|Dr. Kinza Tyrrell|
When I mention the names Gilbert & Sullivan – or the more commonly abbreviated G & S – most of us can immediately recall text and melodies from one of their fourteen collaborations. G & S are as familiar as A&W and H&M. The Pirates of Penzance was written in 1879 on the heels of the highly successful HMS Pinafore. The title was meant to jab at copyright thieves who pirated Pinafore in the USA after its British premiere. Gilbert chose the quiet cove of Penzance on the west coast of England, suspecting it would be the last place they would have set foot. Ironically, research now reveals that Turkish pirates frequently raided Penzance Cove in medieval times and for centuries afterward!
Sullivan wrote the music to Act 2 first. Act 1 existed only in sketches. He travelled to America mid-composition for the Pinafore tour, but arrived in the US without the Act 1 sketches. (Did British Airways lose his luggage? Or was it because he didn’t have an iPad or a memory stick!). He had to rewrite the Act 1 music from memory! And to make matters worse, dwindling Pinafore ticket sales meant that the premiere of Pirates would be earlier than planned.
The Pirates Overture – a medley of memorable tunes that weave throughout the entire operetta – was completed only the night before the premiere. The basic structure is a sandwich: a lively opening, a slow middle section, followed by a lively ending. After that, there is an array of arias, accompanied recitative, duets, trios, and large ensembles involving chorus, with a smattering of spoken text interspersed throughout. Essentially an eclectic, Sullivan was inspired by opera, ballads, choral and church music. He even parodied classical composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi. When we first meet Mabel, for instance, "Poor Wand'ring One" is an example of a quick Gounod waltz. The complicated and clever patter scenes – which remind us of Mozart, Donizetti and Rossini – split our sides with humour. Then there is the bumbling Police Force chant in Act 2 – Anglican Church style. And we are transported to Schubertiade evenings when the Major-General sings his lullaby a là "Auf dem Wasser zu Singen".
Sullivan wrote to his mother three weeks before Pirates opened: “I think it will be a great success, for it is exquisitely funny, and the music is strikingly tuneful and catching.” And two days after the New York premiere: “The music is infinitely superior in every way to Pinafore – ‘tunier’ and more developed, of a higher class altogether. I think that in time it will be very popular.” His prediction came true. Sullivan was a master at crafting inventive and skillful melodies that instantly captured the dramatic intent of Gilbert’s text.
Arthur Sullivan was knighted in 1883 for his musical contributions and, after his death, regarded as the finest British composer of the 19th century. He inspired future generations of musical theatre composers (Hammerstein, Lloyd Webber and others) and his music is still frequently performed and recorded today by groups such as Welsh National Opera, the London Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Festival. And – of course – pastiches continue to surface in sitcoms, movies and on the internet: a favourite being “I am the very model of a modern US President” starring Ron Butler as Barack Obama.
Sit back and enjoy being tickled by “a fugue of which [you’ve] heard the music’s din afore” – G & S style!
Dr. Kinza Tyrrell is VO's Principal Répétiteur and Assistant Chorus Director. She is also Music Director of Vancouver Opera In Schools and Vancouver Summer Opera Studio, and Répétiteur at Opera Nuova, Centre for Opera Studies in Italy (COSI), and Opera As Theatre at The Banff Centre.