Setting Sail with The Pirates of Penzance

The cast of The Pirates of Penzance poses in front of the ship set
The cast of The Pirates of Penzance in front of our newly-created, touring set.
Photo: Opera Colorado/Jamie Kraus

By: Angelica DiIorio

As part of our Opera on Tour program, the 2021-22 Opera Colorado Artists in Residence are bringing a new abridged production of The Pirates of Penzance to groups of all ages throughout Colorado. The Opera on Tour program is an “opera-tunity” to introduce new audiences to opera through a performance sung in English, lasting around an hour, and with abridged content.

Composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and librettist Sir William Schwenck Gilbert created the original The Pirates of Penzance. It is a tale of sentimental pirates, young love, and the clash between piracy and the law.

Check out our The Pirates of Penzance guidebook created to enhance students’ learning>>

So how do we get from an expansive operetta to a condensed Opera on Tour production? Opera Colorado’s Cherity Koepke, the Director of Education & Community Engagement and the Director of the Artist in Residence Program, is the mastermind behind this adaptation. She took the original Gilbert and Sullivan score and created Opera Colorado’s first original touring production in over four years. Hear what she has to say about how the Opera on Tour production of The Pirates of Penzance went from concept to curtain.

What was your adaptation process for The Pirates of Penzance score?

Artists in Residence sit around a table with the musical score to Pirates of Penzance in front of them
Artists in Residence Kendra Broom and Catherine Swindle receive the score to Pirates of Penzance.
Photo: Opera Colorado/Angelica DiIorio

The process of adapting any music score is a daunting one. You have to take something already created and make it shorter and able to travel. At Opera Colorado, we choose to abridge our own productions because [we can] make the production unique to this company and something relevant to our audiences.

When you have something like The Pirates of Penzance—a classic piece where people can hum the tunes—you have to make it more manageable, especially for kids. You’re trying to reframe it so the story is still there in just one hour.

The time limit is the most important thing when you’re thinking about an abridged production. We stick to an hour since that is about how much time schools can spare their students. They still see the full story. They still get the best of the music and the best of the characters and the drama, but it’s just more condensed and manageable for them.

How do you decide what to cut and what to keep?

The very first thing I do is completely immerse myself in the music because, if I am going to make cuts, I’ve got to know every single note and how they connect to what comes next. Cuts have to seamlessly blend from one to the next, so I have to know when key changes happen, when things are sung on-stage or off-stage, and what different voice parts are in the ensembles.

The Opera Colorado Artists in Residence sit in front of the rocky cove set for Pirates to rehearse
The 2021-22 Artists in Residence in rehearsal.
Photo: Opera Colorado/Angelica DiIorio

I very much believe in retaining the core of the piece. This is not something I wrote from scratch but someone else’s work, so I want to make sure we honor the original.

And then, I have a lot decided for me based on who we have in the Artist in Residence Program. Their voice types are what determine which roles I can use from the score.

The Pirates of Penzance is kind of a perfect fit. It’s operetta and that is wonderful for young operatic voices—especially voices who are taking their first steps in professional careers in opera, like our Artists in Residence. It’s also comedic, so it gives the performers a chance to play a bit more. This abridged version allows the Artists in Residence to show people they already know the music from The Pirates of Penzance, and it honors the original in a fun way.

How long did it take from an idea to the first performance?

Artists in Residence, dressed as pirates, perform for an audience
Artists in Residence— Kendra Broom (mezzo-soprano), Spencer Boyd (tenor), and Phillip Lopez (bass-baritone)—perform Pirates of Penzance.
Photo: Opera Colorado/Jamie Kraus

The timeline to abridge a production depends on the specific piece. With The Pirates of Penzance, I got a little bit of a head start because it is already in English. However, I still had to redo many of the rhyme schemes. Over the course of working on this project, it’s already been more than a year of me really digging in and creating the abridged score and then working into the design aspects. I am also the stage director and concept designer for the sets, costumes, and props. By the time this is all said and done, from when we started with the concept to when we get it up on its feet, it was about fourteen months.

Why did you choose The Pirates of Penzance?

A few years ago, Greg Carpenter, our General & Artistic Director, asked me to come up with a shortlist of all the things we might abridge, and The Pirates of Penzance was at the top of the list because it is so timeless. It doesn’t matter if you like opera or musical theater or not; this music is fun and catchy. Plus, these characters are so comedic and it’s appropriate for all ages.

We try to make our touring productions accessible for everyone from kindergarteners to residents of a senior retirement community. The Pirates of Penzance is perfect for all our audiences because little guys know what pirates are, and our wonderful seniors remember this operetta, so they’re going to love it too. I wanted something people could sit and enjoy no matter who it was or where they were in their opera journey!

All six of our Artists in Residence stand in a line in front of the set as they take their final bow
The cast of Opera Colorado’s 2022 Opera on Tour production of The Pirates of Penzance take their final bow.
Photo: Opera Colorado/Jamie Kraus

 

Now that you see all the detail that went into the creation of Opera Colorado’s The Pirates of Penzance, book a performance for your school or community venue. Contact us by email at  education@operacolorado.org or by phone at 303.778.7350.

Did you know that Opera Colorado offers partial scholarships for ANY of our educational programs? Scholarships are available on a first come, first serve basis. To apply, please fill out and return the appropriate application: School Scholarship or Community Scholarship.

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