Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to opera and operettas and whether they are true or false.
OPERA URBAN LEGEND: The Pirates of Penzance was named as such after copyright piracy.
Librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan formed one of the most famous musical partnerships this side of Rodgers and Hammerstein with their operas in the late 19th Century.
After a few modest hits with their operettas Trial By Jury (1874) and The Sorceror (1877), Gilbert and Sullivan had their first international smash hit with their operetta H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), which was a comic opera about the danger of incompetent people rising to high positions (while having some fun with the British Navy, as well).
The problem with having an international hit in 1878 was that British copyright laws, naturally, did not extend into the United States of America, so American productions of the opera took place without the permission of Gilbert and Sullivan (and certainly without any payment to the pair).
In fact, the first Copyright statute in the United States specifically stated:
nothing in this act shall be construed to extend to prohibit the importation or vending, reprinting or publishing within the United States, of any map, chart, book or books, written, printed, or published by any person not a citizen of the United States, in foreign parts or places without the jurisdiction of the United States. . . .
That basic law was still in place by the end of the 19th Century.
So naturally, Gilbert and Sullivan were quite irritated that their success did not translate into extra money from America.
They brought an “official” production to the United States in 1879, but still, they were so angered by the “piracy” of their work that they specifically wrote their next opera as a response to those pirates.
That opera was called, of course, The Pirates of Penzance…
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