Take the most topical comedy from two centuries ago, and you’ll have some explaining to do before it gets funny — if it ever does. But the best of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, despite being set firmly in the Victorian-era British Empire, is still hilariously funny, thanks to a combination of musical, verbal and theatrical jokes. And Tacoma Opera’s production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” this weekend at the Rialto Theater promises to be just as funny as the 1878 premiere.
“I just love these operas,” says guest director Phillip Kraus, who as both singer and director (Chicago Lyric Opera, Cleveland Opera, Light Opera Works and more) has spent his entire career specializing in Gilbert and Sullivan, beginning with “The Mikado” at summer camp as a kid. “They are unique in the history of opera in that, as topical as they are, Gilbert has found a universality in human nature that lasts over decades. Plus, Sullivan wrote utterly tuneful music.”
The English duo of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan collaborated on 14 operettas between 1871-1896. So successful that a theater was built for their work (London’s Savoy) and an opera company founded (the 90-year-old D’Oyly Carte, still seeing revivals), the pair matched perfectly in verbal and musical humor that poked fun at both society and 19th century opera in situations so ridiculous that they were funny in themselves.
“H.M.S. Pinafore” was one of the most popular: It had the second-longest run of any musical theater piece at the time and took the U.S. by storm. The plot is classic Gilbert: lowly sailor Ralph Rackstraw (Matthew Richardson) falls in love with his captain’s daughter, Josephine (Ksenia Popova), who of course is far above his “station.” She is supposed to be marrying the narcissistically stuffy Sir Joseph (Michael Drumheller), who has risen to the rank of admiral thanks mostly to his ability to polish doorknobs; but the plot goes awry when the flirtatious Buttercup (Melina Pyron) makes a startling revelation about some mixed-up identities.
Tacoma’s cast includes some debuts, but also some reunions: Richardson, Pyron and Benjamin Harris (who plays the grouchy sailor Dick Deadeye) were all in last season’s “The Barber of Seville”; Richardson and Popova are both former TO Young Artists. Tacoma Opera veteran Bernard Kwiram conducts.
“Pinafore” is classic Gilbert and Sullivan, with plenty of satire against the old British class system (and Victorian Britain itself) thrown in. This means it’s fairly tied down to a period production, says Kraus, who’s setting this “Pinafore” in the 1860s (easier to find costumes than the original 1840s) and setting the whole thing on the deck of the ship, with the “water” being the audience. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny to 21st century audiences, despite the rather quaint jokes about “a big, big D” (the word ‘damn,’ shocking to 19th century audiences) and how badly sailors behave.
“The class system is gone, but I think in a period piece people can relate to (the humor),” says Kraus. “We’re used to ‘Downton Abbey,’ Jane Austen. … There are still jokes about sailors getting into trouble. And in any period there are always people who get promoted that don’t deserve to be, like the Ebola czar — there were people complaining that he was a technocrat, not a doctor. It’s all about human nature and foibles. The details change but the generalities do not.”
It’s even funny in rehearsal. In a low-slung room underneath the enormous Tacoma Armory building, the cast and chorus of “Pinafore” meet on a Saturday afternoon to block out the second act, in which Ralph and Josephine attempt to elope. Tiptoeing around the floor tape marking the ship’s decks, to the irony of sudden loud piano chords, the men’s chorus can’t help chuckling; and when Captain Corcoran lets rip the D-word they launch into Sullivan’s echo-chorus (“He said ‘damme!’ He said ‘damme!’ ”) with shocked glee.
And for those who know opera, there are plenty of in-jokes — Sullivan loved to poke fun at the grand opera clichés of the time, from switched identities to lovesick arias.
“In this piece you have everything from British anthems to Verdi,” points out Kraus. “But if you don’t know opera, you’ll still have fun. Gilbert and Sullivan seems more popular in the U.S. than in Britain now, and the reason that Americans love it so much is that we love making fun of our British cousins. It’s a way for us to latch on to our heritage.”