Atlanta Opera lightens the mood with ‘Pirates of Penzance’

Atlanta Opera produciton of "The Pirates of Penzance" takes on new meaning in the no-touch age of coronavirus.
Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

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Atlanta Opera produciton of "The Pirates of Penzance" takes on new meaning in the no-touch age of coronavirus. Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

Gilbert and Sullivan classic kicks off 2022 at Cobb Energy Centre.

When W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan unveiled their comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance” to a New York City crowd in 1879, the audience no doubt recognized the Victorian era sensibilities mirrored from the stage.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and it’s a little more difficult to make prohibited intimacy, even the brief holding of hands, supercharged. That is, until the coronavirus pandemic hit and made the “no touching” morality in the opera a commonplace concern. So in the Atlanta Opera’s new production, which begins Jan. 22, COVID-19, not Victorian prudence, makes every onstage connection seem like a dangerous act.

Soprano Susanne Burgess, who plays Mabel in the new production, first noticed the electric nature of the occasional physical intimacy during the cast’s six-hour rehearsals. Even when two characters almost touch but end up shying away from each other, the sense of doing something illicit and forbidden hangs in the air.

“There are these moments I think people will relate to more because of COVID,” she said. “We’ve grown more uncomfortable with touching people, so it’s funny because it’s kind of mirroring real life.”

The comic story, which takes place on the English coast, follows the exploits of Frederic (Santiago Ballerini), who has been apprenticed to pirates until his 21st birthday, and his quest to distance himself from the Pirate King (Craig Irvin). The ridiculous plot becomes even more silly when Frederic learns that he can’t leave the band of merry, but evil, pirates because he was born on a leap day and is actually only 5 years old, not 21. His sense of duty, despite this technicality, persists, and he returns once again to the bosom of the pirates, spurning his new non-pirate connection to Major-General Stanley (Curt Olds) and his daughter Mabel (Burgess). In the end, everything farcically turns out for the best.

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Curt Olds plays Major-General Stanley in the Atlanta Opera’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Courtesy of Cobb Energy/Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Curt Olds plays Major-General Stanley in the Atlanta Opera’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” 
Courtesy of Cobb Energy/Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

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Curt Olds plays Major-General Stanley in the Atlanta Opera’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Courtesy of Cobb Energy/Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

During rehearsal, director Seán Curran acknowledged the current state of the world and talked about creating escapist fare that is new and does not look back at the Atlanta Opera’s previous production from 2016.

“We’re not starting from scratch, but we are, in a sense, starting over,” said the director, who has shaped the show with set and costume designer James Schuette and conductor Francesco Milioto.

Burgess, who is singing in her first Gilbert and Sullivan opera, has been working regularly with the Atlanta Opera during the pandemic. As a studio artist in Atlanta, she performed supporting and lead roles during the organization’s series of open-air tent operas, starting in the fall of 2020.

“It’s sort of a training program, but also a way for us to get onstage as much as possible and learn from guest artists,” she said of the program, which formed a cohort of five emerging singers. This steady employment provided much-needed stability during a time when many performers’ careers were put on pause while productions shut down. “I can’t tell you how lucky I’ve felt just having a steady gig.”

The studio program also forced her to think about a new home base. She lived in New York for eight years, before recently moving to Atlanta.

Irvin also has previous experience with the Atlanta Opera, coming to town in 2016 to play Lt. Horstmayer in “Silent Night.” The Atlanta Opera performances mark his fourth time performing the Pirate King, and even though he usually sings bigger, operatic roles, he is drawn to the Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

“Being able to do the Pirate King is just so much fun,” he said.

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“The Pirates of Penzance” is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-known and most beloved works. The Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production is directed by Sean Curran and features sets and costumes by James Schuette. Courtesy of Ken Howard/Opera Theatre of St. Louis

“The Pirates of Penzance” is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-known and most beloved works. The Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production is directed by Sean Curran and features sets and costumes by James Schuette. 
Courtesy of Ken Howard/Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Combined ShapeCaption
“The Pirates of Penzance” is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s best-known and most beloved works. The Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production is directed by Sean Curran and features sets and costumes by James Schuette. Courtesy of Ken Howard/Opera Theatre of St. Louis

In a climate where out-of-work musicians have started exploring new careers, being away from the stage for so long has made Irvin more committed to his profession.

“When it’s taken away from you, you have the opportunity to question if it’s something you really want. And I really, really missed it,” he said. Despite the Omicron surge, he’s seeing more work on the horizon. In the past week, Irvin has signed two new contracts for future performances. After the final curtain in Atlanta, he will head west to serve as a backup in Colorado Opera’s production of “The Shining.”

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Opera has made a huge commitment to its streaming platform and will continue to produce video content even after the masks come off.

“Some of the new things we’ve found, having to work around restrictions, I hope that they stay because they make things more accessible and a little more relatable as well,” Burgess said.

“Pirates of Penzance” is the Atlanta Opera’s second production back home in the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, and Irvin thinks it’s just the kind of light-hearted, inspirational fare patrons want right now.

“It’s humor for the sake of humor, joy for the sake of joy,” he said. “It’s funny, silly, and it’s what I think we need right now in the arts and in our lives, a chance to sit, relax and laugh.”

Due to the surge in COVID-19 cases, ticket holders have the option of watching from home via livestream.


OPERA PREVIEW

“The Pirates of Penzance.” Jan. 22-30. $45-140. Poof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours required; home test results not accepted. Masks required at all times. Ticket holders have the option to view from home via livestream. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Pkwy., Atlanta. 404-881-8885. atlantaopera.org