The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty opened at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York, on New Year’s Eve, 1879. Suffering from a painful kidney stone Sullivan, who conducted the performance, later recorded in his diary: ‘Got to New York Club at 7.30pm. Had 12 oysters & a glass of champagne. Went to the Theatre. House crammed with the élite of New York. Went into the Orchestra, more dead than alive, but got better when I took the stick in my hand – fine reception. Piece went marvellously well – grand success.’

Its triumph was repeated when the opera reached London on 3 April 1880; the initial run achieved 363 performances. But why the New York debut?

Gilbert and Sullivan’s origins

Pirates was the fifth collaboration from the artistic partnership originally brought together by impresario John Hollingshead to write Thespis, The Gods Grown Old, a comic opera that opened at London’s Gaiety Theatre on Boxing Day 1871. It ran for a respectable 63 performances, but there was no immediate follow-up: each of the two creatives was a rising star in his own field and they had other business to attend to.

WS Gilbert was the elder of the two, born in 1836 just off the Strand, his father a successful novelist. Having failed to make a career in the civil service or the law, Gilbert concentrated instead on writing for humorous magazines and increasingly for the stage as a playwright with a distinct taste for absurdity – or as he termed it, ‘topsyturvydom’.

Arthur Sullivan came from a lower social class. He was born in 1840 in Lambeth, the son of an Irish military bandmaster. The benefit of this background was that his musical abilities were noticed early and encouraged. At the age of 12 he joined the Chapel Royal and at 14 he was the recipient of the first-ever Mendelssohn Scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, spending his third year at the Leipzig Conservatoire.

A foray into comic opera

Already a published composer at the age of 15, on his return to England he began to produce a stream of serious works – concert overtures, a symphony, a cello concerto, cantatas and an oratorio – while basically undertaking any paid musical work that was offered. Comic opera first came his way with Cox and Box – a one-act collaboration with Gilbert’s rival FC Burnand that premiered in 1866.

The genre itself proved to be a congenial one, exactly matching Sullivan’s buoyant personality; moreover, it was a good deal more remunerative than the ‘serious’ work for which he had trained and which began to take – for perfectly understandable reasons – a back seat in his creative output.

Sullivan’s biographer Arthur Jacobs quotes one year of his accounts – 1880, when Pirates commenced its London run. As head of the new National Training School of Music in South Kensington (forerunner of today’s Royal College of Music), he was paid £267. As conductor of the important Leeds Festival, he received £315. Almost all the rest of his income, totalling £9,888, 12 shillings and sixpence, came from his comic operas.


His second collaboration with Gilbert was Trial by Jury, a short piece satirising the workings of the law courts. Under the management of Richard D’Oyly Carte and initially in tandem with Offenbach’s La Périchole, it ran for 131 performances in 1875; with 178 performances, The Sorcerer did even better in 1877.

But it was their next joint effort – HMS Pinafore, or The Lass that Loved a Sailor – that set a new benchmark, running for 571 performances following its premiere in May 1878, and becoming the first of their shows to go international: by November of that year it had been staged in Boston, and at one stage was running simultaneously at no fewer than eight theatres in New York.

Broadway bound

This was a major problem for Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte, because they received not a single cent of the proceeds of these productions: no international copyright law protected their interests. Their intrepid response was to travel to New York to stage an authentic version of Pinafore, one with no alterations, substitutions or additions to the piece, given musical class by Sullivan’s own precisely judged orchestrations, and dramatic point with the benefit of Gilbert’s highly disciplined stage direction. Further, they had decided to take with them an entirely new show to open on Broadway. In short, they answered theatrical piracy with a comic opera about pirates.

Perhaps even more so than in the cases of the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas, Pirates has maintained its popularity in the US to this day: originating in 1980, Joseph Papp’s reworking of the piece as a rock opera ran for 787 performances on Broadway and was filmed three years later. But in fact, the appeal of the original has proved surprisingly widespread: a glance at some statistics reveals that over the last three seasons it has been played in Hong Kong, Toronto, Denmark, Bulgaria, four cities in Germany and no fewer than 14 in the USA.

Parody, satire and surrealism

There’s a satirical element to the piece, of course, with its mockery of the police and of a Major-General wholly ill-equipped for his presumably vitally important military duties. But while recognising the satire, Mike Leigh, whose 1999 film Topsy-Turvy depicts the creation of The Mikado in 1885, insists that the works essentially belong to another tradition:

‘If a key to understanding the operas is to see Gilbert as an anarchist, it may also be useful to approach them as the work of a proto-surrealist. It is their dark side, their hard edge, that so distinguishes the Savoy Operas. Gilbert undoubtedly anticipated the Theatre of the Absurd and it is no surprise that Samuel Beckett was a confirmed Gilbert & Sullivan aficionado.’

Indeed if Beckett is one of Gilbert’s literary descendants, then his predecessors were clearly Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Sullivan provided the ideal musical complement to Gilbert’s texts. His humour is just as real as Gilbert’s, though more subtle and ambiguous. Parody is frequent in Pirates, as in his other comic scores, but so astute is his emulation of the styles of other composers that it is impossible to decide whether his approach is mockery or tribute. In fact, it is both.

Emulating the classics

An obvious instance is Mabel’s ‘Poor Wand’ring One’, a coloratura waltz song of a type best known from the operas of Gounod: there are examples in Faust, Roméo et Juliette and Mireille. Yet, not only is it witty if you happen to know the originals, but it enters so completely into their spirit that it arguably beats Gounod at his own game. Similarly, when Major-General Stanley sings ‘Softly sighing to the river’, it is impossible for Lieder fans not to think of Schubert’s Auf dem Wassern zu singen, as Arthur Jacobs and others have noted; but, as Jacobs points out, ‘This whole number is absolutely straight; it is in no sense “funny” music. Its comic point is one of pure irony, and doubly sophisticated at that’.

Several individual pieces reflect Italian opera, and especially Verdi – among them the Frederic/Ruth duet ‘Oh! false one, you have deceived me’ (in which Sullivan offers the cruelly rejected former nursery maid some vocal empathy), the dramatic trio ‘Away, away’, and the double chorus ‘With cat-like tread’. A moment of true pathos, the Frederic/Mabel duet ‘Ah! leave me not to pine’ is a homage to the Elizabethan lute-song, accompanied by muted strings alone. The a cappella chorus ‘Hail, Poetry!’ partakes of the mock-sublime.

But Sullivan’s score is more than a collection of parodies: in its ingenious word-setting, graceful melodic lines, and its delicacy of orchestral touch flecked with bright soloistic colouring, it represents one of the highpoints of comic opera of any tradition or period.