Opera Scotland

Martyr of Antioch The Martyr of Antioch

Tours by decade

1890s - 1 tour

1898 - Carl Rosa Opera Company
Fully Staged with Orchestra

Tours by location


Arthur Sullivan (born London, 13 May 1842; died London, 22 November 1900).


William S Gilbert


Poem (1822) by Henry Hart Milman (1791-1868).



First Performance (Oratorio): Leeds (Town Hall), 15 October 1880.

First Performance (Operatic Adaptation): Edinburgh (Royal Lyceum Theatre), 25 February 1898.



The Martyr of Antioch was an oratorio, or sacred music drama (sometimes referred to as a cantata), commissioned from Sullivan by the Leeds Triennial Music Festival and which had some initial success. The text was radically adapted by Gilbert from the verse of Henry Hart Milman, Professor of Poetry at Oxford (1821-31) and Dean of St Paul's from 1849.

The Martyr has little in common with the famous comic operas, appearing early in the sequence, after The Pirates of Penzance and before Patience. It is unusual, in that W S Gilbert, already recognized as a serious dramatist, helped in tidying up the text of this decidedly non-comic work for the premiere at Leeds. The subject is the martyrdom of Saint Margaret the Virgin.

The idea of staging the piece must have seemed a novel way to provide the world with a second serious Sullivan opera, following the reasonable success of Ivanhoe. Coupling it with Cavalleria Rusticana, for which Pagliacci was already beginning to become the accepted partner, is certainly not an obvious choice, and it was necessary to abbreviate the oratorio. By 1898, however, Gilbert and Sullivan were no longer working together, and the further amendments required to shorten the work were, according to newspaper reports before the Edinburgh launch, made by Sullivan himself in collaboration with the Carl Rosa manager T H Friend. Given the fragile state of the composer's health by this time (due to chronic kidney disease), it is unlikely that he played more than a token role in the adaptation.

The largest change was the complete removal of the character of Vopiscus, the villain who was also a rival to Olybius in gaining Margaret's affection. While the production appears to have been lavish and colourful, the changes may have weakened the effectiveness of the drama.


Main Characters

Callias, High Priest of Apollo (bass)

Margaret, his daughter (soprano)

Olybius, Roman Prefect (tenor)

Fabius, Bishop of Antioch (baritone)

Julia (mezzo-soprano)


Plot Summary

The story is set in the city of Antioch, in Syria. It was one of the first major population centres to be influenced by the development of Christianity. Margaret has converted to the new faith, in spite of the fact that her elderly father is High Priest of Apollo. Furthermore, her lover, Olybius, is the Roman Prefect for the region. The two men are unable to accept the new religion, and a campaign of persecution and martyrdom is under way. They threaten Margaret with death unless she renounces her faith. When she refuses, and is consequently executed, they are both so shocked that they resign their own positions.

The Cast

 High Priest of Apollo
 Bishop of Antioch
 daughter of Callias
 Roman Prefect at Antioch

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