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We here at Cennarium like to celebrate contemporary and historical contributors to the worlds of opera, ballet, musicals, and dramas. Today we are going to look at a somewhat obscure English composer – Alfred Cellier – who not only created original works of his own, but he also spent time conducting and guiding some of the Gilbert and Sullivan’s most notable works. Cellier also created some of the overtures for the previous composers’ pieces.

Born in Hackney, which is a parish, or neighborhood, of London, Alfred Cellier’s father was an educator, who taught at the grammar school in Hackney where Cellier attended. When he was a young teen Cellier sang in the Chapel Royal, St. James choir. The head of the choir was Rev. Thomas Helmore and fellow composer Arthur Sullivan was a classmate.

In 1862 Cellier became the organist for the All Saints’ Church in Blackheath and the conductor of the Belfast Philharmonic Society that same year. Four years later Cellier moved on to Belfast to serve as director and organist in for Ulster Hall concerts. While there he also took on the position of conductor for the Belfast Philharmonic.

A few years later Cellier moved back to London and played organ at St. Alban’s Church and then moved on to the Royal Court Theatre where he took the position of music director and conductor. He also conducted at the Prince’s Theatre and while serving also as the musical director there too, Alfred Cellier composed a great deal of the works we are going to discuss.


1. Dorothy

Our first Alfred Cellier opera is a comedy in three acts with a libretto written by B. C. Stephenson. The first production was shown in 1886 at the Gaiety Theatre, opening on September 25th. The star of the premiere performance was Marion Hood, an accomplished English soprano, Hayden Coffin, who became famous for his work is Edwardian musical comedies, Arthur Williams, Furneaux Cook, and John Le Hay.  

When Dorothy premiered, the Gaiety was under new management from George Edwardes, who loved to produce comedies, and often cast Hayden Coffin as we mentioned in the last paragraph. The problem was Edwardes, a comedy producer, put a comedy in a theater that was renowned for burlesque shows so, when the crowd was presented with a musical comedy they weren’t pleased. The reception wasn’t great, from the audience or the critics.

Later that year, Dorothy was reworked by Cellier and Stephenson. Henry J. Leslie, Cellier’s accountant who purchased the previous production from the composer, brought in noted tenor Ben Davies and famed soprano Dame Marie Tempest, who sang in the title role. Hood, who had played Dorothy in the premiered production was ill. The results were fantastic and soon the new production opened on December 20th at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

Two years later the production moved to the Lyric Theatre and it remained there until April of 1889. The revised version broke box office records at that time with 931 performances and it was the longest running musical comedy known to man at that time. Since its premiere, Dorothy has been reproduced many times around the world.


2. Dora’s Dream

Completed in only one act, this work falls under the genre of operetta, which is an opera with a lighter sound and plot. The librettist to work with Alfred Cellier on this piece was Arthur Cecil, who was not only a writer but an actor and comedian himself. Dora’s Dream premiered on July 3, 1873 at the Royal Gallery of Illustration, a 19th century venue that sat only five hundred people.

Celebrated vocalist and comedic actress Fanny Holland starred alongside the librettist in the two roles the light operetta consists of. Three years later, on May 5, 1876, Dora’s Dream was performed by the same cast at the Princess’s Theatre for a performance benefitting Pauline Rita, another celebrated soprano at the time. In 1877, the Opera Comique in Westminster performed as an opening act for the premiere of The Sorcerer, a Gilbert and Sullivan work.

The duo works ran for a season closing for good in February of 1878. Soprano Giulia Warwick and actor Richard Temple starred in this production and critics wrote that their performances were “pleasant” and “put the house in good humor.” These short works that opened shows, also known as curtain raisers, were said to play near empty houses and only those who headed to the theater early were lucky enough to catch them.

Dora is a woman who is the object of her cousin Fred’s attention, yet, what he is wanting in a spouse is the furthest thing from what Dora is. Fred, a stockbroker, wants to marry a woman who is non-descript and safe. Dora on the other hand makes her desire to marry a poet known, due to her recent obsession with fine works of literature.


3. Topsyturveydom

Also, completed in one act, this next Cellier operetta was written by W. S. Gilbert, which he based on his Bab Ballads, a compilation of light doggerel with comic illustrations. In fact, this work was based on one part of the collection titled, “My Dream.” The Criterion Theatre was the site of the premiere on March 21, 1874. It lasted for nearly a month with the cast and crew giving twenty-five performances.

Another important event about the premiere of this work was that it was produced in celebration of the night the Criterion opened its doors to the public. It was showcased in a double bill with An American Lady, which was written by Henry J. Byron. Unfortunately, there is no surviving copy of the score, but attempts to revive the piece have been accompanied by newly composed music or without music at all.

This piece is especially important in the growth of Gilbert as a writer and it is during this period in which he would experiment with varieties of music.


4. The Spectre Knight

Sticking with the theme of short, light, and funny, this one-act operetta by Alfred Cellier has a libretto written by James Albery. The Comedy Opera Company produced this work for the Opera Comique in February of 1878. It ran for a little longer than a month and was revived later that year due to its popularity and was used as an opening piece for the H.M.S. Pinafore, by Gilbert and Sullivan.

There is no published version of the libretto by a copy of the score for the vocalists can be found that was published by Metzler. The story surrounds Viola and her father, the Grand Duke, who have been exiled with a few members of their court. They live in a secluded ravine where they attempt to maintain the lifestyle they had grown accustomed to.

Viola has grown up at the glen and is unaware that anyone outside of their group exists. Otho, the Grand Duke’s nephew and her cousin, arrives and they fall in love. Otho reclaims the throne for his uncle and the two marry to live happily ever after.


Got curious about Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas? Read about them here.

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