The UI Summer Opera presents HMS Pinafore


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Classic opera isn't just for 19th-century aristocrats — as the University of Iowa Summer Opera program can demonstrate.

On Friday, the program will open its production of H.M.S. Pinafore, a comic opera by the famous Victorian-era partnership of William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. The show will take place at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St., at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. July 15.

With a light comic opera featuring tongue-in-cheek satire, star-crossed romance, and an ending with a twist, director John Cameron said H.M.S. Pinafore is a lively show that has endured.

"It's a comic opera about mistaken identity, and it has since become part of the operatic heyday," he said. "Over the years, the music is so beautifully written that it has attracted musicians and singers. There have been whole companies dedicated to just performing the music."

Unlike plays, Cameron said, staging an opera, during which the actors are continually singing, presents challenges.

"A person who directs an opera has to know the needs of the singer," he said. "If you have a legitimately trained voice, you need certain considerations. There are certain songs in which I don't want the singers running around the stage because they need to maintain their breath for the more challenging portions of the music."

Unlike contemporary musicals, he said, classic operas such as H.M.S. Pinafore require some reflection when bringing the show into the 21st century.

"This show was written for another time period, and so the challenge is always to make it acceptable to a modern-day audience," he said.

Although H.M.S. Pinafore was crafted to humor audiences of around 124 years ago, show conductor William LaRue Jones said many of the themes will resonate with fans of contemporary romantic comedy.

"H.M.S. Pinafore is just a very happy, carefree kind of opera," he said. "Gilbert and Sullivan were sort of the forerunners for light comic opera, [and their works are] performed much more often than Broadway musicals and consistently throughout the world. Sometimes, they can have some sad or poignant moments, but most of the time, they're just very happy and upbeat."

Set designer Margaret Wenk said she was sure to capture this carefree, historical tone in her stage and costume design.

"John wanted to make sure that it was playful, fun, and true to the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan," she said. "So I designed a set that was a skewed boat that had practical working parts, doors and ladder shrouds, so that he would be able to build wonderful movement action, pictures and keep up the romance. The whole idea was like a pop-up Victorian Valentine."

Jones said these beautiful features, combined with other theatrical elements, are what make operas such as H.M.S. Pinafore so attractive to audiences and musicians.

"I love opera music, because I think it's probably the most complete art form that we have," he said. "When you put opera together, then you have not only instrumentals, you have the vocalists. On top of that, it brings in visual artists who create and design sets for the action that's on stage. Then you add in costumes that represent certain societies or cultures in the period when the opera was written. Opera usually also contains dance. It's really something that includes everything that we have in the arts."

Cameron said he agreed, and he was excited to be a take part in presenting one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most beloved operas.

"The music is beautiful and fun. When you've done a few hundred shows, it's the simple pleasure of doing," he said. "It is just very enjoyable, and I hope [audiences] have a good time."

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