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Union Avenue Opera opens with 'Pirates of Penzance'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 5, 2010 - Starting Friday (July 9) St. Louisans can cool down on the beach at Penzance as they revel in the melody-packed “The Pirates of Penzance.” No plane ticket needed; just an opera ticket.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s beloved operetta kicks off Union Avenue Opera’s 16th summer season. Each of Union Avenue Opera’s three summer productions run two weekends.

The St. Louis-based company performs in and takes its name from the handsome 1909 auditorium of Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 N. Union Boulevard at Enright, about 100 yards north of the crossroads of Union and Delmar boulevards in the city’s West End.

Three years ago, installation of an orchestra pit and padded theater seating transformed the 615-seat auditorium into a comfortable professional theatrical venue, better than some Broadway houses. The space continues as the worship sanctuary of a now-growing congregation. Its limestone Italian Romanesque building, designed by architect Albert Groves, and landmark bell tower is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

From its first production, each of the company’s productions has been sung in its original language. Now super titles in English are projected on two screens.

Auditions for lead and secondary solo roles are held here, in Chicago, New York and the West Coast. Chorus members are gifted St. Louis singers – some are familiar church soloists, area music teachers and many classical music grad students. All solo singers this season are under 40, said Dana Hudson Stone, company administrative director, one of the company’s two year-round staffers. The dozen orchestra players in the pit for “Pirates” – with more musicians in other operas -- are drawn from St. Louis union musicians.

“Tarantara, Tarantara”: Pirate Fantasy

On a recent afternoon, Union Avenue Opera carpenters installed a raked – upward slanting – stage floor and a framed pirate ship set in a verdant inlet. Meanwhile, in the church cafeteria, company founder and executive director Scott Schoonover, who is conducting “Pirates” helped the cast polish some of the operettas’ 37 songs.

Singers went over the boy meets girl scene. Apprentice pirate Frederic, tenor Robert Bold, meets Mabel, soprano Victoria Botero. Mabel lives in the Cornish sleepy seaside resort of Penzance, nine miles from the most western point in the UK. She is the daughter of a major general.

Years before Frederic’s dad had ordered the boy’s nursemaid to apprentice him to a pilot until he was 21 but she had hearing loss and mistook the word pilots for pirates. That love-at-first-sight meeting produces a couple of songs: "All is prepared" and "Stay Frederic, Stay."

Frederic tells poor Mabel that he had assumed his apprenticeship was for 21 years. In fact, his apprentice papers say it was until his 21st birthday. Since Frederic was born on Feb. 29, his 21st birthday will not occur until 1940. The comedy is set in 1879. The smitten Mabel tries not to be impatient as she sings “It seems so long.” Botero and Boldin laughed as they gave their considerable vocal gifts to the catchy melodies working to make every witty line clear.

As he waited for his entrance cue Todd von Felker, 34, the baritone singing the Pirate King, said he appreciates the team work and seriousness of the cast, director and conductor. It’s his first turn with the company.

“There is a great focus and energy going into the production,” he said. He likes the ensemble spirit of singers and directors working together to help each other. It’s pleasant that singers are treated warmly and well.

“That is not true everywhere,” he said. “And the costumes and sets are great.”

From his arrival in St. Louis, the Elizabethtown, Ky., native was treated to generous St. Louis hospitality, he said. Cast members are paid modestly but with extras.

Singers not residing in St. Louis are offered free housing in comfortable homes of Union Avenue Opera buffs. Von Felker and Boldin each has his own room in a large house in Parkview Place in University City. Their host family not only share their home and run of the kitchen but advice about St. Louis and “wisdom about life,” von Felker said. He and Boldin visited the nearby Delmar Loop and the classic rock music mecca “Blueberry Hill.” By his fifth day in town, he was grateful for a real sense of the city that he’d likely missed if he were holed up for a month in a chain hotel.

Like most of company’s singers in major roles, von Felker is seasoned. For many years, he sang in the Chicago Opera chorus while learning solo parts. He sang the title role in “Gianni Schicchi” and Schaunard in “La Boheme” with Pensacola Opera. He spent a year in varied roles at the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee. He’s sung at New Orleans Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Chicago Opera Theatre, and La Musica Lirica in Novafeltria, Italy.

While most of his work is in opera, he has sung in two of Franz Lehar’s operettas and is pleased to sing in his first Gilbert and Sullivan. In January when his agent phoned him at the Chicago home that he shares with his wife and mentioned openings in “Pirates,” Von Felker jumped. He had 24 hours to get to St. Louis for the audition. The company’s Chicago auditions had been the month before. Once cast, he worked with his singing teacher and vocal coach polishing his music but he also worked with a Chicago theater dialect coach to get the Pirate King’s British accent right and to enunciate the witty lines.

Others also feel the company’s good vibes.

“This company really allows local singers an opportunity to show how good they are,” pianist Verna Parkin of Edwardsville, said. She’s piano accompanist for “Pirates” three weeks of rehearsals. During a break she talked about how important the company is to St. Louis singers. “There are not a lot of productions locally for our singers. We in the audience deserve to hear them.”

People who never heard of this operetta have heard several of its songs including its patter song that served as a template -- for slightly changed lyrics -- for groups as varied as Saturday Night Live satirists, the St. Louis Courthouse Steps, the Muppets and a zillion bachelor/birthday/ retirement party hosts:

Mabel’s father, baritone Andre Papas, sings

“I am the very model of a modern Major-General, I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,

I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical

From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;

I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,

I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,

About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,

With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.’’

Unlike July fireworks, no sputtering is allowed in this role. Papas must enunciate while singing such tongue twisters as acrostics, Heliogabalus, Aristophanes and mamelon. It may be Sullivan’s second best known song, after his hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Gilbert and Sullivan’s pirates are not scary. They are orphan lads on a romp singing “Tarantara, Tarantara” who only need a bath to clean up nobly. Without having loose lips that sink pirate ships, we’ll just say all hearts are happy by the operetta’s last song.

Patricia Rice has written about opera and classical music for many years. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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