It is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!
So we’re told by the Pirate King at the beginning of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 opera “The Pirates of Penzance.” The comedy was the fifth collaboration between the famous duo — librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan — and to this day it remains their most enduringly, gloriously popular.
“It’s so clever, it’s so well built,” says Seán Curran, who directs the Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production of the classic show opening March 5. “There’s such craft to it. That’s why we’re doing it 100 years on. As they say in show biz: it plays.”
And it sells. For the first time in its history, the Atlanta Opera has added a fifth show to its run of performances.
“Pirates have always fascinated us,” says baritone Curt Olds about the opera’s lasting appeal. Olds has built a solid reputation as a performer in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, and over the past five years, he’s become especially well known for his Major General Stanley, a role he’ll be performing in the Atlanta Opera production. “You can’t lose with pirates. It’s just something that we bring from our childhood. That’s the timeless thing. Coupled with the fact that Gilbert and Sullivan came together to write such an iconic set of songs, it’s continued to have appeal.”
Olds’ research into his various roles has also made him a sought-after expert in the history of Gilbert and Sullivan productions. “It’s a guilty pleasure for some, but I have no problem being wholeheartedly associated with Gilbert and Sullivan,” he says. “There are some works, once we’ve seen them, we can’t live without them.”
And one of the iconic songs that audiences can’t seem to live without is the show’s most well known, and arguably Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous: “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”
“The biggest challenge is not the patter or speed or anything,” says Olds of his entrance song in which the cultural and historical references seem to come dizzyingly, impossibly fast. “The actual song doesn’t go that fast. It’s just the way the words go together … The most difficult thing about it is that you have to deliver it right out of the gate. You have to burst onto the scene with an iconic introduction and deliver it. Then your biggest job for the evening is over. It’s one of those ‘make-or-break’ moments.”
Most singers (and many audience members) have a long history of singing the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Student productions are many fans’ first introduction to the world of opera, so affection for the shows can run pretty deep.
“The first aria I ever sang was from ‘HMS Pinafore,’” says Georgia-native Soprano Maureen McKay, who sings the part of Mabel in the Atlanta Opera’s “Pirates.” McKay, now based in New York, grew up in Snellville, and she says her high school chorus teacher was a big Gilbert and Sullivan fan. “I absolutely fell in love with it. I thought it was so much fun.”
McKay says she still loves singing the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, even as her repertoire has expanded to include works by Mozart, Beethoven and Händel. “It’s fun to practice the text almost like it’s a tongue twister, to see which consonants you actually need, not overworking the mouth,” she says. “It’s about getting the words out, working on the clarity, making sure people understand what I’m saying. It’s my job to sing as beautifully as I can, but also to make sure people get the text.”
The singers may be preparing themselves to articulate the text and to sing as beautifully as they can, but Curran says the production involves an unusual amount of dance, movement and physical comedy. Considering the director’s background, that’s somewhat unsurprising. Chair of the Dance Department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Curran also runs New York-based Seán Curran Company. He got his start in opera by choreographing dance sequences in operatic works and eventually made the leap into directing full productions.
“If you’d told me a few years ago I would ever direct an opera, I would have said you’re crazy,” says Curran, who says he can’t even read music. “In some ways, it’s an advantage. I don’t approach it with score in hand. I listen to the recording and I get it in my head, my ear and my heart. I let the music guide me, not from reading it but from feeling it.”
A long-time fan of the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Curran has been re-watching the slapstick comedies in preparation for the Atlanta production “Pirates,” a remount of the production he created for Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2013.
“I love movement to music. That’s why I love this job,” he says. “This production of ‘Pirates’ has actual choreography where the singers have to dance their little tushies off. I love teaching them how to move. A lot of these singers aren’t used to sweating the way I make them sweat.”
Curran’s production promises to be big and colorful, capturing period authenticity in the costumes but with a bright, eccentric storybook look for the sets. The director worked closely with the show’s costume and set designer James Schuette in creating the look.
“We had a real hard time figuring out what we were going to do,” he says. Initially, as something of a joke, he bought the children’s book “Pirates Don’t Change Diapers,” but he says the tone and look of the book ended up inspiring the production.
Curran points out that it’s thrilling to
Transitioning from the world of contemporary dance where the budgets are tiny to the world of opera, where the possibilities are much greater, has been a thrill for Curran.
“The scale and budgets are so much bigger,” he says. “One wig in opera would pay the salary for a modern dancer for a month. It’s great to play in that kind of huge sandbox instead of the tiny experimental contemporary dance one I usually play in.”
Making singers dance, ensuring the text is clearly understood, creating the right look may all be challenges in putting on the show, but once everything is in place, Curran says “The Pirates of Penzance” is the safest bet there is.
“‘Pirates’ is such a brilliant comedy. It’s all classic stuff. Get the timing right and get the right people and it will never fail.”