in unity"). But the King points out that they cannot blow up a limited company. Scaphio and Phantis plot with Tarara on how to reverse the course of events and retire ("With wily brain").
The younger princesses, Nekaya and Kalyba, meet with Mr. Goldbury and Lord Dramaleigh, who explain that English girls are not so demure and are instead hearty and fun-loving ("A wonderful joy our eyes to bless"). The princesses are pleased at the prospect of abandoning some of the "musty, fusty rules" that they have been living under ("Then I may sing and play?"). Meanwhile, Lady Sophy bemoans Paramount's flaw that prevents her loving him ("When but a maid of fifteen year"). The King, his dignity rediscovered, approaches Lady Sophy and tells her the truth about the articles written about him, and she now happily agrees to marry him ("Oh, rapture unrestrained").
Scaphio and Phantis have succeeded in convincing the people of Utopia that the changes are for the worse ("Upon our sea-girt land") – they have put an end to war, making the army and navy useless; sanitation is so good that doctors are unemployed; so perfect are the laws that crime has all but ended, emptying the courts and leaving lawyers unemployed – and all demand that the changes be revoked. Puzzled, Paramount asks his daughter for a solution, and, after a little prodding from Sir Bailey Barre, she realizes that she has forgotten "the most essential element" of British civilisation: Government by Party! With this adopted, each party will so confound the efforts of the other that no progress will be made, leading to the prosperity that everyone seeks. The crowd is overjoyed, Scaphio and Phantis are thrown in prison, and the curtain falls as the people sing their praises of "a little group of isles beyond the wave" – Great Britain.
|King Paramount the First||Rutland Barrington||Kenneth Sandford|
|Scaphio||W. H. Denny||John Reed|
|Phantis||John Le Hay||John Ayldon|
|Tarara||Walter Passmore||John Ellison|
|Calynx||Bowden Haswell||Michael Buchan|
|The Princess Zara||Nancy McIntosh||Pamela Field|
|The Princess Nekaya||Emmie Owen||Julia Goss|
|The Princess Kalyba||Florence Perry||Judi Merri|
|The Lady Sophy||Rosina Brandram||Lyndsie Holland|
|Salata||Edith Johnston||Beti Lloyd-Jones|
|Melene||May Bell||Marjorie Williams|
|Phylla||Florence Easton||Rosalind Griffiths|
|Lord Dramaleigh||Scott Russell||James Conroy-Ward|
|Captain Fitzbattleaxe||Charles Kenningham||Meston Reid|
|Captain Sir Edward Corcoran, KCB||Lawrence Gridley||John Broad|
|Mr. Goldbury||R. Scott Fishe||Michael Rayner|
|Sir Bailey Barre||Hugh Enes Blackmore||Colin Wright|
|Mr. Blushington||Herbert Ralland||David Porter|
|Soon after Sir Luke Fildes had been rewarded by a grateful country for his services to Art, Gilbert met him at a social gathering and congratulated him on his new honours. In the course of conversation, Sir Luke reminded Gilbert that the Dairy Maid "Patience" had been made up to exactly resemble the subject of his first successful picture, Where are you going to, my pretty maid? "Yes, I remember borrowing the idea for my milkmaid's costume from your picture," replied Gilbert, "but I have repaid that debt long ago by being the responsible cause of your new title."|
|"Responsible for my new title, how do you make that out?" asked the puzzled Sir Luke.|
|"Oh, it's easily explained," answered Gilbert. Didn't I write in Utopia:|
|"Well, your prophecy is certainly a pattern of modified accuracy," exclaimed Sir Luke, "I would like to be similarly accurate in your case."|
|-From Edith A. Browne's "Stars of the Stage: W. S. Gilbert" (1907), page 93.|