By Claire Dietz
The Pirates of Penzance was written and produced nearly 140 years ago to both popular and critical acclaim. However, the reason this operetta was produced in the first place is another story entirely.
Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert had a problem. Their most recent work at the time, The H.M.S. Pinafore, was being illegally produced in America just a year after it was first released in England. So, these two collaborators took to their desks and wrote The Pirates of Penzance.
The operetta, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1879, revolves around a young man named Francis who is released from his apprenticeship to a band of pirates. Soon after, he meets Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley, and they fall in love. However, having been born on a leap day and technically only having a birthday every four years, Francis must remain in his apprenticeship until he is 63 years old.
To avoid the play being pirated by Americans, the two decided to produce it in America first. American audiences couldn’t help but compare it with the H.M.S. Pinafore, despite their stealing it being the genesis behind the play.
“The music is fresh, bright, elegant, and merry, and much of it belongs to a higher order of art than the most popular of the tunes of Pinafore” is how the the New York Tribune described it. “There are little gems of melody; and there are duos and concerted numbers of the most delicate device and the most careful construction of which Mr. Sullivan has a good right to be proud.”
After the operetta opened in London, The Times ran a review on April 5, 1880.
“Such a story,” the review described it, “lighted up with the incessant fireworks of Mr. Gilbert’s wit, contains all the elements of popularity, and on its own peculiar grounds little fault can be found with it from a literary point of view.
“Mr. Gilbert’s characters are not comic in themselves. But only in reference to other characters chiefly of the operatic type, whose exaggerated attitude and parlance they mimic. He writes not, in fact, comedies but parodies, and music has accordingly to follow him to the sphere of all others most uncongenial to it — the mock-heroic.”
Bill Theisen, the director of opera at the University of Iowa School of Music, said he was inspired to direct this production in particular given this was the first opera performance from the music school to take the Hancher stage.
“I wanted to choose something that would celebrate us moving back to Hancher and would be accessible to everyone, something across the board everyone could appreciate,” he said. “It’s also one of the most accessible operas there is.”
Theisen found himself presented with an interesting problem, after he had produced and directed Gilbert and Sullivan works for most of his career. In fact, Gilbert and Sullivan is how he got his start on the opera stage. When he was cast in a production, it was one of his first paying jobs in the field. Now, years later, he continues to produce the works that gave him his start.
One thing Theisen touched on was the disconnect between these two composers, who are often credited for paving the way to the modern Broadway musical. They began working with the operetta form, with musical scenes interspersed with bits of dialogue. It won’t take much effort to realize this is the modern Broadway musical form many of us are undoubtedly familiar with.
Despite this pioneering spirit, the two did not collaborate well. After each production, they vowed to never do it again, until their paths crossed once more.
“Although they wrote these incredible pieces, it wasn’t the smoothest partnership,” Theisen said. “Sullivan wanted to be a serious operatic composer, and Gilbert wanted to be a serious dramatist. This wasn’t what they really wanted to be, but all these years later, this is what they’re best known for, by far.”
The problem was surrounding the concept of a parody. How much parody is too much? Could they have a parody on top of a parody? These questions worried Theisen until he came to a conclusion.
“We can’t add a parody on top of a parody,” he said. “It’s 140 years old, and we have to do this sincerely. If we do this right, people will find it funny.”