The excitement here at the Festival continues to build as the summer inches closer! From now until our season opens on July 22, Rob will give us an in-depth look at our 2024 productions. This month, Rob dives into The Pirates of Penzance—exploring the legacy of Gilbert & Sullivan and our culture’s mild obsession with pirates. When you’ve finished enjoying this month’s edition of Rob’s Ramblings, click here to listen to Rob’s Pirates-inspired playlist! For a fun and informative look at the entire 2024 season, watch Rob’s recent presentation for The Glimmerglass Festival Guild. And while you’re at it, why not consider joining the Guild? It is a fantastic way to get more involved with the Festival.

The Ampersand Duo

Guess who turns 42 in just a few days?! While I wish it were me, it’s actually Frederic, our duty-bound hero of The Pirates of Penzance. If you’ll forgive the spoiler, one of the show’s famous plot twists is that Frederic is a Leap Year baby. In fact, such was the show’s popularity with the general public that when he eventually ‘came of age’ on February 29, 1940, the mighty New York Times published a birthday announcement for him. That popularity has never waned.

Portrait of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, late 1890s. Photo by Herbert Rose Barraud.
Portrait of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, late 1890s | Photo by Herbert Rose Barraud
Portrait of Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, 1888 | Photo by Count Stanislaw Julian Ostrorog

Gilbert & Sullivan are the original ‘ampersand duo.’ Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Flanders & Swann—they all continue the tradition of the symbiotic relationship between note smith & word smith (or composer & librettist in opera speak). This is Gilbert & Sullivan’s great legacy—a form of theater where the book, lyrics, and music are in perfect balance. They represent the real beginnings of what we now know as American musical theater, and they were among the first to show the world that light music could also offer serious commentary on society. Their fourteen collaborations lampooned almost the entire establishment, and yet their sense of parody is so good-natured that most victims of their satirical gaze treated it as a badge of honor; becoming the basis of a character in a Gilbert & Sullivan musical was like having a running impression of you featured on Saturday Night Live.

Arguably, much of what we think of as ‘British humor’ stems from G&S—the idea of straight-faced, stiff upper-lipped characters with no inkling of their own insanity facing a ridiculous, zany world is really their invention: shows like Monty Python, Blackadder, Keeping Up Appearances, Fawlty Towers, and Absolutely Fabulous all poke fun at British culture using this basic premise. We even quote Gilbert without knowing it: “a short, sharp shock,” “a policeman’s lot is not a happy one,” “let the punishment fit the crime,” and “it’s love that makes the world go round” are all lines from his libretti.

Ahoy, Me Hearties – Pirates in Pop Culture

The Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 | Painting by J. L. G. Ferris


Hook Original Movie Poster, 1991 | Copywrite Tristar Pictures

Pop culture also has a mild obsession with pirates in general. Lovable mercenary rascals of the high seas, swilling rum, walking planks, shivering timbers, swashing their buckles, Aaarrrrgggghhhh-ing and Aye, Aye-ing, we can all conjure mental images of our quintessential buccaneering friends. Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood, Captain Hook, Long John Silver, Captain Jack Sparrow, Blackbeard, Captain Flint from Treasure Island, Sinbad the Sailor, Calico Jack, Captain Pugwash…brandishing cutlasses, gold fillings and hoop earrings glinting, sporting eye patches, peg legs, and hook hands, they cut a universally recognizable figure. We even have National “Talk Like a Pirate Day” (September 19, if you were wondering).

This romanticization of all things piratical even has a Glimmerglass connection – one of the first popular novels to feature a pirate was James Fenimore Cooper’s Red Rover. Hector Berlioz wrote a great overture, inspired by Lord Byron’s epic poem “The Corsaire” (or The Pirate), that was partly a homage to Cooper’s Red Rover (in French, Le corsaire rouge). Listen to this performance of the piece from the great Berlioz conductor Sir Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra.

There are other offshoots of this romantic era “pirate mania” in opera. Bellini’s Il pirata, a significant influence on Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and even Wagner’s early opera Das Liebesverbot (of which Glimmerglass gave the American stage premiere back in 2008), also features a tremendous mad scene like the one in Lucia. As the one and only Maria Callas recently celebrated her 100th birthday on December 2, here she is as Imogene, in unforgettable form in Il pirata’s finale, plagued by visions of her dead husband and son.

Maybe the most famous single operatic song about a pirate NOT by Gilbert & Sullivan comes from the Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht (the English lyrics are by the great Marc Blitzstein). It’s called “Pirate Jenny” or “Seeräuber Jenny.” Here’s the original version, sung by the Weill’s wife, the legendary Lotte Lenya. Speaking of Lotte Lenya, we have four Glimmerglass artists from the 2024 season competing in the semifinals of the renowned Lotte Lenya Competition this year: tenors Christian Mark Gibbs and Tristan Tournaud, baritone Schyler Vargas, and bass-baritone Jason Zacher, with last year’s Juliet, Magda Kuźma winning a special award for outstanding vocal achievement. Send them good vibes!

Headshot of Christian Mark Gibbs
Christian Mark Gibbs

Tristan Tournaud

Headshot of Schyler Vargas
Schyler Vargas

Jason Zacher

One of my favorite artists, Nina Simone, also gave a pretty terrifying rendition of this classic tale of revenge live at Carnegie Hall in 1964. The song went on to inspire Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” and even spawned one of my favorite musical parodies, with the brilliant Dudley Moore superbly poking fun at Weill and Brecht’s idiom in some of the finest fake German ever improvised (and yes, that IS the great stage director Jonathan Miller, who directed many wonderful productions at Glimmerglass, introducing him).

So, what made Gilbert choose pirates as his subject? At least part of it was genuine frustration at “copyright pirates.” Within a year of its New York premiere, there were at least fifty spin-off versions of H.M.S. Pinafore, most playing very light and loose with the original version, and none offered them a cent in royalties. Determined to get ahead of this with their next show, they decided to premiere The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway and follow it with several of their own touring productions to major cities so that the box office cut would stay in their hands. They were only partially successful in that endeavor, but they did succeed in producing one of the most commercially successful shows of all time in the process.

Blimey – A Show for All!

What gives Pirates its staying power is its quality – unforgettable characters, brilliant music, biting satire, genuine emotion, and irresistible charm. The perfection of its chorus music and strikingly catchy melodies will sound glorious in the voices of our top-notch cast and stellar ensemble of Young Artists, and our troupe of professional dancers will give this enduringly popular production an energy it has never had before. In short, it is the perfect first show for anyone new to opera or theater, and suitable for all ages. Not only will you have enormous fun, but you’ll hear some fabulous music and singing while you’re at it. If you’re looking for a great recording, my favorite one comes from the most famous of all Gilbert & Sullivan troupes, the D’Oyly Carte Company. It features the wonderful soprano Valerie Masterson as Mabel and the superb bass Owen Brannigan as the Sergeant—I may be showing some favoritism, as he happens to come from my part of the world, up in Tyneside in the North East of England. Pirates tends to sell out, so grab good seats while you can and remember that it takes much more than the cost of a ticket to make the Festival go each season—think of all the artists and artistry you’ll be supporting by donating to the Festival!

Speaking of supporting the Festival, our biggest off-season event (and largest fundraiser) is the Glimmerglass Gala, held this year on April 3 amid the stunning Gilded Age elegance of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Club. The gala is one of the year’s best parties and a chance to meet several incredible artists who will perform with us this season. Our Frederic and Mabel (Christian Mark Gibbs and Elizabeth Sutphen) will be co-hosting the event, and I’ll finally be back at the piano post-shoulder surgery to perform musical tributes to our honorees, Betty Eveillard and Sherwin Goldman, past President and Chair of the Glimmerglass Board who were responsible for navigating the organization through many challenges. Every cent raised goes to our Young Artists and Apprenticeship Programs, and the short program, full of musical surprises, will knock your socks off. It is a magical evening; if you can make it that night, it’s one of the most fun ways to show your support. You can support these core programs even if you can’t attend in person.

Rob’s Playlist – February 2024

While we are still thinking of the sea…click here for some other great thalassic musical moments to get you in the mood for a swashbuckling summer. 

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