Arts & Culture

A classic "Pirates of Penzance"

When “The Pirates of Penzance” comes to the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center on Saturday, the audience will see the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera much as it was performed in Victorian England.

Opera A La Carte’s mission is to present authentic productions, strictly adhering to historical style, according to Katherine Nolan, the company’s technical director.

The satirical comedies with words by W.S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan were the rap and hip-hop of the Victorian era, Nolan said, whimsical and absurd, with witty dialogue, and their themes never grow old.

“We rarely ever update anything. I don’t see where updating holds up.” The plays are about corrupt officials, inept bureaucracy and star-crossed lovers. “The high are brought down and the low are brought up, and love prevails,” she said, noting that the themes are as relevant today as when they were written.

Opera A La Carte’s artistic director, Richard Sheldon, was a principal G&S performer in London before coming to the United States and founding the company in 1970. Based in Pasadena, the group tours nationally.

The name of the company itself is a Gilbert and Sullivan-type play on words. Opera A La Carte is named for D’Oyly Carte, the man who introduced Gilbert and Sullivan to each other and founded the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and the Savoy Theatre in 1881, specifically to present their work.

“We perform in the mode of D’Oyly Carte, to maintain the specific feel of that style,” Nolan explained. The plays have been translated to Broadway shows and films and set in various times and places.

“It’s all public domain now, so people can do whatever they want with it, perform it in hip-hop or drag, but we do research and study the depth of history.”

The costumes are also authentic, patterned after photographs of Savoy productions. While the stories are silly and comical, the music is beautiful and the voices are operatic.

“The beautiful music endures,” Nolan said. “Our performers do not have musical theater voices. They are classically trained opera singers with gorgeous voices. Our company is particular about the voices, it’s part of the authenticity.”

“Pirates of Penzance” features 25 singers and chorus with a 19-piece orchestra directed by Marco Meijia. The story, alternately titled “The Slave of Duty,” involves Frederic, “the hero who always does what’s right to disastrous consequences,” Nolan explained. The ensemble includes giggling maidens and their father, a “very model of a modern major general,” dashing pirates, and funny bumbling policemen, making it one of the most family friendly G&S productions.

Craig Gilmore, the company’s primary tenor for more than 14 years, plays Frederic. In addition to singing opera with companies in Europe, he acts as well, and has also performed in film and television.

Soprano Carol Winston plays the romantic role of Mabel, Frederic’s love interest, and she sings lovely arias, Nolan said. Michael Gallup is the Pirate King, and mezzo soprano Adelaide Sinclair, who has been with the company for 16 years and has sung with the Met and other opera companies, plays Ruth, the hard-of-hearing nursemaid who sets the convoluted plot in action. Baritone Jesse Melvin plays the iconic role of the Major General. In addition to his fine voice, he’s clever and articulate with the patter songs, Nolan said. These fast-paced patter songs and fast-talking lyrics are her biggest challenge as technical director.

“It’s all about diction, and it’s emphasized to the singers. Although they have strong, operatic voices, they use mikes, to get that crispness.”

The songs are catchy, and over the decades they have, like Shakespeare quotes, become part of the artistic culture, Nolan noted, and they turn up in movies and plays.

The company’s mission includes introducing children to Gilbert and Sullivan, and as it tours it often invites schools to bring students to the theater on the morning of the performance.

“They get to see us move sets and get ready, and we perform a one-hour version of the show.” Nolan said “Pirates” is one of the favorites. It has physical humor and it’s funny. “Kids love it.”

She said Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas “prove that accessible opera is not an oxymoron.”

A pre-show lecture by Cal Poly Music Department Professor Jacalyn Kreitzer will be at 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center’s Phillips Recital Hall.


"The Pirates of Penzance"

8 p.m. Saturday

Cohan Center, Cal Poly

$30 to $64

756-4849 or