The Pirates of Penzance was the fifth collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan. It has been performed in Britain for over a century by various opera companies, including the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Performed by Broadway, imitated by various companies, and modernised into film, Pirates of Penzance is another much-loved Gilbert and Sullivan opera.
Comic opera in two acts. Premiered officially at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York on 31 December 1879 and at the Opera Comique, London, on 3rd April 1880, where 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, whilst also premiering before others could copy it.
Their plan worked in the short-term – they managed to successfully keep the profits and operate profitable touring companies of both the Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore – but 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, 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 – the cast only had one rehearsal, as 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 was unusual on so many levels – not only due to the reasons above. The play itself portrayed stealing as a profession, with tools of the trade (such as life preservers and crowbars) and apprentices who could follow the career path.
It was also composed differently, with the music for the acts written in reverse. The title itself is also a multi-layered joke – both because Penzance was seen as a docile place, one 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 variations of the early libretto, with songs being altered and omitted and words being trimmed, 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’, is it any wonder that it is still being enjoyed today?
To find out more about The Pirates of Penzance performance in October and to check availability, please visit our ‘What’s On’ page, by clicking here.