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After a successful run at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts last weekend, the University of Iowa Opera Theater will bring its production of the timeless Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta H.M.S. Pinafore to the Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines July 20-21.
Director John Cameron, faculty member in the Department of Theatre Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, discusses the challenges of making the operetta, first performed in 1878 at the Opera Comique in London, relevant and engaging for an audience in 2012.
H.M.S. Pinafore has been popular since 1878. As a director and playwright, what ingredients do you think have made this opera a perennial favorite for 133 years?
When it was first written it was intended as popular entertainment—to make money. The script is full of contemporary references that would have brought laughter from an audience at the time. It's also full of awkward and implausible situations. The fact that the Captain marries Buttercup at the end of the play is the best example. She was his wet nurse and raised him, and at the very least should be 18 years his senior, and yet they seem to not know each other and are consistently played as being similar ages. All this was overlooked for the good fun that the play provided. I think it's ultimately the music that has preserved it and kept it popular with audiences almost 150 years later.
What can people expect in your direction of this comic operetta? Any surprises?
I don't think there are any big surprises but we have tried to emphasize the sense of good fun and over the top humor that was originally intended. And we've thrown in a little tribute to Queen Victoria in honor of her descendant's recent jubilee.
What are some of the unique challenges of putting on a show like this, especially in two different venues?
I think the humor is a challenge because we've lost the references that grounded the laughs in 1878. Now, I think, the charm and laughter rely on the individual characterizations and recreating the heightened melodramatic style of performance. It's full of images and movement that a modern audience still finds funny.
Talk a bit about the music, which brought us We Sail the Ocean Blue and For He Is an English Man among other memorable pieces. Do you think it still resonates with a 21st century audience?
I think the quality of the music is principally what has kept this and other Gilbert and Sullivan shows alive and popular. Without Sullivan's beautiful score Gilbert's script is just another dated period melodrama/comedy, of which we have better examples.
You’re a recipient of a Collegiate Teaching Award. In addition to putting on a great performance, you're obviously interested in making this a great learning experience for the students involved in the production. What's it been like to direct the young men and women in this opera?
It's been great fun for all of us. As part of the rehearsal process we were lucky enough to have Tony Award winning actress, Alice Ripley, (2009 Best Lead Actress in a Musical for Next to Normal) come in for two weeks and work with the students in workshop and rehearsal. It was very inspiring for them and a rare opportunity. Additionally, we've been able to explore a performance style and its origins that many of the cast had never experienced before. The journey has been both exciting and educational.
Although the UI takes performances across the state of Iowa, this is the first time the School of Music has performed an opera at the Hoyt Sherman in Des Moines. What would you say to Des Moines area residents considering seeing this operetta?
Come! You'll have fun!
Click the thumbnail images below for more photos from the production.
Des Moines performances are 8 p.m. Friday, July 20 and Saturday, July 21. Tickets are $20-$25 for adults, $16-$20 for seniors (65 and older), and $10-$12 for students/youth 17 and under. To order, click here.