“The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. The opera’s official premiere was at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City on 31 December 1879, where the show was well received by both audiences and critics. Its London debut was on 3 April 1880, at the Opera Comique, where it ran for 363 performances, having already been playing successfully for more than three months in New York.
The story concerns Frederic, who, having completed his 21st year, is released from his apprenticeship to a band of tender-hearted pirates. He meets Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley, and the two young people fall instantly in love. Frederic soon learns, however, that he was born on the 29th of February, and so, technically, he has a birthday only once each leap year. His indenture specifies that he remain apprenticed to the pirates until his “twenty-first birthday”, meaning that he must serve for another 63 years. Bound by his own sense of duty, Frederic’s only solace is that Mabel agrees to wait for him faithfully…
Pirates was the fifth Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration and introduced the much-parodied “Major-General’s Song”. The opera was performed for over a century by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in Britain and by many other opera companies and repertory companies worldwide…Pirates remains popular today, taking its place along with The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore as one of the most frequently played Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
The Pirates of Penzance was the only Gilbert and Sullivan opera to have its official premiere in the United States. At the time, American law offered no copyright protection to foreigners. After the pair’s previous opera, H.M.S. Pinafore, achieved success in London in 1878, approximately 150 American companies quickly mounted unauthorised productions that often took considerable liberties with the text and paid no royalties to the creators. Gilbert and Sullivan hoped to forestall further “copyright piracy” by mounting the first production of their next opera in America, before others could copy it, and by delaying publication of the score and libretto. They succeeded in keeping for themselves the direct profits of the first American production of The Pirates of Penzance by opening the production themselves on Broadway, prior to the London production, and they also operated profitable US touring companies of Pirates and Pinafore. However, Gilbert, Sullivan, and their producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, failed in their efforts, over the next decade, to control the American performance copyrights to Pirates and their other operas.”