What is Penzance famous for? Well for its Pirates, of course. And who were the Pirates of Penzance? It depends. There are the Cornish Pirates, An Vorladron Gernewek, the premier Cornish rugby club. And there's the Pirates on the Prom, Penzance's attempt to regain the Guinness World Records title as the 'Largest Gathering of Pirates', which has twice fallen just a few pirates short of the required total. Genuine pirates – the sort with sharp weapons and firearms – sailed from North Africa and harried the coast of Cornwall for almost 200 years, seizing men, women and children from the inadequately defended ports and taking them into slavery. Raids continued until the early 1800s, after which Penzance became the peaceable seaside resort town that it is today.
But to most people, probably, the Pirates of Penzance means Gilbert and Sullivan's swashbuckling operetta, the satirical love story of Frederic and Mabel, which had its premier in New York on 31st December 1879, at the Fifth Avenue Theater, with Sullivan conducting. It was a huge success, played successfully for over three months, then went to the Opera Comique in London and ran for 363 performances. It remains one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular operas today - the Major-General's patter song, A Policeman's Lot Is Not A Happy One, and Mabel's 'Poor Wandering One' are possibly the most famous songs from it. It is often performed by schools and amateur light opera societies up and down the country, as well as professional performances. Productions in Penzance don't seem to happen as often as one might expect, but there was one in 1881: three, in fact, on 21st, 22nd and 23rd March, in St John's Hall, with Mr D'Oyly Carte's Opera Company, balcony seats four shillings, one shilling for the back seats. (And though surely there were other performances in the meantime, there was another in 2014, as part of the Penzance 400 celebrations, in the open air, in Penlee Park theatre on Sunday 25 May with the Illyria Theatre Company. It poured with rain that day, but there was a repeat performance the next day, the Bank Holiday, on the triangle adjacent to the Jubilee Pool, and for this one the sun shone brightly.)
So as 1879 gave way to 1880, piracy was out and respectability was the order of the day, then? Yes, of course. But there are some anomalies in that general trend….. Gilbert and Sullivan's previous opera, HMS Pinafore, had premiered in London and later been pirated by American companies, who copied it down and then staged unauthorised productions of it in the States, without paying royalties. They didn't want this to happen again, so The Pirates had its first performance in America – but just to make sure the pirating didn't happen the other way round this time (and the British steal it), a single performance was given on the preceding day at the Royal Bijou Theatre, Paignton, to secure the British copyright. Easier than mounting cannon on the cliffs and mustering the fleet, but still an anti-piracy measure…...
Sullivan also displayed something of the Pirate-King attitude to the orchestra engaged for the first performance. Arthur Sullivan had forgotten to bring the first act of the opera with him to New York, and had to rewrite it as well as finishing Act II. The work was only completed on 29th December, the day before the dress rehearsal, and the orchestra were upset about the late rehearsals and threatened to quit unless they were paid extra. Sullivan bluffed shamelessly, telling them that he would bring another orchestra over from Britain (which would have been completely impossible) who would gladly substitute for them. The American musicians backed down, to Sullivan's private relief, and the performance went ahead.
For more on Gilbert and Sullivan have a look at: