Penn State Opera Theater will present its vision of the critically lauded and often imitated comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance” at the State Theatre April 4-5. With a fun-filled lot of multigenerational pirates and damsels, this production includes Penn State students and faculty, as well as members of the community.
“The Pirates of Penzance” is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W.S. Gilbert. The opera’s lauded official premiere was at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City in 1879. The only Gilbert and Sullivan opera to have its official premiere in the United States, due to the piracy of their earlier success “HMS Pinafore,” “Pirates” has received numerous modernized productions, including Joseph Papp’s 1981 production on Broadway, and has since spawned many imitations.
This production by the Penn State Opera Theatre will be directed by Ted Christopher, artistic director of Penn State Opera, with musical direction by Beverly Patton.
“Ted and I chose ‘Pirates’ because we knew that we would need a laugh after last semester’s completely successful but emotionally draining performances of the dramatic opera ‘The Dialogue of The Carmelites,’ ” Patton said. “The younger, digital generation may or may not be familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan, but you can’t help but love the quirky characters, witty lyrics and lovely melodies.”
The story focuses on Frederic, who after his 21st birthday, is released from his apprenticeship to a band of tender-hearted pirates. He meets Mabel, the daughter of Maj. Gen. Stanley, and the two young people fall in love. But after finding out that he was born on Feb. 29, he technically only has a birthday each leap year. Frederic’s apprenticeship states that he must serve the pirates for another 63 years. Bound by his own sense of duty, Frederic’s only solace is that Mabel agrees to wait for him faithfully.
Veronica Byron plays the role of Mabel, one of Stanley’s many daughters, who falls in love with the “ex-pirate” Frederic.
“She kind of marches to the tune of her own drum because she does everything so differently than her sisters,” Byron said. “I would say that I can definitely relate to Mabel’s sass. She kind of bosses the other sisters in the cast around.”
A Penn State senior with a double major in Spanish and voice and a minor in international studies, Byron will appear in her first production with Penn State Opera Theatre. She has performed previously in productions with No Refund Theatre and Penn State Thespians, as well as some community theater and high school musicals.
Byron saw “The Pirates of Penzance” for the first time when she was in middle school, then later a production at State College Area High School in 2006.
“It is such a silly show, but Mabel really does have some beautiful music that she gets to sing,” she said.
Since its debut over a century ago there have been numerous versions of “Pirates,” but unlike the famous Joseph Papp production in 1980, which starred Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt, Patton assures this particular version will be much better.
“We are fortunate to have my colleague Raymond Sage in the leading role of the major general, so we have the benefit of a professional performer on the stage,” she said. “What is also fun is the inclusion of community people and PSU staff into this production. We have wonderful student performers but the town-and-gown combination of cast members gives a new kind of energy to the rehearsals. I have never laughed as hard as I have during these rehearsals.”
For Patton, the concept of “Pirates” is quite simple.
“Having lingered through a long, cold winter, people will be thrilled for the arrival of spring, come to the State Theatre and get ready for some beautiful singing and lots of laughter,” she said. “There are some pretty ‘out there’ characters up on that stage in great costumes and with a cheery bunch of orchestral players in the pit,” she said. “And who doesn’t love swash-buckling pirates? And dancing policemen? And star-crossed lovers? Don’t think too hard, folks. Just come and have fun!”