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17 May 2007
Pirates of Penzance — An Opera with Oomph!

By Shawn Ryan
Star Entertainment Editor

Reprinted here in its entirety.

Pirates of Penzance is full of over-the-top characters, singing, dancing and swordfighting. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star.

It's one thing to sing in opera, where you're taught to maintain proper body alignment so your can voice can surge all the way to back rows.

It's another thing to sing in an opera with characters that are somewhat over-the-top in the first place, adding another layer of oomph! to your performance.

And it's still another thing to sing in an opera, play over-the-top characters and also have swordfights or dancing with which to contend.

Welcome to the challenges of The Pirates of Penzance, an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan that's a combination of opera, musical theater and avast-ye-swabs adventure.

“With musical theater, you would most likely have a microphone to sing into, but with opera, you must use your voice to project,” says Estefania Cuevas, a JSU senior in music education who plays the role of Ruth in Pirates. “In musical theater, you're more free with your movements because you don't have to worry about projecting your voice; you don't have to worry about your (body's) alignment.”

“(Opera) demands a higher level of technical skills in singing,” says Matthew Headley, a senior in general music at JSU who's handling the role of the Pirate King. “In most operas — not this one in particular — you don't have dialogue. Everything is sung, so your actions have to match up perfectly with the music. The timing of the acting can be very precise in opera.

In the JSU production of Pirates, the focus is on the characters, not the stageset, which means actors must work even harder. To that end, most of the actors are playing their roles with maximum zest, playing to the nosebleed seats, so to speak.

“Our set is very sparse, so all of us are pushing ourselves to make our characters larger than life, to fill up the stage, so to speak,” Headley says.

“Whenever you have a simple set, you have to work harder to engage your audience,” Cuevas says.

And beyond all that, Pirates is a very physical production. Not only is there singing and acting, there's also dancing and grandiose gestures. For Headley, the action also include swordfighting. Such movements can suck the wind out a person who's trying to sing. Just look at the lip-syncing tactics of dancing machines such as Britney Spears or Janet Jackson. There will be no lip-syncing in Pirates of Penzance. What you hear — possible huffing, puffing and all — is what you get.

But not to worry. Pirates, which debuted in 1879, is a longstanding crowd-pleaser, easy to understand because it's in English (rather than German or Italian like many operas). As an operetta, it's also shorter than most operas and has dialogue, which operas do not (all dialogue is sung).

Naturally, as in most comic operas, confusion is a major part of the plot. There's confusion among the pirates, British society and the police as to who's who and what's going on. Such a goofy kind of production makes it enjoyable for the actors, too.

The Pirate King, for instance, is “kind of a villain, but I think he's kind of a lovable guy,” says Headley, a bass baritone who has performed in such productions as Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and The Secret Garden.

Ruth, meanwhile, is an older, sometimes crotchety woman who has a tendency to be annoying, Cuevas says. Thinking about Ruth's character traits has influenced every aspect of performance, says Cuevas, who has performed in such operas as Hansel & Gretel, The Gondoliers and Lunatics and Lovers (an English translation of Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera).

“I try to think about every single aspect of my character, from the way she would laugh to the way she would walk to the way she would react to different circumstances,” she says.

That includes her singing voice. Cuevas is a mezzo-soprano, but in Pirates, she “dirties” up her voice a bit.

“I have to alter it to fit the character and she doesn't necessarily sing nicely or pretty,” Cuevas says. “I think about the old lady at church with the wide vibrato.”

The Pirates of Penzance

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Tuesday & Friday-Saturday, May 25-26; 2:30 p.m. Sunday and Sunday, May 27.
Where: Friday-Sunday & May 25-27, Ernest Stone Performing Arts Center, Jacksonville State University; Tuesday, Pell City Center for Education and the Performing Arts, Pell City;.
How much: $8-$35.
Contact: (256) 782-5876 JSU; (205) 338-1974 Pell City.

About Shawn Ryan

Shawn Ryan is the travel editor and entertainment editor for The Star.

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