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The Pirates of Penzance

Or
The Slave of Duty

Libretto by W.S. Gilbert and Music by Arthur Sullivan

The Play

"The Pirates of Penzance" was written in 1879 for the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York. Gilbert and Sullivan were in New York that year because their previous comic opera "H.M.S. Pinafore" had been performed there in various unauthorised versions. The only legal protection against this kind of musical piracy for the librettist and the composer was to go to the States and present an "authentic production" of "Pinafore". While there, they composed "Pirates". (Was it just a coincidence that piracy was the subject of their new project?) Sullivan conducted the priemere on December 31, 1879.

Sullivan had accidentally left most of the score of Act I. in London, so he had to re-write much of it from memory. He recreated most of it note for, but he could not recall the chorus that accompanies the entrance of the Major General's daughters. Gilbert suggested that he adapt the music and words from "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain", a song that had appeared in their first opera, "Thespis". The song worked well, and appears almost verbatim in "Pirates".

The opera's theme of "moral duty" reflects English society of the time. The reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) saw an the expansion of the British Empire and an increased awareness of moral responsibilities among the English. The praised Victorian values included patriotism, optimism, decency, earnestness, sexual morality, hard work and thrift. A reverence for "character", "duty" and "will" appealed to all classes of the population. These values and the rule of keeping up appearances were later much criticised as prudish and repressed, and were satirised by Gilbert and Sullivan in "Pirates".

Gilbert and Sullivan knew their ensemble well and used to write songs that "fitted" their singers. The tongue-twisting "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" is one such number, suited to the quick oral delivery of their cast's General, who attempts a display of refinement of manners and morals that is suited to his day.

Working on the music to "Pirates", Sullivan wrote home to his mother: "I think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny and the music is strikingly tuneful and catching." In its first production in London, the opera ran for over 400 performances.