“H.M.S. Pinafore” premiered 144 years ago on May 25, 1878.
In preparing for this production by the University of Iowa Opera Theatre, I have decided to begin with a letter that Mr. Gilbert sent to Mr. Sullivan shortly after their previous collaboration, “The Sorcerer,” had opened.
I send you herewith a sketch plot of the proposed opera. I hope and think you will like it. I should have liked to talk it over with you, as there is a good deal of fun in it which I haven’t set down on paper. Among other things a song for the First Lord- tracing his career as office boy in cotton-brokers office, clerk, traveler, junior partner, and First Lord of Brittan’s Navy. I think a splendid song can be made of this. Of course there will be no personality in this- the fact that the First Lord in the opera is a radical of the most pronounced type will do away with any suspicion that W.H. Smith is intended. (Gilbert could not have seriously believed this, but as W.H. Smith was Disraeli’s First Lord appointee, he was probably trying to allay any potential fear Sullivan might have that offense might be given in high places.) I shall be anxious to know what you think of the plot. It seems to me that there is plenty of story in it, with good musical situations. As soon as I hear from you that the plot will do, I will set to work sending you the first act as soon as it is finished.
Sullivan received this letter in Paris and his reaction to the sketch plot had been instantly favorable. What grew from this correspondence was a comic opera about love. But not a simple love. A love between different classes, and a love on many different levels.
This was really quite daring at the time because it could have easily have been seen as a reflection of England and its stuffy “class pride.”
Keeping with the original idea for Pinafore, I, along with the design team, have honored tradition and at the same time added a wonderful theatricality to this production. This enables us to heighten the comedy and drama, yet be true to Gilbert and Sullivan’s brilliant collaboration.
My goal is to make this production a valentine. A celebration of love for everyone. But also a look back at the class system as a gentle reminder of how little some things have changed in the past 144 years.
Join us at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts April 22-24 for Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
For tickets, call (319) 335-1160 or order online at www.hancher.uiowa.edu/tickets.
Bill Theisen is in his ninth and final year as the director of opera at the University of Iowa. He has directed for opera and theatre companies throughout the country and served as guest lecturer and stage director for more than 30 universities.