Gil­bert and Sul­li­van’s The Pi­rates of Pen­zance

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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.”

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