For our generation, the ambiguity of “pilot” and “pirate” in British pronunciation might spark an Internet meme; for W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, it’s the beginning of an opera.
“The Pirates of Penzance,” the Yale Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s spring mainstage, will open Thursday night at the Off-Broadway Theater. Austin Kase ’11, a School of Music staff member who plays Major General Stanley, explained that the dry humor of modern shows like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” find their roots in the comic operas of the 19th-century writing duo, making the classic show exciting for contemporary audiences.
Musical Director John Masko ’14 said Gilbert and Sullivan have been a Yale tradition for the better part of a century, and the Society stages one of the duo’s three best-known operas — “The Pirates of Penzance,” “The Mikado” and “H.M.S. Pinafore” — in addition to at least one less well-known show each year. This year, the Society staged a reading of “Ruddigore” first semester.
While the Society stages “Pirates” regularly, cast members describe director Nicholas Bleisch ’13 as a “Gilbert and Sullivan purist” who has kept the production traditional.
Bleisch said the lightheartedness of “Pirates” makes it one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular operas.
“Pirates is the least bounded in reality, but some of the characters are actually some of the most believable,” Bleisch said.
“The Pirates of Penzance” tells the story of Frederic, a young aristocrat who is released from his indenture to a band of pirates when he turns 21, explained Peter Minnig ’13, who plays Frederic. Frederic then falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of Major General Stanley, only to discover that his indenture ends not in his 21st year but on his 21st birthday. Frederic, having been born on Feb. 29, has had only five birthdays, forcing him to obey his sense of duty and return to the pirates.
Kase explained that “Pirates” is an accessible and timelessly funny show, warning potential audiences not to be misled by the British accents and classical-sounding music.
“Gilbert and Sullivan is all about mocking the social mores of the British upper class,” Kase said, adding that the show’s primary objective is to be ludicrous.
Masko also praised the show’s silliness, explaining that Yale students tend to take matters too seriously and thus relate especially well to Gilbert and Sullivan’s humor.
The social and political satire of “Pirates” is also enduringly funny, Kase said. The character of the Major General, whom Kase described as a historical icon in pop culture, is incredibly well-educated in everything but actually doing battle. He sings that he can “quote in elegaics all the crimes of Heliogabalus” and so is the “very model of a modern Major General,” except in that he does not how to wield a sword.
“‘Pirates’ has a satirical witticism shared by modern journalism,” Bleisch said.
Yale students’ Anglophilia also makes “Pirates” a perpetual hit on campus, Masko said. Kase cited a comic bit in which characters mistake the words “orphan” and “often,” which sound remarkably similar in British pronunciation.
“I can’t see that ever getting unfunny,” Kase said.
Masko, who has worked on two previous Gilbert and Sullivan shows and a number of other opera theater productions at Yale, said Gilbert and Sullivan is logistically difficult to rehearse and perform because of the ensemble work and unusual combinations of choruses it involves. Masko added that he recruited an 18-member orchestra for the show, though incorporating that large of an orchestra is unusual for Yale productions.
“The Pirates of Penzance” is playing at the Off-Broadway Theater on Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Friday at 9:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m.
Correction: March 29
A previous version of this article misstated the Friday showtime.