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Pirates are first to land on Opera Theatre's shore

Deanna Breiwick as Mabel, Matthew Plenk as Frederic, and members of the chorus in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ 2013 production of The Pirates of Penzance.
Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A rollicking band of singing pirates will open Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ 38th festival season of five operas (two a double bill) on May 25. Gilbert and Sullivan’s infinitely hummable, romantic comedy “Pirates of Penzance” launches the season and continues with eight performances in rotation through June 29.

“Pirates” stage director and choreographer Seán Curran has been overwhelmed by the number of acquaintances who boast of having sung the opera in their youth -- friends in his hometown of Boston; in New York where his dance company is based and where he chairs the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; and, in St. Louis where he’s spent springs since 2004 as dancer, choreographer and director.

“They tell me they sang ‘Pirates’ in sixth grade, in high school or college or saw it years ago. And they all love it,” he said after a “Pirates” rehearsal.

St. Louisans, too, know the opera. OTSL did "Pirates" in 1983 as part of founding general director Richard Gaddes’ G&S series over four winters at the Edison Theatre. Last summer the Muny performed the G&S songs laced into an updated book called “Pirates.” In 2010 Union Avenue Opera produced the G&S original version – singing selections in Forest Park as part of the Beacon Festival that year.

“We are doing ‘Pirates’ for selfish reasons, we love it,” O’Leary said.

“Pirates” which premiered first in New York and then London in 1879 is the fifth and the most popular of collaborations of British composer Arthur Sullivan and lyricist William S. Gilbert. Many of Sullivan’s 24 “Pirates” songs have been borrowed so widely that first-time audience members likely will recognize much of music. Could anyone raised in an English-speaking country not know “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”? Its melody (not its words) is in “Pirates.”

Two American lyrics masters, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim considered Gilbert, a role model. “Pirates” includes G&S’s most famous song “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” In the production opening here Saturday, Canadian baritone Hugh Russell returns to OTSL to sing the tongue-twisting, patter song which satirizes inadequate military education. Gilbert takes his listeners on a wild ride of satirical, forced rhymes including the delight of rhyming “hypotenuse” with “a lot o' news.”

Much of Gilbert’s satire focuses on still-relevant human foibles, government officials’ ineptitude and opera excesses. Gilbert does not spare even himself. He dishes up a line for the Major General that mocks the universal popularity of G&S’s earlier collaboration “HMS Pinafore.” The general sings: “And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense ‘Pinafore’.” Gilbert rhymes it with “din afore.”

Often overlooked, especially in student and backyard productions, are Sullivan’s shimmering, moving, tender arias like “Ah, Leave Me Not to Pine Away.” Too often in amateur productions the slower paced arias are rushed through to get to the next jolly pirate swagger or Keystone Cops-style antics.

Those who can recite every word of several “Pirates” songs – and Curran keeps finding many - may appreciate Sullivan’s music more when they hear it sung by classically trained opera singers. The opera has musical references to Verdi, Mozart and Donizetti. Sullivan was depressed that his music was so popular that it was not taken seriously. Even more universally popular is Sullivan’s hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Amy Kaiser, Symphony Chorus director who also has conducted opera, considers Sullivan the most important British composer between Henry Purcell, who died in 1695, and Benjamin Britten who began composing about 1930. That’s a long “between,” she told her OTSL Illuminations Class in April.

Conductor Ryan McAdams is determined that the OTSL singers and orchestra give Sullivan’s music its due. At orchestra rehearsals Thursday on stage at Powell Hall, McAdams, a Clayton High graduate, told Symphony members and staff that he grew up attending many concerts there. Now music director of the New York Youth Symphony, McAdams said he never played in the SLSO Youth orchestra because his instrument is piano. He twittered that he was “thrilled” to be conducting in St. Louis. 

A fresh look at tradition

With so many people loving “Pirates” Curran said he is challenged to make it fresh. He has never seen it on stage, which he hopes gives him a fresh eye. He knows he has a fresh cast that won’t be stuck in previous directors’ ideas because only one has played his role before, Curran said.

“We speak in old language in a new witty way with contemporary feel,” Curran said about the new production, which is set in the 1870s.

Over the past year, Curran read much about Gilbert and Sullivan and the Victorian era of the 1870s and 80s. Gilbert’s idea that life’s patterns so often seem to go topsy turvey, delights the director. These pirates for example eschew rum and sip sherry

Much of the fresh charm will come from the imaginative pirate ship, set and costumes designed by James Schuette and lighting by Christopher Akerlind, Curran said. Schuette and Curran teamed up two years ago to present OTSL’s “The Daughter of Regiment.” That production had the charm of primary-colored children’s story book illustrations with no hint of dusty antique shops.

Curran said this production will have something of the same spirit. “Jim has framed it all for us,” he said about a presidium-style stage frame that may remind Anglophiles of Christmas pantomime shows.

Adding to the comedy will be zany movement, Curran said.

“A lot of what I do is more movement than dance,” said Bradley Smoak, who sings the Pirate King. Curran is seeing success in coaching his chorus, all trained primarily as singing actors, to respond to Jerome Robbins adage “don’t dance to the music, dance in the music.” Many like to dance, Curran said.

Timing is critical in comedy and the cast has found Curran eager to get its timing right. Sometimes the timing is written into the score but it takes a diligent singer actor to observe that.

While Curran and Schuette are pushing aside staid ideas about the show, they and McAdams are not changing the lyrics, not even in the Major General’s aria encore. It regularly is updated to satirize current and local situations.

“It’s the traditional lyrics just one word, one word, has been changed,” Curran said.  

In the famous Major General aria, Gilbert wrote “You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.”

“Nobody today knows what gee means,” Curran said. Victorian era theater-goers knew gee meant a horse. So, Curran replaced gee with horse. That a 19th century Major General could ride a horse deserves a laugh. At a recent rehearsal the rehabbed horse line got instant laughs, Curran said.

“They got it, never would have with gee,” he said.

All OTSL productions are in English with super titles projected on both sides of the thrust stage so Gilbert words won’t be lost. Vocal coach Erie Mills, the retired opera soprano from Granite City, is working with the singers to enunciate every last consonant. Curran added another sound dimensions for authenticity. He brought in Stephen Gabis, a British dialect coach. Gabis helped the cast make its London Bobbies – policeman – acquire Cockney accents, Pirates have Oxbridge accents – as it turns out, you see, these sherry-sipping pirates were orphans from the upper class – and the Major General’s many daughters sound like they live by the sea in the Cornish resort town of Penzance.

Zany topsy-turvy plot

Curran calls the story zany, which may be the biggest hint about his direction. Mabel and Frederic are young sweethearts in a seaside Cornwall town. They must overcome what seems, to them, terrible obstacles to their marriage. He’s “a slave to duty” bound to fill out his apprentice contract with the Pirate King. Mabel is a Major General daughter.

“Every young couple in love think that they have terrible obstacles,” Curran said.  

In his OTSL debut, Tenor Matthew Plenk sings the apprentice pirate. Deanna Breiwick, who last season at OTSL sang the innocent Johanna in “Sweeney Todd,” sings the spunkier Mabel.

To have a married life Frederic must be free from his pirate apprenticeship. It’s complicated because he was born on Feb. 29th, 21 years before, setting up a glitch in Frederic’s labor contract expiration date.

After two of the four weeks of rehearsal Curran said he’s impressed with the diligence and talents of the seven principal singing actors and the 24 singers in the Gerdine Young Artists programs, an apprenticeship program to groom them to become soloists.

Too often directors and actors make Frederick seem stupid, Curran said. He won’t be in this production.

“He’s not stupid, he’s just not been exposed to the world,” Curran said. Curren will point up the moment when Frederic is crest-fallen and disillusioned when it hits him that a respected authority figure is fallible, and in this case, is deceptive.

“It happens to many young people. At that moment Frederic becomes a man,” Curran said.

During scene run-through, the director likes to go to the back of the rehearsal hall and stand on a chair, pretending to be a member of the audience.  

“I got all emotional,” Curran said about that scene. 

The king of  pirates and hearts

Bass Bradley Smoak will sing the choice role of the “glorious Pirate King.” He is the only principal not singing his role for the first time but since he’s mostly done the work when he was a student, he’s not tied to previous directors’ staging concepts.

“I love the role of the Pirate King, it changed my life,” he said after rehearsal as his wife Jennifer Berkebile sat nearby. The two are expecting their first child this summer.

“It’s my dream role. Without the Pirate King role (when he was in high school), there would be singing career, no Jennifer, no baby,” he laughed.

In 2002, when Bradley Smoak was 17 and a senior at a magnet school of the arts in Raleigh, N.C., he heard the school musical would be “Pirates.” He had never gone on stage as a singer, though he had sung in choirs.

“I had fallen in love with the ‘Pirates’ film with Kevin Kline,” Smoak said. (He’s not just saying that to please locals. Until the interview he didn’t know Kline was a St. Louis native.)

Smoak auditioned, won the role and discovered he loved performing. He enrolled as planned at Vanderbilt University, studied trombone and majored in communications but his heart was no longer in the trombone.

“I figured out I’d rather be on stage than playing in the pit,” he said.

He transferred twice to study voice graduating in 2007 from Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington, Ill.

Within two years of college graduation he made his debut at OTSL as a Gerdine Young Artists at OTSL. Lyric mezzo-soprano Jennifer Berkebile was another Gerdine Young Artist that spring. They sang together in minor roles and choruses in “Eugene Onegin,”Ghosts of Versailles,”Il re pastore” andLa Boheme.” Romance and marriage followed.

“Of course, we love St. Louis,” Berkebile said.

Curran and O’Leary both say that -- of the five operas in the festival -- this is the one to invite children or friends who are new to opera. The OTSL welcome mat is out for those who never attended an opera. O’Leary is pleased that last season 29 percent of ticketholders were first timers. That was a 6 percent jump over the previous season.

After seeing the production in rehearsal, O’Leary told the Spotlight on Opera panel discussion at the St. Louis Ethical Society last week that “It’s going to be, it is, a hit, dynamic and so funny.”

Production Staff and Cast

Conductor | Ryan McAdams
Stage director, choreographer | Seán Curran
Set and  costume designer | James Schuette
Lighting designer | Christopher Akerlind
Wig and makeup designer | Tom Watson
Chorus master | Robert Ainsley

Major General Stanley | Hugh Russell
Pirate King | Bradley Smoak
Frederic | Matthew Plenk
Mabel | Deanna Breiwick
Ruth | Maria Zifchak
Sergeant | Jason Eck
Samuel | Tobias Greenhalgh
Edith | Jamie Korkos
Kate | Corrie Stallings
Isabel | Katrina Galka

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