Pirates of Penzance
A&E

Comedy Meets Opera in UCSC’s ‘Pirates of Penzance’

A Q&A about the opera department’s latest over-the-top production

Nungrutai Mullennix (left) and Christian Bernal in ‘Pirates of Penzance.’ PHOTO: STEVE DIBARTOLOMEO

At the end of the 19th century, in the days before film, television or Instagram, Americans and Europeans were mad for live theater productions of comic operettas—the wittiest of which had music by Arthur Sullivan and story by W.S. Gilbert.

However wildly improbable the plots and groan-inducing the lyrics, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas were big hits. Hence the action-packed, two-act charmer The Pirates of Penzance, from UCSC’s lively opera program, which will run May 30-June 2.

The plot, in a nutshell, follows Frederic, who turns 21 and is released from a mistaken apprenticeship to a band of tender-hearted pirates. He meets Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley, and the two fall instantly in love. Difficulties ensue when Frederic discovers that, because his birthday falls on Feb. 29 (leap year), his apprenticeship is not yet over because he is legally only 5 years old.

Director and UCSC lecturer in voice Sheila Willey gave GT the backstory about this over-the-top production.

How did Pirates come to be chosen for the spring opera production?

WILLEY: My colleagues Emily Sinclair, Bruce Kiesling and I make the choice of opera about a year in advance of the performances. We wanted to do something in English that was of a later period than last year’s Die Zauberflöte, as one of the goals of the program is to give the students experience across a variety of styles and languages. Each year we need to choose an opera that we’ll be able to cast, so we take into consideration the specific vocal demands of the score and decide on a piece that will be appropriate for young voices. Pirates is, in some ways, a simpler score than last year’s Mozart, but that gives us room to grow as we work on accents, movement and comedic timing. It’s the perfect piece for all of the above.

Isn’t Gilbert and Sullivan a particularly sweet fit for student abilities?

Yes, I think that’s a nice way of putting it. This piece has been a scintillating vehicle for these tremendously gifted students’ growth as actors, comics and dancers. It’s not too heavy, the orchestration isn’t going to pose any major balance challenges, none of the roles demand the kind of vocal stamina that typically shows up a little later in their vocal development.

Also there is a lot to be said for having a fun rehearsal process. The students are cracking each other up and having a good time exploring the outer reaches of their characters.

What key themes do you expect will resonate with our local audience in 2019?

It is always a challenge to figure out how to present some of the dated (and sometimes harmful) tropes that show up in much of the repertoire. In Pirates, we are faced with sexism and ageism as General Stanley’s daughters are not written with much agency or obvious aspirations beyond marriage. In our production, the daughters are able to choose whichever pirate they’d like. It’s not much, but something.

From a design standpoint, we are weaving some overtly and covertly Santa Cruz-ian visual elements. You’ll have to come see if you can spot them. The Pirates of Penzance features engaging music and songs, including the well-known “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” the tune of which many know as “The Elements Song” by Tom Lehrer.

‘The Pirates of Penzance’ runs Thursday, May 30-Sunday, June 2. Thursday-Saturday shows at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 3:00 p.m. All performances in English with supertitles. Music Center Recital Hall, UCSC. $5-27. ucsctickets.com or arts.ucsc.edu.

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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