Monday, March 14, 2016

Behind the Scenes: Curt Olds as Major-General Stanley

Bass Curt Olds is a world-renown singer and performer. He's covered many roles in Gilbert & Sullivan's greatest works, most recently in our mounting of The Pirates of Penzance. We went backstage with Curt to watch his transformation into the Major-General and to learn more about his process, pre-performance rituals and tips for getting into character.

I always hate the process of putting on heavy wigs and makeup for a production, but I love the look afterwards. The adhesive, spirit gum or mastix, is sticky like syrup and burns a bit upon application. I performed for a couple of years in the Broadway musical CATS, which was probably the heaviest make-up/wig show I've ever done. One trick I use as Major-General is to split the mustache into two pieces so it will allow my mouth to move without trouble. 

The Major-General is unique because your biggest song is both your first moment on stage and extremely well known. When arias like this come right out of the gate for a character (like Figaro in The Barber of Seville) the performer has one shot to get things right. Patter songs (I do many of them in the repertoire I perform) are always demanding, but the Major-General's song is extra hard due to it's fame and it's location in the show. 

No matter what role I am performing, I like to take a little time in my dressing room before I get into costume and makeup and go through the whole show at a quick pace. I usually keep all my notes together that I have been given by directors, conductors, and coaches, and I go through that list, as well. With the Major General, I usually have time to run the lyrics to the song one more time before my entrance, which I always think is a smart idea. No matter how many times I do a role, I still review using this method to make sure I am not taking anything for granted. Every time I review, there is something that I catch that might have been missed in performance.

I'm a big coffee drinker, so I usually will grab a cup of coffee as I head to the theatre. I also like to stay social, so when time allows, I like to prop my dressing room door open so I can keep in the vibe of the show, visit with colleagues and wish them well. I started out as many performers do, working in cramped-quarter theatres and I like to keep in the group frame of mind with Gilbert & Sullivan, which requires a connection from the largest role to every ensemble member for success.

This is my 15th production of Pirates (8 Pirate Kings and 7 Major Generals). Next up I will do my 24th production of Ko-Ko in Mikado, which is my favorite role of all. I love this rep so much and I am happy to see opera and theatre companies include it in standard rep. Despite it being viewed as a guilty pleasure by so many opera patrons, it usually sells out and many times companies add performances because of demand. That speaks volumes. 

It's been such a pleasure to perform with Atlanta Opera and I have had a great time in this city. This cast includes some of my very close friends and I think Tomer Zvulun has assembled a brilliant group of singing actors perfectly suited for this type of show. I look forward to see what exciting things are coming for Atlanta Opera audiences and I hope I have the opportunity to return again soon.

All photos by Vicky Legaspi. 

Usage of any images on this blog is restricted to The Atlanta Opera and approved news websites. Any other usage, particularly for professional purposes, must have written permission. For additional information, please contact The Atlanta Opera at 404.881.8801.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Production Notes: The Pirates of Penzance (by Nicholas Beard)

All photos by Jeff Roffman
We’re forever fascinated by pirates. It’s a child’s fantasy to battle pirates – think Peter Pan vs. Captain Hook – but it’s also an adult metaphor elastic enough for a range of social commentary. By our romanticized view, pirates live off their wits, live a hedonist life. They have escaped the conventions of a society which, as every free-spirit knows, stifles creativity. As escapist fiction, literature (Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” from 1719) and opera (Bellini’s “Il Pirata,” 1827) are no less enthralling than swashbuckling films starring Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn and, today, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.

So it was in the 1870s, when composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist William Schwenck Gilbert started collaborating on English-language comic operas, a cousin to sweetly sophisticated Parisian and Viennese operettas. The British duo had a commercial hit with the nautical-themed “HMS Pinafore” in 1878. But within months “Pinafore” was spreading across America through – ahem – pirated productions, earning the creators no income.

For their next collaboration, “The Pirates of Penzance” in 1879, they followed their familiar patterns by lampooning the police and the military, poking fun at empty patriotism and, above all, satirizing the stupidity of a literal devotion to duty. Our hero Frederic is “the slave of duty,” personifying the operetta’s subtitle. In Victorian England, with an Empire stretching around the globe, protected by the most powerful naval fleet that ever existed, “Pirates of Penzance” was social satire with a sharp edge. That Gilbert’s lyrics and Sullivan’s music does all this with such a light touch – tuneful, infinitely clever, unexpectedly warm – is the stuff of genius.

Early in their collaborations, Gilbert and Sullivan established a formal structure to their works: two acts, the first act concluding with a complicated finale in several sections and the second act reprising tunes heard earlier. Like other operettas, spoken dialogue (instead of operatic recitative) moves the action forward, although their best works, including “The Mikado,” have found a home in opera houses across the English-speaking world. Gilbert’s political iconoclasm matched perfectly with Sullivan’s gift for melody and his skills in orchestration, where he could parody music by a Handel, Donizetti or Verdi and twist it to his own comic needs. As with the best satire, the more you know the funnier it gets. 

Key points of “The Pirates of Penzance” plot are so daffy that audiences can’t help but groan and giggle. And there’s no irony: all the characters are “na├»ve” to their world, with no winks from the stage at their increasingly ridiculous situations. For starters, the work’s title is funny: British audiences would have known Penzance as a mild and slightly boring beach town on the English Channel, the last place you’d expect to find blood-thirsty bandits of the high seas. The characters are introduced by a series of wacky missteps. The nursery maid Ruth had misheard “pirate” (instead of “pilot”) and had mistakenly apprenticed the boy Frederic to the Pirate King – as if one trained into piracy as into any other respectable trade. Gilbert’s lyrics emphasize the not-so-subtle difference in pronunciation with over-the-top rhymes: “my lot/pilot” and “gyrate/pirate.”

Now 21, bidding farewell to his masters, Frederic had accepted his duty (despite Ruth’s mistake) and reveals his literal mindset: “It was through an error – no matter, the mistake was ours, not yours, and I was in honor bound to it.” When we meet the pirate band, we soon learn they are uncommonly polite and empathetic, and word has spread that they will release all victims who claim to be orphans.

As in grand opera, the work thrives on its songs, and this is what makes “Pirates” among the greatest of any operetta in the language. Mabel’s coloratura showpiece, “Poor wand’ring one,” is set as a graceful, French-style waltz. In the ensemble number “How beautifully blue the sky,” Sullivan sets the love duet between Frederic and Mabel as a fresh, lilting waltz, dovetailing it into the chitter-chatter of the women’s chorus in 2/4 time. It’s as silly, tender and brilliant as anything in the G&S canon.

Perhaps the most famous number of the score is the Major-General’s charming, clueless patter-song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.” At top speed, he spits out ghastly rhymes with the high-falutin’ language of educated men – “mathematical/quadratical” and “a lot ‘o news/hypotenuse” – all delivered in a mock-pompous style. (As a comedy technique, it was adopted by generations of British satirists, including Monty Python in our own time.) The Major-General’s song in the second act, “Sighing softly to the river,” features a rippling watery accompaniment that wouldn’t be out of place in Schubert lieder. But the context is hilarious, with the men’s choruses mocking him unseen in the background, parodying a similar scene from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” As with almost every detail in “The Pirates of Penzance,” it’s easy to forget about the richness of invention because the lyrics-music fusion seems so effortless.

Usage of any images on this blog is restricted to The Atlanta Opera and approved news websites. Any other usage, particularly for professional purposes, must have written permission. For additional information, please contact The Atlanta Opera at 404.881.8801.