The Willow Pattern is a one-act comic opera with a libretto by Basil Hood and music by Cecil Cook. It was first performed at the Savoy Theatre on 14 November 1901, running for a total of 110 performances. It toured thereafter.
The Willow Pattern was a companion piece to Ib and Little Christina and later Iolanthe. It and was toured in Britain and America. A copy of the printed libretto is in the British Library, at 11778.f.23(5). (1901). The vocal score was published by Chappells, and a copy is in British Library at F.690.j.(2) .
A silent film of the legend was made in 1914, called Story of the Willow Pattern.
When the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership disbanded after the production of The Gondoliers in 1889, impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte and, after his death, his widow Helen Carte, filled the Savoy Theatre with a combination of new works and revivals of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The fashion in the late Victorian era was to present long evenings in the theatre, and so Carte preceded his savoy operas with curtain raisers.
The Legend of the Willow Pattern was invented by the English over 200 years ago to promote pottery sales of a china willow pattern based on an older china pattern. The story runs as follows (with the frequent references to the figures in the plate design omitted):
Once there was a wealthy mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter. She had fallen in love with a humble accountant, angering her father. He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.
On the eve of the daughter's wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The Gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves.
Because Ib and Little Christina was shorter than Iolanthe, The Willow Pattern was condensed when it was revived with the latter opera. The cast was reduced to the following four characters: Ah Mee, HiHo, SoHi (Rudolph Lewis), and PingPong (Robert Rous).