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Pirates of Penzance: the resurgence of traditional entertainment

May 2020

a picture of the cast in costume from Pirates of Penzance
Pic thanks to National Opera

Many people have been looking at new things during the last few weeks and now some of the traditional entertainments that had gone out of fashion are making a reappearance.

Gilbert and Sullivan are a case in point. Decades ago Gilbert and Sullivan operas used to be must sees for much of the population who preferred something a little more lighthearted and easier to understand than full blown operas but liked the music and intrigue of these complicated plots.

Some of the lines and lyrics in their operas have become part of our everyday language; phrases like “Let the punishment fit the crime” and “It’s love that makes the world go round”. They had a light touch that appealed to all ages and all lifestyles, and comments such as “He did nothing in particular, but he did it very well” made everyone chuckle.

Today there is a slow resurgence of their famous operas and general interest in the couple. Many a modern pub quiz and tv show now include questions about some of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan operas such as HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and the Mikado. Increasingly, people are beginning to want to see the shows again and find out what “Gilbert and Sullivan” is all about.

Both William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were born in London.  Gilbert’s dad was a naval surgeon so had no connection with music, but Sullivan’s father was a military bandmaster and brought up in a musical household.
Gilbert however showed an aptitude for writing, and started putting together illustrated stories, poems and articles from quite an early age.

They were both very talented in their own spheres, and it was thanks to the manager of the popular Gaiety Theatre in London that the two came together. In 1871 he got Gilbert, by now a successful comic playwright, and Sullivan, as a fashionable young composer, to join forces for a musical product called Thespis. A producer at the time, Richard D’Oyly Carte nurtured their partnership and even arranged for the Savoy Theatre to be built in 1881 to present their operas. This led to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company which performed and supported Gilbert and Sullivan’s works right up until the 1980s.

In the years that followed, Gilbert and Sullivan became as famous as Lennon and McCartney as a creative duo and they introduced a new style of opera to a fascinated audience based around very fanciful, crazy worlds with some wonderful themes such as pirates emerging as noblemen who have been led astray.

Their most famous and successful opera was probably H.M.S.Pinafore. It opened at the Opera Comique theatre in London in May 1878 and ran for 571 performances. This was the second longest run of any musical theatre piece up to that time.

Altogether the talented couple wrote 14 comic operas together between 1871 and 1896, and many believe their compositions influenced modern music and musical theatre for decades.

Gilbert and Sullivan doesn’t really date, and today there is a slow but continued resurgence of their fabulous creative light hearted operas.  You can now buy full box sets of their operas at Amazon and other outlets, and there is lots of information on line about the stories.

Scroll down on the following link and you can find synopsis of their main operas:

There is also a thriving Gilbert and Sullivan Society:


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