An introduction to The Pirates of Penzance

Here’s everything you need to know about ENO’s production of The Pirates of Penzance.

It’s a comic opera by writer W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan

This comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan was first performed on 31 December 1879 in New York City at Fifth Avenue Theatre. It made its London debut three months later on 3 April at the Opera Comique where it ran for 363 performances.

As with many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas, the story is a bit intricate, so let’s get this straight: there are pirates, who take pity on orphans, and are really peers of the realm. There’s a 21-year-old called Frederic, who has sworn to put the pirates behind bars, and is really only five. And there are policemen, whose lot is not a happy one, and are really, really hopeless at foiling felons… Got that? If not, have a read of the full synopsis.

Gilbert and Sullivan were a Victorian dynamic duo

Gilbert and Sullivan were one of the most famous theatrical partnerships of the Victorian era. The two men worked together on fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896 and are probably best known for H.M.S. Pinafore, The MikadoIolanthe and this production, The Pirates of Penzance.

Read our beginner’s guide to Gilbert and Sullivan

Our production was directed by an Oscar-nominated director

★★★★★ ‘An entirely delightful evening’ The Stage | ★★★★ ‘A jolly good show’ Daily Telegraph

Mike Leigh, who might be more familiar as a film director (Mr Turner, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky), directed this production. He joins the ranks of other celebrated film and theatre figures to have taken on opera at ENO, including Simon McBurney, Terry Gilliam, Rory Kinnear, Fiona Shaw, and the late Anthony Minghella.

It’s a family affair

Mike Leigh’s son, Toby Leigh, designed a poster that has previously been used for advertising the production. The colours of the poster tie in with the multicoloured set and costumes, designed by Alison Chitty. (Mike Leigh originally joked that he wanted to set the opera on a spaceship in the 19th century!)

You’ve probably heard it before

The opera is chock-full of memorable melodies, including the famous tongue-twisting song from the Major-General, ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’.

You might recognise this from all sorts of popular culture references – from The Muppet Show, to Family Guy to Frasier. The song is also widely parodied with many examples of people adding their own words to the famous melody – think Tom Lehrer’s ‘Elements Song’, or taking the words and adding them to their own songs – like in hit musical Hamilton’s song ‘Right Hand Man’.

Listen to it here and see if you recognise it: