Buoyed by this success, Reed commissioned a two-act opera from Burnand and Sullivan, The Contrabandista. This opera did not enjoy its predecessor's popularity, and there was no suggestion of any further Burnand–Sullivan collaborations. The Contrabandista was Sullivan's first full-length opera. Although it was not successful, it initially received some favorable notices. The Musical Times wrote: "The excellent vein of humor so apparent in [Cox and Box], as well as in the more important Contrabandista, justifies us in the hope that Mr. Sullivan may give us, at no distant date, a real comic opera of native manufacture."
The piece, however, was hardly ever performed in the 20th century. Fulham Light Operatic Society produced the piece in 1972. A professional concert of the opera in 2002 and a professional recording by Hyperion Records in 2004 revived some interest in the work. Reviewing the 2004 Hyperion recording, Raymond Walker wrote: "Despite a mundane book about Spanish brigands by Frances Burnand (who would later become Editor of Punch) there are good musical ideas in The Contrabandista. These anticipate the more mature Sullivan of Gilbert & Sullivan fame. In The Contrabandista, Sullivan attempts a good variety of musical styles. At times these are more reminiscent of Offenbach than the German and Italian operatic masters that Sullivan is likened to."
In 1894, when Richard D'Oyly Carte was desperate for a successor to Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia Limited, he commissioned Burnand and Sullivan to revise The Contrabandista. The result was The Chieftain, consisting of a slightly revised first act and a brand new second act. This was not successful, and The Chieftain closed after just three months.
The Ladrones have abducted Rita, an English lady, in retaliation for the murder of their late captain by her betrothed, Count Vasquez. Inez orders a shepherd boy to take a ransom note to Vasquez. The boy mentions that he has seen a stranger that day. The Ladrones wonder if this could be their new captain.
Peter Adolphus Grigg, an English tourist and amateur photographer, enters in search of pretty scenery. Sancho and José inform him that he is the new Captain of the Ladrones and that he will have to marry Inez. Grigg, who is already married, attempts to leave, but they threaten him with death if he does not comply with the Law. The act ends with Grigg's ritual installation as Captain of the Ladrones.
Sancho, who has overheard the conversation, conspires with Grigg to fake his death whilst he goes to notify the authorities. When Inez and José learn of Sancho's escape, they light a slow fuse leading to a store of dynamite, as it is the Law of the Ladrones that they must all perish together. They prepare to kill Rita to avenge the late Captain's death.
Vasquez, now in military dress, bursts in with a Spanish officer. All of the Ladrones have been pardoned, aside from their Captain. The officer moves to seize Grigg, but Vasquez assures him that Grigg is innocent. All the Ladrones decide to join the army, and Rita is free to marry Vasquez.