Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


General Thoughts About the Opera

1.1 American Appeal

David Duffey wrote: I am interested in the socio-economic anthropology of HMS Pinafore. I have my own picture of the stereotypical British Victorian audience, secure in their ordered view of social class and musically fed on Messiah, Elijah and drawing-room ballads. What was it, however, which made Pinafore the outstanding hit it was in the US? To me the piece is so satirical of British Victorian values that I cannot reconcile it with my mental picture of pioneer America and multi-cultural melting-pot New York. What about the show was so appealing to Americans?

Andrew Solovay replied: I suppose it's partly that it fed the American sense of superiority. Pinafore pokes fun at precisely those aspects of English society that America is proudest of rebelling against: the class structure, deference to hereditary superiors, promotions being given based on connections rather than merit, etc. An American who sees it can laugh at "those ridiculous English", and feel a warm sense of satisfaction at having avoided all the social silliness they're stuck with over there. But I hope someone can come up with a better explanation... this one doesn't reflect too well on my native land. And Mary Finn: Maybe they just liked the music. :-) But seriously, "multi-cultural melting pot New York" was (is) hardly a classless society, even if we Americans like to pretend otherwise. True, class was (is) determined more by income than ancestry, but the satire is portable.

1.2. A key work

Andrew Crowther wrote; Pinafore is, in my view, the key work in the collaboration, from a historical perspective. Before it came along, G & S were a combination with possibilities, and Trial and Sorcerer were successes by the standard of the day - but Pinafore was in a completely different sort of league. Its meteoric success in both Britain and the United States suggests that G & S had managed to get something very right which they hadn't before. In my view, Pinafore is a balance of opposing forces - romanticism and cynicism, "heartiness" and scepticism. Sullivan's music gives "heart" to even Gilbert's most double-edged lyrics: the obvious example which I always mention being "I am an Englishman". The lyrics are a satire on patriotism, but the music is a celebration of it. The two opposing forces balance each other to an extent which (I suggest) they did not in the previous operas. The result was an opera which appealed to everyone - those who want a good old-fashioned melodrama full of life, romance, and laughter, and those who appreciate Gilbert's ridicule of exactly that sort of melodrama.

Louis Wernick wrote: Pinafore, which has many of the developing aspects of the "comic musical theatrical" seems to be a seminal work as far as the history of operetta goes. It gives us a "sanitized" update of the Victorian British navy. Looking at the American Musical Comedy in the next century, one can see "sanitized" updates of the real situations of slaves (Showboat) or settlers (Oklahoma) for example. This kind of thing, introduced in HMS Pinafore has been adapted by the comic musical theatre ever since. IMHO, Pinafore is 90% of what we think of today as a fully developed operetta with all its traditions, and therefore perhaps the first time most of these traditions were actually spelled out in one perfectly delightful and commercially successful "miniature".

1.3. Its length

Paul McShane wrote: While Pinafore is trim, taut and terrific, its trimness can cause a problem - there is not enough of it to make a full night's entertainment. If you performed Pinafore, then repeated either Act I or Act II without another interval, its running time would be just about equal to that of Mikado or Ruddigore, and still less than that of any of the last four G & S operas. So what might Gilbert have done to expand the Pinafore libretto, one wonders, if he was writing 10-12 years later, when an opera of Pinafore's actual length just wouldn't do? The first thing that comes to mind is to give a lot more prominence to the women's' parts - Hebe and the chorus. Hebe could (should) have some solo relating to her background, and perhaps a duet with Sir Joseph, and later with Josephine. The women's' chorus could be split into sections, with some being in a similar profession to that of Mrs. Cripps (flower sellers, bowsprit models, hotel mistresses, or whatever) some as wives/girlfriends of some of the crew and the others attending on Sir Joseph. This would give scope for one or two extra minor parts among the women (e.g. Mrs. Chips, who would pair off eventually with the carpenter's mate). In fact, once you have done this, the opera becomes much more balanced, and is about the right length. Has anyone tried it?

David Craven replied: I actually went so far as to propose an insert for the Savoy-aires 1994 production of Pinafore (which was vetoed by the stage director). I took the opening song from Yeomen and I stuck it into the production as a song for Hebe. Preceded, of course, by a line or two about how She loves JP, but he never notices her... In retrospect, I might well now substitute "When He is here" from Sorcerer... in any event, it provides better motivation for Hebe. And Fraser Charlton: I read a review of a lengthened Pinafore in an old 'Gilbertian Gossip'. It opened with 'Climbing over rocky mountain', which must have confused a few people, had the following dialogue, then Sir Joseph appeared to collect his relatives so they could have a look at his intended bride... The opera then continued with 'We sail the ocean blue'. There may have been a few other additions, too, but I don't recall them. The reviewer said it worked quite well, but seemed unnecessary. I am tempted to agree. I think that Pinafore is quite fine as it is, and sometimes, in the middle of Josephine's solos, think that it might actually be a bit long! Then Bruce Miller: One of the reasons for Pinafore's comparative brevity is, possibly, that the part for Hebe was supposed to have been somewhat longer; but that because Jessie Bond was a newcomer who shied away from speaking lines, the part (and plot/connected elements) were cut back. There are so many opportunities for comic encores in Pinafore that, if one were inclined to make a running gag out of them, it could lengthen the proceedings considerably. [For Hebe's part see also section 2.4. below.]

Then Gene Leonardi: I've got one idea for "stretching out" the proceedings. Begin at the chorus "Over the bright blue sea". As the chorus proceeds, the sea begins to roughen, the wind picks up speed, and the sky darkens. Suddenly, on the horizon, appears a sinister, foreboding vessel, with "blood-red sails and black masts." On board is the New York Philharmonic, playing the overture to The Flying Dutchman. Sir Joseph's barge is capsized! (Wagner will do it anytime.) The gallant crew swing into a full scale rescue operation. Moments of heroism, stark drama, and d minor abound. Leitmotivs appear. People begin to sing in German. The Philharmonic gradually fades into the distance. The sea calms, the sky lightens, nightingales sigh. Wet relatives and sodden sailors regain their composure. continue with:

Gaily dripping,
Lightly slipping
Squish the maidens
To the shipping.
And enjoy the rest of the show.

Marc Shepherd had this to say: I am not sure I agree with the premise here. Most Pinafores I've seen were NOT part of a double-bill. With intermission, Pinafore runs about 1:45, making it about as long as the average movie. In America, at least, this IS considered a full night's entertainment. In Gilbert's day, Pinafore would have been sandwiched by a curtain-raiser AND an after-piece, making the whole evening about four hours long. There were also many more encores in those days. I am not sure I agree with Bruce Miller's statement that the reason for Pinafore's brevity is the reduction in size of Jessie Bond's part. The cut material (at least, that which we know about) would have made the opera only 5-10 minutes longer, at most. One must remember that the general trend over the years was for the operas to get longer.

1.4. A formula?

Tom Shepard asked: Is it the case that Pirates is fundamentally a formulaic copy of Pinafore? To which Derrick McClure replied: There is no justification for maintaining this preposterous suggestion? The musical styles are as different as they could be. The characters are also very different - about the only thing they have in common is a tenor hero and a soprano heroine, like nearly every other opera and operetta in history. The heroine's father appears in both, but his character and dramatic function, not to mention voice, is totally different. Both have remarkable characters as the bass-baritone parts, but again, wholly dissimilar characters. The stories are very unlike: Pinafore is a straight romance, with (indeed) a perfectly serious social commentary as undertone, until the very end when the hitherto straight story gets a crazy resolution; in Pirates the romantic storyline is based on a fantastic premise and comically developed characterisation, giving a far greater degree of depth to the comedy.

Chris Webster: I have heard Pirates described as rates Pinafore on land, but other than the 'naughticalness' of both pieces and the obvious G & S styles (i.e. patter songs, double chorus, topsy turvy ideas, etc.) I can not really see any more a likeness between Pinafore and Pirates than there is between, for example, Patience and Yeomen.

Tom Shepard replied: Okay, here goes: Opening Chorus, men only, defining their profession Next item: Contralto solo. Tenor aria as third or fourth. Baritone aria as third or fourth, and a definition of duties: (I am the Captain/For I am a Pirate King) Without hewing literally to a sequence, and of course the operas DO vary, there is shortly a patter song by an inappropriately-appointed Army or Navy post. Sir Joseph and Major General Stanley confide in a patter song how their training and information is irrelevant to their present duties. Idealistic and innocent tenor hero matched with high-born young lady. Really, if I had more time I could keep extending these parallels which include a denouement wherein the Captain is really a commoner and the Pirates are really Peers, a Buttercup or a Ruth to have screwed things up, a restoration of true rank at the end....many many more like this. I am surprised that these similarities don't hit one over the head. I did not say that Pinafore and Pirates were the same---of course they aren't---but I certainly can extrapolate a comfortable pattern that more or less served G & S for both of these operas.

Page created 19 October 1997