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Pirates of Penzance Program Notes

Written by Gregory Keller

Gilbert and Sullivan wrote The Pirates of Penzance as part spoof of grand opera, part screwball comedy, part vaudeville routine, and last -- but certainly not least -- part social commentary on their present-day Victorian culture. When the curtain rose in 1880, English audiences saw characters onstage that were a direct reflection of themselves and their tightly buttoned-up society -- albeit a reflection distorted in a fun-house mirror.

For example, Major-General Stanley was a parody of Sir Garnet Wolseley, a popular general in the British Army. In the original London production, the singer George Grossmith parroted Wolseley’s mannerisms – and most famously – his large, white handlebar moustache. Audiences immediately recognized this allusion, and apparently Wolseley himself took no offence at his own caricature (and purportedly even sang “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” for the amusement of his friends and family.)

Most stage presentations of Pirates have retained these original references – even though they have gradually faded over time – like a xerox of a xerox of a xerox. (Itself an outdated reference in this digital age!) And now 140 years later, the effect is like looking at an insect enshrined in a ball of amber, encased in a dusty vitrine in the Victoria & Albert museum -- knowing that the once-curious bug was buzzing around, full of life, pestering people, until its final, fatal flight.

I watched numerous versions of Pirates, and instead of feeling fresh and contemporary they all felt hopelessly outdated — with Cockney accents thicker than Devon cream, goofy English bobbies, swishy swashbuckling pirates, and yes, major-generals sporting pith helmets, twirling large, bushy moustaches.

I struggled a long time with how to present this comic operetta, thinking that I could not just keep xeroxing the xerox. I didn’t fully “get” the references anymore, and it seemed like an exercise in futility to perpetuate something that had lost its meaning and relevancy -- and therefore its satirical bite. I felt like this once buzzing piece had been trapped in its own amber, and its once potent stinger rendered useless.

By being so faithful to the performance history of Gilbert and Sullivan, I felt like I was being unfaithful to the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan. That made me to wonder: Could Pirates could be restored to its original intention – as a light-hearted spoof of the audience watching it, with cultural references Americans would understand? In this rapidly changing digital age -- where an Instagram post only lasts a day -- it would be hard to hold the mirror up to 2022 because by the time we had staged it, it would have already disappeared. (Does anyone even remember “Free Britney!”)

Another main stumbling point for me was who are present-day comic pirates? Who threatens social order, but isn’t really that dangerous once the surface is scratched? Who represents raucous libertine freedom but could ultimately be perceived as staid and tame, when accepted into the upper echelons of society?

I kept thinking of Elvis Presley, when the cameras on the Ed Sullivan show had to stay above his waist for fear of the deleterious effect of a pelvic thrust being broadcast to the masses. In retrospect, it seems positively risible when compared to the nightly offerings on Netflix (which has even sported its own licentious meme!) I remembered of how vilified The Beatles were when John Lennon suggested: “We’re more popular than Jesus...” And yet now you hear Muzak renditions of “Eleanor Rigby” while getting your teeth cleaned or waiting in line at the DMV. And what of The Rolling Stones? In comparison to The Beatles they were once perceived to be positively Satanic. Now Mick Jagger takes his private jet to his villa on Mustique -- only to be outdone by Keith Richards, whose compound on the private isle of Parrot Cay, can “Gimme Shelter” for a mere $40,000/week.

In despair, I sat down one day and told a colleague that I was thinking of cancelling my contract with Cedar Rapids, because the only way that Pirates made sense to me was to have the pirates be like The Clash or The Ramones or The Sex Pistols, and she replied: “So why don’t you do it that way?” Instead of being blinded by the lightbulb that had gone off in my head, I decided to let it guide my path, and all the pieces magically slipped into place, like a broken-in black leather studded glove sliding onto Joey Ramone’s hand.

In my mind, the Pirates are a slightly aging British punk rock band touring...Staten Island. Their burnt-out manager, Ruth, is trying to corral the rebellious “New Wave” youngster Frederic, who is yearning to break free from his record contract. They encounter a bevy of slightly sheltered, but rather precocious private- school girls, who may have wandered out of a John Waters movie. Their father is the “Major General” in the Mob. He’s crazy like a fox, like “The Oddfather” Vincent Gigante, a real-life crime boss who used to wander the streets of Greenwich Village dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, muttering to himself, so that he could use an insanity defense when arrested. (He evaded one conviction with that defense, but the Feds eventually nailed him – he became the model for Tony Soprano years later.) And the English bobbies morphed into doughnut-eating New York City cops, lamenting that they have to work so hard to catch the criminals, when all they both really wanted was to retire and live in harmony on the Jersey shore.

I was so happy that Daniel Kleinknecht and Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre went along with this updated premise and delighted in breathing new life into this century’s old piece. Not only is it a way to make it fresh and fun for the Iowa audience, but it is also a valuable exercise that will challenge and help develop the young singers performing it.

My hope is to blow the dust off the museum case, reach in and pull out that piece of amber and crack it open. That once spirited insect with be released from its confines and re-animated. It will spread its wings and wiggle its tail, light up its hiney and playfully buzz around your heads -- all for your delight and diversion on a mid-summer’s eve.


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