The little I know about opera, comic or otherwise, is gleaned from references in movies, TV or adverts. I was introduced to O Mio Babbino Caro by Puccini, through THAT scene in the 1985 film, A Room With A View. On the hillside. You know the one I mean. I have just never delved into this musical form before and am always pleasantly surprised when I hear something familiar in its original context. I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General is one of those songs. This tongue-twisting patter song is from the first act of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, the fifth collaboration of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. Its debut was in New York on 31 December 1879 and it follows the story of Frederic, who is released from his apprenticeship with a group of tender-hearted pirates, and meets Mabel, one of the daughters of Major-General Stanley. They fall in love. Hijinks ensue, with lots of songs and swordplay.
Pirates of Penzance is in the tradition of comic opera and musical
comedy, two types of British light opera that are lineal descendants of the
ballad opera, that eighteenth-century protest against the Italian conquest of
the London operatic scene¹. W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan first worked
together in 1871 on a Christmas opera, Thespis. They worked together and apart over the next
few years, developing a signature working method that expected the music,
libretto (the text used in, or intended for, an extended musical work such as
an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata,
or musical), staging and performances to be of the
very highest quality even though they knew they were creating light entertainment. Their three most well-known productions are H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), Pirates and The Mikado (1884) and an insight into
their lives can be glimpsed in the Mike Leigh movie Topsy Turvy in 1999, which is based on their lives in the lead up
to the creation of The Mikado
I saw Pirates of Penzance for the first time last Friday at the Sydney Theatre Company. This all male production from London is, according to the critics, a fresh take on the story. Sasha Regan, the director, says in the program “By casting young men in the roles we have the faces and voices that encapsulate those innocent days [of school productions]. We totally and utterly respect the original score and script and work hard to produce a joyful and exciting piece of theatre for everyone.” It is very funny and cleverly done, and I suspect this ‘fresh take’ gives a modern audience a way into quite a light story. You definitely leave the theatre happy, humming a couple of tunes that you did not realise you knew.
¹The Complete Book of Light Opera, Mark Lubbock. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962. pp. 467-8.