Time was when the English comic operettas of William Schwenk Gilbert (words) and Arthur Sullivan (music) were a regular feature of amateur theatrical activity around this country.
It had been that way since the late 1870s, when a national craze in the U.S. for one of their shows, H.M.S. Pinafore, monopolized the popular culture, with theater troupes presenting pirated versions of the operetta from coast to coast. So when Gilbert and Sullivan were ready to present their new operetta — which was about pirates, though the seagoing, not the copyright-infringing, kind — they decided to launch it in the United States, and presented it for the first time in New York City on New Year’s Eve in 1879.
They returned home to England considerably richer and with another hit on their hands, and The Pirates of Penzance took its place as a staple of enterprising G&S troupes everywhere. These days, the partnership’s unique and brilliant works of Victorian satire — which also include The Mikado, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, Patience, Ruddigore, The Gondoliers and The Yeomen of the Guard — have migrated from amateur theatricals to the opera house, where the standard of singing and orchestral playing is giving Sullivan his due.
And so it is that the Palm Beach Opera closes its season this month with The Pirates of Penzance, a funny and preposterous story about a young man named Frederic who is an apprentice to a gang of Cornish pirates. Having turned 21, he informs the gang that he is preparing to leave them. A group of beautiful young women suddenly appears in their cove. Frederic instantly falls in love with the youngest one, Mabel, and she him, and the pirates take possession of the rest of the women, planning to marry them.
But the women are the daughters of Major-General Stanley, who lies to them about being an orphan, knowing that the gang will refuse to rob orphans. He spirits the girls away to his estate, and Frederic enlists a troupe of policemen to attack the pirates. But at this point, the Pirate King tells Frederic that his apprenticeship is not, in fact, over. Having been born on Feb. 29, he’s had only five actual birthdays, and therefore must serve with the pirates for another 63 years, or until 1940.
That sets up the confrontation between the policemen and the pirates, after which the operetta ends happily for everyone concerned.
The show, which runs for three performances from April 7 to 9 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, features the celebrated mezzo superstar Stephanie Blythe in the role of Ruth, Frederic’s nursemaid and the woman who originally apprenticed him to the swashbucklers, and soprano Sarah Joy Miller, who sang a memorable Violetta in La Traviata for Palm Beach Opera a few seasons back, as Mabel.
Alan Paul, associate artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C., will direct the show, stepping in after the untimely loss of the originally scheduled director, Bill Fabris, who died at 57 in late February.
Paul said Pirates, while a product of its time, is still a solid show.
“It’s a piece you always come back to because it is so funny and so well-written. As topical as a lot of the references are in the libretto, they’re still funny,” said Paul, who has directed Iolanthe and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, among numerous other shows.
Pirates, along with the rest of the G&S operettas, is an easy vehicle for extra bits of stage business, but Paul said that has to be handled carefully.
“It has a lot to do with how you make it funny, and what you think is funny about it. I think the moment you get too goofy with it, it becomes a little ridiculous,” he said. “These characters are what they are; they don’t know they’re extreme … There’s extremes in the story, and I think if I can direct that in a way that brings that out, that’s where the humor lies. I think that’s the secret of it.”
The Palm Beach Opera production comes from the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, with brightly colored sets by James Schuette reminiscent of the set of a Saturday morning children’s show. The music, which includes plenty of work for the chorus as the major-general’s daughters, the pirate gang and a troupe of incompetent policemen, will be led by the company’s artistic director, David Stern.
Sullivan’s score includes some well-known songs, including “Come, Friends Who Plough the Sea,” which is better-known today as “Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here,” and “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” And Mabel’s bel canto-inspired aria, “Poor Wand’ring One,” is one of Sullivan’s prettiest tunes.
Hugh Russell, a Canadian baritone who sang the Major-General in St. Louis’s 2013 production, reprises the role here for Palm Beach Opera. Like most G&S older male characters in the Establishment, the Major-General is a pompous, oblivious buffoon who is entirely convinced of his own magnificence.
“In a piece that’s full of some pretty broad characters, I think he has to be the broadest, because he really is a caricature,” Russell said, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have integrity. “If Major-General Stanley does silly things, it’s not because he’s conscious of doing something silly; that’s just how he acts.”
“I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” is an example of a “patter song,” in which the singer must spit out a tremendous number of words at a rapid tempo; part of the fun is seeing if the singer can pull it off. Russell said it’s all a question of diligent practice, starting out very slowly and then gradually picking up the tempo.
“You’re not only getting your tongue around these things, but your brain has to be in sync with that,” said Russell, 43. “The slow learning helps with that as well … your brain and the parts of your body that you need to sing will kind of remember where to go next. It’s kind of amazing how that works.”
No operetta, even if it’s one with a transparently goofy story, would be complete without a love story, and while the romance of Frederic and Mabel is played for laughs, there’s still some room for shades of complexity, says Andrew Stenson, a New York-born tenor who will sing the role of Frederic.
“Frederic is smart. He picks up on the pirates’ shortcomings … he lays out to them every reason why they’re bad pirates,” said Stenson, who’s 30. “So he is a quick learner. I would say he’s a quick study but hasn’t had as many books to read.”
And he has a lot in common with Mabel.
“I think the two of them have a lot of similarities. Today, we were staging ‘Poor Wand’ring One,’ and a lot of the fun of that first encounter is that Frederic doesn’t really know what to do. Mabel’s playing a little hard to get … That’s something everyone’s experienced one way or the other,” said Stenson, who sang the title role in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide for two opera companies in France this past December and January.
Stenson points out that Frederic is more of a singing role than someone like the Major-General, and so is the role of Mabel; the two have a lovely duet in Act II, “Ah, Leave Me Not to Pine, Alone and Desolate.”
Mabel herself, while standing in for the privileged and headstrong Victorian young ladies of her day, has a little more to her than just comic silliness, says Miller, who has spent a lot of time lately singing Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, most recently in January at Opera Tampa.
“One of the challenges is to be in her naïveté, while understanding that she’s also kind of crafty. She’s not stupid,” Miller said. “She’s one of the more grounded characters up there, but she’s also very naïve, so she can’t be all-knowing. And so trying to straddle that should be interesting.”
Miller, who’s in her 30s, is new to Gilbert and Sullivan, though not to starring female operatic roles, having played Anna Nicole Smith in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and heading to Michigan in May for a run as Roxanne in David DiChiera’s Cyrano. She said she’s happy to be working on Pirates with a cast that includes Blythe and veterans of the operatic stage.
“It’s a really great and operatically experienced cast. So it’s going to be a lot of fun to do something a little bit lighter,” she said.
Pirates has had an unusual second life. In 1980, impresario Joseph Papp staged a memorable revival in New York’s Central Park that starred pop chanteuse Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, singer and actor Rex Smith as Frederic, and Kevin Kline as the Pirate King. With updated orchestrations and interpolations from other G&S shows, it ran for nearly 800 performances on Broadway and won three Tonys. The production was adapted for a movie in 1983.
The early 1980s were a difficult time in world events, and it may be that a dose of timeless foolishness is just what the America of 2017 needs right now, says director Paul.
“We’re living in a time of great satire. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is having its best ratings in years. No matter what side of the political divide you’re on, satire is part of the national political consciousness right now,” Paul said.
“It’s been such a difficult year for everyone, and if I can, for two hours and 15 minutes, make you forget about the news, forget about all of our collective worries and just have a great time, that’s the best gift I can give to Palm Beach,” he said.
The Pirates of Penzance can be seen at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8, and also at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, in Dreyfoos Hall at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. Call 832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org. You can also call the opera at 833-7888 or visit pbopera.org.