Are Gilbert and Sullivan growing on me or is it my obsession with pirates?

Australian Opera’s production of The Pirates of Penzance

I used to hate Gilbert and Sullivan thinking it the worse kind of English middle class cosiness but then that was when I was a typical bolshy adolescent, passionate about the operas of Giuseppe Verdi.  Many years later, I’m still passionate about Verdi but, how did this happen, I do believe that I’ve finally got there with Gilbert and Sullivan. I have reached the year 1879 in my progress through the history of classical music and, lo and behold, I’m in the world of G & S’s most entertaining opera, The Pirates of Penzance.  In 1878, I discovered HMS Pinafore, probably the most popular “show” of the the late 19th Century around the World. So popular in  the United States in fact that Gilbert and Sullivan got very upset by their lack of copyright control over American performances and decided that they would premiere their next opera, The Pirates of Penzance in the USA and try to keep the money from its predicted success. Thus began the dead hand of the draconian copyright rules administered for the next hundred years by the D’Oyly Carte Opera company who held control of the rights and forbade any production that threatened to move away from the hallowed G & S tradition. With hindsight, I think it was the D’Oyly Carte that I disliked. The Pirates of Penzance is the funniest of the operas for me because it is the one where G & S put on some of their very best operatic parodies. It always seemed wrong for those two masters of parody to be held above parody themselves so the end of D’Oyly Carte’s copyright in modern times when the operas have been allowed to breathe again with the lively spirit of fun that was there from the beginning. So now we have the entertaining spectacle of Australian Opera’s Pirates of the Caribbean production of  Pirates of Penzance and, as a great fan of Jack Sparrow, I see no problem.

G & S’  Pirate King had worse indignities thrown his way in another Australian production when aging rock singer,  Jon English took the role. This wonderful piece of theatrical suicide has to be watched at least, well, quite a few times as you will see. Jon English is reputed to have played the part over 1000 times. By the end of this performance he looks as if he did them all without a break. This is death by encore. I do believe Gilbert and Sullivan would have seen the joke. which is on them, on Verdi and, most of all, on the unfortunate John English.  If you haven’t seen this before, you have to stay with this to the end. Poor man, it nearly kills him.. I wonder what he did to upset the conductor. In case you are unfamiliar with the original, this chorus, somehow always funny no matter who sings it, sends up the Italian operatic tradition of singers singing very loudly when they are supposed to be sneaking around in silence. These rather camp pirates, even camper than Australian Opera’s, are attempting a silent raid accompanied by Sullivan’s thunderous orchestration. So I might not be a purest yet but Gilbert and Sullivan make me laugh – I hope they will forgive me for playing this. The pirates’s chorus With Catlike Tread:


  1. Gilbert and Sullivan is the iron fist in the velvet glove. You'll already have passed 'HMS Pinafore' – but if you listen to Josephine's Act 2 song there is the perfect piss-take of 'O don fatale'. If you don't know Verdi (which I didn't when I first saw it)you'll miss the joke completely. And – also 'HMS Pinafore' – both 'For He Is An Englishman' and 'When I Was A Lad' put two fingers up at the Establishment, but the Establishment doesn't notice.

    And for a real little gem look at 'Trial by Jury' – a perfect miniature highlighting lots of flaws in the law.

    The Savoy opera aren't cosy – their skill is that they appear to be. It is rumoured that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a really filthy – and I mean really filthy – opera; oh, how I wish somebody would find that!

  2. I agree with you Bren, I was quoting one of my many adolescent prejudices. I particularly like the Verdi pastiches but I'm also a great fan of Gilbert's wonderfully qualified exclamations like then the pirates sing about the Major General: "Tonight he dies! Yes, or early tomorrow." I love all those inane chorus repetitions too. Such English humour.

  3. And I just have to add – imagine if Little Buttercup's waltz was sung more like Musetta than a jolly sing-a-long. If a mezzo more used to Carmen's Habanera sang the song, how sexy they could make it sound. Seriously:

    "I've treacle and toffee, I've tea and I've coffee,
    Soft tommy and succulent chops."

    The sales pitch should be seductive.

  4. I get where you're coming from Bren. The pasticche is more effective if it's done in the same kind of voice. I enjoyed the way Australian opera use big operatic voices in their G & S – it makes all the difference. I also think Charles Mackerras' Telarc recordings have some great voices.

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