Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance
After the champagne has gone flat and the Christmas tree is taken down, there isn’t much that’s fun about January. It’s cold, everyone has to go back to school and work, and there are fewer excuses for eating decadent desserts several nights in a row. Yet “fun” was the word most commonly used by the cast and directors of The Pirates of Penzance to describe their upcoming performances. Pirates is presented this weekend (for free) by Performance Santa Fe at the Scottish Rite Center. Producing an opera specifically for families and their children has become an annual Performance Santa Fe tradition six years in the making: The company’s general director, Joseph Illick, adapts and condenses a work and mounts it in the space of about a week. In previous years, the group has performed shows with obvious kid-appeal, including Hansel and Gretel and Cendrillon (Cinderella); this year, it’s the Gilbert and Sullivan opera.
“Almost everybody would love opera if their first experiences of it are positive,” Illick told Pasatiempo, explaining the rationale behind designing a show geared toward the elementary-school set — in addition to the public performances, students from the Santa Fe Public Schools will see Pirates on field trips. “The Pirates of Penzance is true comedy, as opposed to farce, or slapstick,” Illick continued. “The characters find themselves in these ridiculous situations that to them are perfectly natural. There’s actually a story that Gilbert told the show’s first director not to allow any of the actors to ham it up, but to let the piece speak for itself.”
The show is inherently silly, and in some instances, downright goofy. The premise is this: In Victorian England, the hero, twenty-one-year-old Frederic, is mistakenly apprenticed to a band of pirates, after his nursemaid, Ruth, mishears “pilots” for “pirates.” But the pirates — even the Pirate King — aren’t terribly cutthroat, or effective at plundering and pillaging. Because they’re all orphans, anyone they capture who’s an orphan (or claims to be one) will be released. When a group of pretty sisters stumbles upon the pirates’ lair, the pirates capture and decide to marry them, until their father, the Major-General, shows up. Frederic falls in love with Mabel, the feisty ringleader of the Major-General’s daughters. Act 2 involves a skirmish with the police; Frederic feeling consumed by his love for Mabel, yet duty-bound to the pirates; the pirates’ own loyalty to queen and country; and a happy ending.
The Pirates of Penzance premiered in New York City on Dec. 31, 1879 — hot on the heels of Gilbert and Sullivan’s prior production, H.M.S. Pinafore — and was a near-instant hit. The show has been adapted many times, and its echoes are felt throughout popular culture — even if you’re not familiar with the show itself, you’ve probably heard its most famous number, the patter song, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” or at least a version of it — a YouTube search yields dozens of parodies including “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Homosexual,” “I Am the Very Model of a Biblical Philologist,” and, worth watching, “Obama! A Modern U.S. President.”
Baritone Trevor Martin, currently of the Fort Worth Opera, portrays the Major-General. The hallmarks of a patter song like “Major-General” are a fast tempo and rapidfire lyrics in which each syllable of text corresponds to one note. “‘Major-General’ is quite daunting,” Martin said. “I’ve heard horror stories about other performances — of getting off in a verse and not being able to get back on, but [the song] also has the potential to be a show-stopper.”
The creative language and wordplay of Pirates isn’t limited to “Major-General.” Across their work, Gilbert and Sullivan are known for their witticisms and topical
humor, often political in nature, which is sometimes updated to reflect the current time period. “Gilbert and Sullivan write some really cheesy lines, but it can be a lot of fun to get into that,” said Brian Wallin, the production’s Frederic. Last year, Wallin was the witch in Performance Santa Fe’s Hansel and Gretel, and was almost bested by the altitude. He noted that you have to breathe differently when singing at 7,000 feet, and said he spent a lot of time lying on the floor backstage between songs in order to recover. “The jokes in Gilbert and Sullivan shows are often puns, and I’m a sucker for a good pun,” Wallin continued.
Like many of the artists in the show, Wallin is currently with the Fort Worth Opera, with which Illick has a long-standing relationship. The singers hired for Performance Santa Fe’s winter opera tend to be young artists who are part of the Fort Worth Opera Studio, a yearlong program for emerging opera singers. Thus, Performance Santa Fe has access to performers who deliver professionalism and talent with a side of youthful enthusiasm.
“Children tend to be much tougher critics than adults, and if you lose them during a show, it is especially hard to get them back,” Martin said. “For children’s performances, the energy has to be high the entire time. In general, [children] are more engaged throughout and do not hesitate to react vocally to what is going on onstage.”
“Lately, I’ve questioned the assumption that the high arts are hard for younger people to get into,” said Nate Mattingly, who portrays the Pirate King. But when you perform for young children, and you think they’re going to be bored, they end up being so captivated. Programs like this one bring broader understanding of what opera is about, and how much fun it can be.”