Director Rob Herriot steers our jazzy new Pinafore

One day while rehearsing Cinderella last January, Tim Yakimec came into rehearsal, leaned over my shoulder and quietly said, “1920s Pinafore, new Jazz orchestration” and walked out. Well that was it, an idea pitched and sent out into the ether! Now I have to confess to being a bit of a Gilbert & Sullivan purist, but as I get older I am thinking more and more outside the box, and so along with my brilliant team of designers we set forth to explore this idea.

First, I had to be sure there was a concrete reason why this would work. I did plenty of research about the period and then looked at what the original piece was saying to find some links. The operetta mainly pokes fun at the class system in Victorian England. Similarly, during the 1920s there was indeed a very sharp divide between the old Edwardian Guard who were resistant to changes, and this brave new society of “Bright Young Things” who were advancing forward with new ways of living and thinking. This was my jumping off point.

When discussing the new orchestration, it became apparent that there was a very clear divide that helped dictate what music would be changed and what would remain traditional, based on the characters themselves. Obviously, the Captain, Sir Joseph and Dick Deadeye would remain very traditional. The sailors and “Sisters, Cousins and Aunts” would represent the younger set — they would be “Hip to the Jive”. Josephine starts her journey under the thumb of her father but breaks away and finds her own voice. And so this is how we proceeded.

In looking at the physical silhouette of the production, it was clear we needed to set the piece on a 1920s Cunard Liner, adding texture to the crew to reflect a more “Love Boat” group of workers, The Purser, chef, sailor etc. My two brilliant designers then created a spectacular look for the show.

Now the final test was hearing the first sound file of new orchestration. Within 30 seconds I was hooked! The physical production came to life in my imagination and we set sail from there. I do hope you enjoy this jazzy new HMS Pinafore!

Gilbert & Sullivan: Masters of Satire

In their nearly 30 years of collaboration, the creators of HMS Pinafore and other iconic works such as The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance took every opportunity to poke fun at British society. Librettist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) saw art as a way to entertain the masses while also engaging them in political critique. Some of their most memorable characters and plots could easily be connected to real things happening in Britain, and their commentary on these events was often scathing or at least sarcastic.

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W.S. Gilbert

William Schwenck Gilbert, born in London in 1836, was the son of a retired naval surgeon. After finishing his military training as a young man, Gilbert worked in a government bureau job until he received a nice inheritance from an aunt. He decided to study law but didn’t have much success with it, quitting his law practice after just a few years.

Gilbert was known for his biting humour and sarcasm, which made his contributions to a British magazine named FUN quite popular. He also made cartoons to appear alongside his writing, which were often signed “Bab”. Many of the characters in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are based on these “Bab” characters.

Gilbert was knighted by Edward VII in 1907 and died in 1911, at age 74, while attempting to save a drowning woman.

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Arthur Sullivan

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London, in 1842 to a very musical family. His father was a bandmaster at the Royal Military College and before age 10 Sullivan had mastered all of the wind instruments in his father's band. He won competitions, earned scholarships, and even went to Germany to present his thesis in front of Franz Liszt.

For the next ten years Sullivan was a professor of music, a teacher, and an organist. As one of the leading composers of the day, Sullivan had many influential friends in every circle of society including many monarchs in Europe. He composed several major choral works including The Light of the World, The Martyr of Antioch, The Golden Legend, and his lone grand opera, Ivanhoe.

From 1872 until his death in 1900, Sullivan suffered from extremely painful kidney stones and it is said that his most beautiful music was composed while he endured great pain. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1883.

Satire in HMS Pinafore

Gilbert & Sullivan took aim at the Royal Navy in this delightful operetta, pointing out British society’s silly obsession with class. The characters most obviously barred by their different ranks are lovers Ralph Rackstraw, a lowly sailor, and Josephine, the Captain’s daughter. They spend most of the operetta pondering ways to be together, seeing as Josephine’s hand had already been promised to the old Sir Joseph, a high-ranking officer in the Navy.

Sir Joseph is a hilarious caricature, based on a real British politician of the time, who gloats about how he came to achieve such a high rank without having any talent whatsoever. He sings about all the schmoozing that got him where he is and emphasizes the greatness of bureaucracy. He also scolds the Captain of the Pinafore and tells him to treat his crew as equals. In that moment, Sir Joseph completely disavows the class system, which earns him some favour with the audience.

But his love of equality doesn’t last long. When Josephine and Ralph are caught trying to elope, Sir Joseph is livid and has Ralph imprisoned on board.

The biggest joke about class comes in at the very end, when the librettist creates a completely unexpected reversal of fortunes just for the sake of a happy ending. As the Pinafore descends into chaos, with Ralph imprisoned, Sir Joseph throwing an angry fit, the Captain trying to win back his favour, and Josephine defiantly declaring her love for Ralph, it looks as if the audience should expect a sad ending. That is, until Little Buttercup enters the scene and tells everyone she has a confession to make.

Buttercup confesses that many years ago there were two baby boys in her care — one of high birth and the other of low birth. She switched the two before handing them to their parents, which means both boys grew up in a class they didn’t originally belong to. She then reveals the identities of these two boys: Ralph Rackstraw and The Captain!

On account of his newly discovered rank, Ralph is released from prison and becomes the new captain of the Pinafore, in accordance with his high birth. Since class is no longer a barrier, Ralph is free to marry Josephine, who has lost her previous rank. As well, the Captain, who is now a mere sailor, can finally admit his true feelings for Little Buttercup and marry her without any hesitation.

The whole crew celebrates this reversal of fortunes and everyone shouts their love of Britain in a delirious display of patriotism. Gilbert & Sullivan write this over-the-top finale to be tongue-in-cheek about national identity. Just a few minutes ago class differences were unraveling and conflict was heated, but now that love is aligned with the proper social ranks, we can once again sing about how truly great it is to be an Englishman!

An Extra Saucy Beauty of a Ship: Ginning up HMS Pinafore for the Jazz Age

Our upcoming production of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore puts a delightful 1920s twist on the classic operetta, not just in its setting, but also in its sound. We invited New York-based composer and arranger Ed Windels to re-orchestrate HMS Pinafore to produce a jazz-flavoured score unlike anything audiences have heard before! In this guest post, Windels reflects on his Pinafore journey and offers exciting insights into the process of creating a jazzy, toe-tapping new take on this beloved score. If you haven't already, get your tickets to board the HMS Pinafore February 3, 6 & 9 at the Jubilee Auditorium!


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“Things are seldom as they seem,” intimates Mrs. Cripps (a.k.a. Little Buttercup), an ethos arguably at the heart of much of the work of Gilbert & Sullivan with its concealed identities and ironically bewildering plot twists. This includes their 1876 operetta HMS Pinafore. Taking its cue from this, Edmonton Opera seeks to intrigue fans of this much beloved classic by recasting it in a 1920’s jazz idiom. The setting is now a glamorous cruise ship of the period, with the storyline and music tailored accordingly. Early in 2017, they asked if I would be willing to undertake giving Sullivan's score a new, swinging, jazz-oriented orchestration.

We decided to make the score a hybrid: keep one half as-is, rewrite the other half jazzed. This allows the music to highlight the piece’s commentary on class and elitism: the older, aristocratic characters retaining their Victorian music, and the music of the younger, “lower” characters recolored in jazz, with the whole cast embracing the new idiom for a rousing finale.

My aim in the updated numbers was to retain enough sense of the original that fans wouldn’t feel completely, um, at sea, while adding flavor through reharmonization and almost complete rethinking of rhythmic structures, including the vocal lines, in addition to an entire revamping of the orchestral dressing. The keys, vocal notes and melodies are largely unaltered. To avoid the new sections all sounding similar, I took advantage of the broad palette of styles and genres from the era. Thus Ralph’s music nods at the swoony sentimentality of Rudy Vallee, Buttercup pays earthy homage to Bessie Smith, a sultry tango here, a little Original Dixieland Band swing there. And of course a Charleston or two!

The most fascinating aspect of this project for me was its Carrollian work flow. When creating a new musical -- effectively what’s happening with this show -- the typical process would have the lyricist and composer and book writer come up with the base material, which is then routined and expanded in terms of staging, often to the extent of readings, workshops or out of town tryouts. While the orchestrator may be kept abreast of the ongoing process, he or she rarely begins proper work until relatively late in the game, at a point when the music and general staging have largely been finalized. This allows the orchestrator to base their coloristic and gestural choices off of these elements and appropriately reflect them.

With this Pinafore the process was completely reversed. Needing sufficient time to extract orchestral material and create new vocal scores so the performers could learn them, I was requested to fully orchestrate and do vocal arrangements for the designated portions of the score as the very first step, before any staging ideas had begun, using my own judgement and imagination to make any additions, expansions, condensings, coloristic and gestural choices. The actual direction and revised libretto would then be inspired by my finished work. This situation was both empowering and intimidating, but ultimately proved to be great fun as I began to share the completed portions of the score, allowing director Rob Herriot and myself to let our imaginations run wild.

This project has been as much of an adventure for the creative team as it has been for these beloved characters, and I'm confident audiences will have as much fun experiencing it as we did creating it. So raise your glasses and the gang plank, and bon voyage!

To learn more about New York-based composer Ed Windels visit www.ed-windels.com

Message from composer Kevin March

The story of the serendipitous and odds-defying creation of Les Feluettes began in March 2002, when I saw Lilies. Minutes into the film, I had an overwhelming sense that I was watching an opera. The words were lyrical; the characters, compelling; their stories, absorbing. It was easy to imagine the lines being sung. As I left the cinema, I was already making plans to adapt the film into an opera. By the end of that year, I was discussing the adaption with Michel Marc Bouchard.

In March 2011, Michel Beaulac, Artistic Director of the Opéra de Montréal, contacted Michel Marc to discuss commissioning an opera based on one of his plays. Although we did not know it, the play he had in mind was Les Feluettes.. Imagine our delight in being able to show Michel Beaulac that we had already started work on just such an opera.  As these events unfolded in Montreal, over in Victoria, Patrick Coorigan, Ian Rye, and Timothy Vernon were also imagining an opera based on Les Feluettes. When they heard of Montréal’s planthey joined Opéra de Montréal as co-procuder to bring Les Feluettes to the opera stage.

Over the course of the next 5 years, Michel Marc adapted his play into a libretto and I wrote the music for Les Feluettes. A series of four developmental workshops were held during which every scene, aria, duet, chorus, quite literally every word and measure of the opera was tested.  Cuts were made, scenes revised, new arias added. During rehearsals, leading up to the premiere, a chorus section was added, a whole scene change was added and an entirely new aria was composed for Etienne Dupuis and added with only one week to go before opening.

I’m often asked how one approaches the task of writing an opera.  In this case it all began with the words, which were rich with musical implications. The play’s stage directions call for the use of Debussy’s incidental music to D’Annunzio’s infamous Le Martyre de St. Sebastien which frames Vallier and Simon’s love for one another; the 1912 settings recall the music of the Belle Epoch and American ragtime; and La musique traditionnelle québécoise would have been commonplace. In creating the sound of Les Feluettes, it seemed necessary that all of these musical references be respected and represented.

MEET LES FELUETTES (LILIES) LIBRETTIST MICHEL MARC BOUCHARD

Arguably one of the biggest names in Canadian theatre today, playwright Michel Marc Bouchard has written over 25 plays that have been translated into several languages, performed internationally, and have even seen award-winning cinematic adaptations.

A recipient of the Order of Canada and Order of Quebec, Bouchard has also been recognized with a National Arts Centre Award, Chalmers Award, Vancouver’s Jessie Richardson Awards and Toronto’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Some of his notable works are Les Feluettes (1987), The Orphan Muses (1988), and more recently Tom at the Farm (2011), which was turned into a film by Canadian directing prodigy Xavier Dolan.

The themes of Bouchard’s plays are varied, but are often immersed in myth and allegory, with inherent lyricism and larger-than-life characters. Many of his works explore queer identity against the backdrop of strict socio-cultural norms, as is the case in Les Feluettes.

When asked what interests him in opera, Bouchard replies it is “the sheer magnitude of the emotions, which – through singing and music – touches the most intimate aspects of our being” (Opéra de Montréal program, 2016). This grandeur of storytelling is intrinsic to Bouchard’s play Les Feluettes, lending itself quite naturally to his first operatic commission by Opéra de Montréal and Pacific Opera Victoria.

Les Feluettes received widespread acclaim at its Montreal premiere in 2016, validating Bouchard’s highly anticipated foray into opera. He is already working on his next project, a commission of Christine, la reine-garçon (The Girl King) by the Canadian Opera Company with composer Ana Sokolovic.

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Experience the Alberta premiere of Les Feluettes (Lilies) at the Jubilee Auditorium October 21, 24 and 27, 2017. Season tickets to all three operas are now available from just $99!