Opera Scotland

Pirates of Penzance in Scotland

Posted 27 Apr 2013

The Pirates of Penzance has been the most consistently popular (after The Mikado) of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  The first performance in Scotland, nearly a year after the New York premiere, was on 20 December 1880, at the Glasgow Royalty.  This relatively small theatre was used for light opera on a regular basis, and this season in Glasgow, with a move to Edinburgh in January, seems to have been intended to provide audiences with an alternative to the pantomimes on show everywhere else.

Having twice given Pirates in the central belt, the third tour in eighteen months saw the D'Oyly Carte introduce it to Dundee and Aberdeen.  By the mid-nineties the G&S partnership was at an end and the D'Oyly Carte repertoire companies had been established, playing several of the old works on tour in one week.  This system lasted in Britain and abroad for the next eighty years, until the original company ceased operations in 1982.  The annual Scottish tour, usually around October, nearly always visited the four major Scottish cities, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Company singers became popular household names.  Several stayed for decades, including Henry Lytton, (Major General Stanley and other roles) and Fred Billington (Sergeant, Pooh-Bah and others) who first joined up in the eighteen-eighties.  Lytton continued for the best part of half a century, ending with a knighthood.  Performers of the young romantic parts tended not to stay so long.  Other fine performers in the character parts, between the wars, included the contralto Bertha Lewis, Darrell Fancourt, a bass who sang the Pirate King and similar roles, as well as Martyn Green, Sir Henry's successor as lead comic.

The company was revitalised in the twenties under the dynamic management of Rupert D'Oyly Carte, who recorded the works and made modern new productions with radically rethought settings.  Pirates, in designs by George Sheringham, received its restaging in 1929.  By the time of the Company's final Edinburgh season, in 1980, this was one production that was past its best, but in its time had seen many fine casts. In the sixties, memorable performers included Donald Adams (Pirate King), John Reed (Major General), Philip Potter (Frederic) and Valerie Masterson (Mabel).  From 1930 for around forty years, the musical side of the performances had been controlled by the seemingly ageless conductor Isidore Godfrey.

After the expiry of Gilbert's copyright in 1962 the operettas became available to other professional companies, though Pirates was not mounted by one till the revived D'Oyly Carte put it on in 1989.  Musical standards were excellent, and the production, by Keith Warner, was delightfully fresh on visits to Aberdeen and Edinburgh.  Since then, Pirates has also been staged by the Carl Rosa.

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