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Pirates of Penzance’ Sets Sail At San Diego Opera

Gilbert and Sullivan operetta still entertains after 138 years

Photo caption:

Photo credit: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.

Greer Grimsley (center) sings the role of The Pirate King in San Diego Opera's "The Pirates of Penzance."

Sometimes art emphasizes escape over enlightenment. Such is the case with San Diego Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Pirates of Penzance."

Some things never go out of style, like pirates.

"When we were assigned this production, we got together and decided how are we going to do this?" explained stage director Sean Curran. "'Pirates of Penzance' is not a piece you want to handle too roughly, in other words you are not going to set it in the Vietnam era."

That’s because Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera creates its own uniquely topsy-turvy world. And a director needs to respect the very precise inner workings that Gilbert and Sullivan created.

"The incredible wit, the cleverness, the writing, the words, I mean it’s astounding how well put together it is and how clever it is. When I directed the first production of it I had to look up most of the words in the dictionary. Those wonderful rhyme schemes," Curran said. "So it wants to make you laugh. And it wants to, I like to say, tickle your eyeball in a way the music tickles your eardrum. There’s a wonderful sense of energy. Of performers performing in our production of pirates we’re very aware of the audience. We finish every number with a button, right. So we are the performers performing and you are the watchers watching and there’s this wonderful transfer of energy over the footlights if you will. It’s a lot about sharing."

And timing.

"A lot of what happens in the audience has to do with the timing of the lines, like when do you come in?" explained mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee who sings the role of Ruth. "I always wait till the laughter is just trailing off and then step in. It’s timing of your lines."

At dress rehearsal on Wednesday night, the conductor turned to those in the audience, mostly artists doing live sketching, and asked them to not be quiet but to make sure and to respond to what was happening on stage. Usually people at a dress rehearsal try to be quiet but in this case, audience response was key to help the singers get their timing down for a real performance.

Greer Grimsley is the bass-baritone singing the role of The Pirate King.

"I’m a big proponent of the Greek ideal of theater, which is that it’s a catharsis and that goes also with comedy because the energy that the audience brings if it’s a drama or it’s a comedy, the energy that the audience gives us and what we give to the audience and we’re both involved in the process and that’s the beauty, that’s why I keep coming back and doing it," Grimsley said.

The lightness of Gilbert and Sullivan can make a nice contrast to the heavy drama that can be grand opera.

"I’m a great believer in humor, laughter is the best medicine even if it means laughing through the tears sometimes, there’s a transformation, an exchange that happens when we can laugh at ourselves," Curran added.

"And in the convention of their time, they were as the British say taking the 'mickey' out of upper class. They were making fun of their own class and very cleverly and had people laughing at themselves," Grimsley said.

"Pirates of Penzance" takes the wind out of the sails of British pomposity. Curran looked to finding ways to update it just a little.

"I like to say that I am always interested in speaking an old language in a new way with a contemporary accent. And with Gilbert and Sullivan pieces oftentimes directors will put some modern political up to the minute bit of joking. We have a few in there, I didn’t want to overload it too much. So you have to listen closely. But if you are coming to this show you know there is a song called 'I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General' and our major general is brilliant and he has a few political jabs in there," Curran stated.

Gilbert and Sullivan may strike some as dated, but they also serve us such a well oiled and meticulously crafted piece of entertainment that you can’t help but be delighted.

"I like to say that art, art making, art doing, can organize a chaotic world where bad things happen to good people just like religion can for some people. So show up and buy a ticket … and have a live experience. Don’t answer the cell phone, don’t check email, just come for two hours and let us do our job to dazzle and entertain you and make you laugh," Curran said.

"The Pirates of Penzance" are waiting for you to set sail at San Diego Opera. It runs through Sunday.

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