The Pirates of Penzance

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Gilbert & Sullivan

The Pirates of Penzance has been well loved for over a century. Performed by various opera companies, including the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. As the fifth collaboration by Gilbert and Sullivan, it has been performed on Broadway, imitated by various companies, and modernised into film.

A true comic opera of two acts. Officially premiering at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York on 31 December 1879 and at the Opera Comique, London, on 3rd April 1880. It was equally well received by critics and audiences alike and ran for a total of 363 performances.

The only Gilbert & Sullivan opera to officially premier in America

After previous successes with the likes of H.M.S. Pinafore, Gilbert & Sullivan quickly realised that American Copyright laws didn’t offer any copyright protection to foreigners. Over 150 American companies had taken liberties with the text of H.M.S. Pinafore and offered the original creators no royalties. So Gilbert and Sullivan quickly changed their strategy and decided to cut off this piracy at the source.

They decided to produce their next opera in America first – that way, they could delay publication of the libretto and the score. This way they could premier before others had chance to copy it.

Their plan worked to begin with. They managed to successfully keep the profits and operate profitable touring companies of both the Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore. Unfortunately they failed to control the performance rights in America over the next decade.

Securing British Copyright

In order to secure British Copyright, The Pirates of Penzance had to be performed in Britain. It also had to be prior to the New York premier. Gilbert and Sullivan got round this, by getting a D’Oyly Carte touring company to perform the perfunctory copyright performance at the Royal Bijou Theatre in Paignton, Devon. The cast were already performing H.M.S. Pinafore in Torquay, so they to travelled to Paignton to perform the matinee.

What made this even more bizarre was that the cast only had one rehearsal. In fact some of the music had only been received a couple of days before! They carried their scripts onto the stage, in order to read their parts and performed in whatever costumes were to hand!

The Unusual Opera

The Pirates of Penzance is unusual on so many levels. The play itself portrays stealing as an actual profession! It also includes tools of the trade (such as life preservers and crowbars) and apprentices who can follow the career path!

It was also composed differently, with the music for the acts written in reverse. The title even became a multi-layered joke. Both because Penzance was seen as a docile place, one where you’d never expect to encounter a pirate. But, also because the word ‘pirate’ was aimed at the theatrical pirates in America.

Although there are more versions of the early libretto, The Pirates of Penzance is one of the most referenced works of Gilbert and Sullivan. And with catchy, unforgettable songs including ‘I am a very model of a modern Major-General’, it’s easy to see why it is still loved today.

The Pirates of Penzance comes to Grim’s Dyke on Sunday 11th June 2023, please visit our ‘Entertainment’ page for all the details, by clicking here.

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