You may see the word “opera” in the title and be thinking, “Oh no we’re gonna watch a 3 hour opera in a language I don’t know with a bunch of people in Viking costumes belting out all the songs.” But we’re not. We’re gonna look at and hour and a half opera (or operetta, as you will see later), in English, sung “normally”, with a bunch of people in pirate costumes and Victorian clothes. We are gonna take a look at The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan:
Whether or not you recognize the name (this has nothing to do with Pirates of the Caribbean, in case you’re wondering), you may recognize this song, which has appeared in some TV shows and movies. I stumbled across this work when a scene from it was performed at my college. Later on, *music nerd moment* I finally bought myself a recording and listened to it while reading the libretto (lyrics). You’re probably sitting there like “Ain’t nobody got time fo dat”, so I’m going break it down over a few posts.
Even after almost 8 years as a classical music nerd, I have only bought 2 operettas and one oratorio, and just have a few of the popular arias (solo songs) of classical opera (gasp). I get the struggle of not connecting with opera. It is hard to get into music in a language you don’t know. Then you gotta take the time to listen to it, and get to know it. So naturally, it was easier to pick up on The Pirates of Penzance for me since it is in English (and yes the 2 operettas and one oratorio I have are in English).
It takes time to get into opera, you have to start with the short ones (or find just one song you like) and go from there. Then there is a vast collection of operas on YouTube to watch once you find one you think might be interesting, and lots have subtitles so you can tell what’s going on.
Back to The Pirates of Penzance now. It was written by the epic team of the composer Arthur Sullivan, and the librettist (guy who wrote the words) W. S. Gilbert. Together they made many humorous operas, one of which they made fun of in The Pirates of Penzance. Once we get into Pirates you will get to see all the humor and satire throughout. They worked together in the late 1800s, this opera premiering in the 1880s. What I find interesting is that the style of their works sounds like classic musicals (Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, etc.) and at the same time like opera. In fact, some people refer to their operettas as musicals, because of how much they don’t remind people of opera. These later operas were sort of the ancestors of musicals. You’ll see this once we listen.
Next time, prepare to have your misconceptions about opera thrown out the window as we look at the hilarious operetta, The Pirates of Penzance.