Classical Music & Dance

The Classical Beat: Lyric Opera’s ‘Pirates of Penzance’ is the very model of modern major fun

The Lyric Opera, here in rehearsal, will present Gilbert and Sullivan’s beloved “The Pirates of Penzance” for five performances April 22-30. “I’m coaching the cast to think as though we’re playing to a Victorian audience, to really work the language and the jokes and the specific British humor, which is slightly deadpan,” says director James Alexander, who was born in Scotland.
The Lyric Opera, here in rehearsal, will present Gilbert and Sullivan’s beloved “The Pirates of Penzance” for five performances April 22-30. “I’m coaching the cast to think as though we’re playing to a Victorian audience, to really work the language and the jokes and the specific British humor, which is slightly deadpan,” says director James Alexander, who was born in Scotland.

The enduring popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas gives one hope for civilization. There is no better contrast to lame, laugh-tracked sitcoms than the sparkling, witty wordplay of W.S. Gilbert and the memorable tunes of Arthur Sullivan.

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present one of the pair’s most popular works, “The Pirates of Penzance,” for five performances beginning April 22 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The Holy Trinity of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado,” have been mainstays of the Lyric Opera’s repertoire since the days of artistic director Russell Patterson. Singer and actor Robert Gibby Brand has played an important part in those productions, specializing in the patter roles of Sir Joseph Porter, Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner and Major Stanley, which he is singing in the current production of “Pirates.”

“It’s a joy,” Brand said. “Russell loved them, and there’s a tradition of the company doing them, and I’m glad we still do them.”

Though it’s Victorian entertainment, “Pirates” still strikes a chord in the 21st century. The nonsensical tale of aristocrats gone wrong always delights with Keystone Kop antics and the brilliant lyrics of Gilbert, especially the tongue-twisting “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.”

Purists will be happy to know that the Lyric’s production will be very traditional. It’s Scotland-born director, James Alexander, is polishing up the cast’s diction and accents.

“I don’t think I was specifically brought in as a British director to put a British stamp on it, but the cast is working very diligently with me,” he said. “They’re very quick studies on received pronunciation. We’re creating an environment where we’re all becoming a little bit ‘Downton Abbey,’ a little bit terribly cut-glass. I’m coaching the cast to think as though we’re playing to a Victorian audience, to really work the language and the jokes and the specific British humor, which is slightly deadpan.”

According to Alexander, playing the characters seriously is the key to their humor.

“The cast mustn’t act as if they’re being funny because if they are, then it becomes their jokes rather than ours,” he said. “So they must be terribly earnest or terribly poignant or extremely passionate. But we’re laughing at that earnestness and the passion because it’s slightly ridiculous.”

Brand agrees with this approach. He recalls advice he received from Francis Cullinan, who directed several Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the Lyric in the 1980s.

“He told me that these ‘patter men’ I was playing are the eternal child,” Brand recalled. “They have a huge delight in everything that happens. They’re Gilbert’s way of attacking social pretension and all the other foibles of British society, but if you’re only an unpleasant snob or a bumbling idiot, the audience soon gets bored. You must maintain a sense of ‘Oh, my word, look at the way the sailors go up and down the rigging! Look at the way the policemen are marching! Isn’t it delightful?’ 

For Brand and Alexander, Sullivan’s music is perhaps the opera’s biggest selling point. Even if one leaves the theater forgetting Gilbert’s words, they’ll be able to whistle Sullivan’s tunes, many of which are spoofs of operas.

“The recitatives are hilarious that way,” Brand said. “‘O, realm of dark and dismal fate’ almost sounds like it came out of ‘Solomon’ or ‘Belshazzar’ or something by (George Frideric) Handel.”

Alexander and his production team are planning lots of visual delights, too, including a highly stylized set that looks as though it were designed by a child, and an appearance by Queen Victoria. Alexander is hoping that “Pirates” will be just what the doctor ordered for a stressed-out audience.

“God knows, in these dire times we need a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan after Brexit and what’s happening in Washington,” Alexander said. “Let’s get this audience something to have fun with at the end of the season. I hope it’s a little oasis of comedy for them.”

7:30 p.m. April 22, 26 and 28 and 2 p.m. April 29 and 30. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $35.50-$210.50. 816-471-7344 or KCOpera.org.

The Great Flood concert

The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 had a profound impact on American culture. Displaced black sharecroppers moved en masse to northern cities, bringing their delta blues with them. It was in the cities that the blues became electrified and evolved into other musical forms like R&B and rock ’n’ roll.

The Harriman-Jewell Series presents “The Great Flood” April 22 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Guitarist Bill Frisell and a top-notch ensemble of musicians will accompany a silent film that explores this natural disaster that became a cultural boon.

5 p.m. April 22. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Atkins Auditorium. $20-$40. 816-415-5025 or HJSeries.org.

Tango with Ensemble Iberica

Hearts were broken when violinist Christine Brebes moved from Kansas City to Buenos Aires in 2002. Her performances with guitarist Beau Bledsoe in Tango Lorca were cherished by her many fans.

Luckily, she’s returning for a visit and will appear with Bledsoe’s Ensemble Iberica for “The Music of Carlos Gardel” April 21 at the MTH Theater in Crown Center. Gardel, also known as the “King of Tango,” established tango as an enduring art form before he died in an airplane crash at the age of 45.

Vocalist Bruno Bessa will sing the songs that made Gardel a star, and Brebes will add her ever-deepening mastery of the genre to Ensemble Iberica’s rich sound.

8 p.m. April 21. MTH Theater, 2450 Grand, Suite 301. $20-$25. 816-221-6987 or tinyurl.com/m7jczlc.

La Cucharada party

Local music lovers will have another opportunity to get their Brebes fix when she performs with La Cucharada for a CD release party.

The album, “Primavera en Kansas City” (Springtime in Kansas City) is a great introduction to another gem of an ensemble. Made up of guitarist Sean Mawhirter, violinist Tina Bilberry, flutist Guy Montes, Juha Silfverberg on accordion and Johnny Hamil on bass, La Cucharada adds another unique sound to the Kansas City music scene.

8 p.m. April 22. Madrigall, 1627 Oak St. $10-$15. Tickets available at the door or at artful.ly/store/events/11660. For more information, visit CucharadaMusic.com.

Bach Aria Soloists

The Bach Aria Soloists will perform for the first time in the newly restored Westport Presbyterian Church when the group presents BAS Sings! on April 22.

Soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson, a Bach Aria Soloists member, will be joined by three of her colleagues from the Kansas City Chorale for an all-vocal program. Soprano Lindsey Lang, bass Sam Anderson and tenor Frank Fleschner will lend their voices to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Benjamin Britten, John Dowland and Hildegard von Bingen.

A highlight of the program is the Sanctus from the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré, which should sound exquisite with Westport Presbyterian’s intimate acoustics.

7:30 p.m. April 22. Westport Presbyterian Church, 201 Westport Road. $17-$35. BachAriaSoloists.com.

You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@kcartsbeat.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat.

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