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Opera Chats: HMS Pinafore (English National Opera, 2021)

A comedy in two acts, H.M.S. Pinafore was the fourth operatic collaboration between composer Arthur Sullivan and librettist W. S. Gilbert. It premiered in London in May 1878 and proved extremely popular. The story is deliberately silly while at the same time lampooning a number of things like the British class system and people who are wholly unqualified to hold any positions of power.

This English National Opera production ran from October to December 2021 at the London Coliseum in the English capital, directed by Cal McCrystal and conducted by Chris Hopkins.

The H.M.S. Pinafore Royal Navy ship is captained by a man called Corcoran (John Savournin). His daughter Josephine (Alexandra Oomens) has fallen in love with a lowly sailor, Ralph Rackstraw (Elgan Llŷr Thomas). Is she doomed to a life with a man she doesn’t love, Sir Joseph Porter (Les Dennis), just because he’s a First Lord of the Admiralty?

Hilary Summers – Little Buttercup
Henry Waddington – Dick Deadeye
Marcus Farnsworth – Boatswain
Bethan Langford – Cousin Hebe Porter
Ossian Huskinson – Bob Becket
Johnny Jackson – Cabin Boy/Midshipmite

This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.

takis – Set & Costume Designer
Tim Mitchell – Lighting Designer
Lizzi Gee – Choreographer

■ ■ ■

Francis: Welcome to the next riveting instalment of Opera Chats.

Traxy: Thank you. Riveting for whom?

F: You! Me! Everybody! Today we’re taking on an English opera. Not an opera that has been translated into English, one that was written in English. And is … quintessentially English? Would that be a correct assumption?

T: Yeah, pretty much.

F: Gilbert & Sullivan’s comedic opera H.M.S. Pinafore, staged at the London Coliseum by the English National Opera.

T: How did you fare with this? I found it funny, but I’ve lived in the UK for the past 18 years so I get most, if not all, of the cultural references. What’s it like when you don’t, necessarily?

F: I have no idea how much I missed out on with regards to that, because I don’t even know if it’s a modern cultural reference or not. This ain’t the kind of opera with which I’m inherently familiar, as we’ve previously established.

T: So you can’t tell if it’s a cultural reference thrown in for a modern audience or if it’s been there all along, you mean?

F: Yeah.

T: Like the “exceedingly good cakes” or when they listed Janet Street Porter as one of the Porters?

F: Exactly! Is that a modern reference? Is it a porter from Janet Street that all British people know about? How would I know?

T: Well, I can confirm that it’s a modern reference. It’s a person. I’ve seen her on TV.

F: There you go. I have seen that photo of Boris Johnson on a zip line, so that one I got.

T: So the show wasn’t completely wasted on you, then?

F: Not at all. Besides, this is a good thing. You’re broadening your horizons by exploring opera as a genre, I’m broadening my horizons by exploring outside of the classic Italian operatic canon, so this cultural exchange is mutually beneficial.

T: Haven’t thought of it that way before, but you’re right. It is. Dual purpose. Cool!

F: But that ain’t to say I’m looking at exploring contemporary opera.

T: One thing at a time. We have plenty of the old, classic stuff to go around.

F: We do. Now, the first thing I noticed here is that it lacked subtitles, because we talked about that in our last chat.

T: Yeah, I thought “hah, well, that’s timely” and … not in a good way, as it turned out.

F: How did you get on?

T: I genuinely struggled at times.

F: Ouch.

T: Yeah. Some singers were slightly easier to understand than others, but I realised that at the end of Josephine’s first aria that I hadn’t actually made out what she was singing about at all.

F: At all?!

T: Nope. I sat there and thought “I have no idea what that song is about, but doesn’t she have a lovely voice?”

F: Do you think it was her pronunciation that made her difficult to understand or something else?

T: I don’t think she could have done anything different, nor should she have. This is squarely a me problem. It’s not her fault my brain has difficulty processing sound at times. It’s more the sound itself?

F: Like the frequency?

T: Something like that? Pitch? I don’t know, but something sound-related made it hard for me to make out the words, especially as it didn’t have subtitles, so that’s more on Sky Arts, if anything. I’m pretty sure the English open air La Bohème had subtitles, but maybe I’m misremembering that?

F: At least you have the benefit of knowing what that one’s about already, and when it’s translated into English, is it really a big loss to not make out the words?

T: Haha, no, I suppose not.

F: See? There’s an upside to everything. You’re seeing a Wagner in June, right? Is that in English?

T: German, but subtitled.

F: Good, I’m glad.

T: Me too. I know some German, but not enough to make out the words and translating them on the fly.

F: I’m a strong believer in that opera should be sung in the intended language, otherwise you always lose something in translation. All you gain are extra syllables and that ain’t right.

T: You like what you like.

F: I do!

T: Even though we only just established that we’re doing some kind of cultural exchange, which should include operas translated into other languages?

F: Using my own words against me, huh?

T: You walked straight into that one, my friend.

F: Alright, you got me. We normally talk about any songs or melodies that you recognize from other places, so the obligatory question is, were any of them recognizable here?

T: Yes!

F: Great! Where from?

T: Animaniacs!

F. Animaniacs?

T: Yes, the captain’s song, the “hardly ever”? It’s sung an evil pirate who’ll do “cruel things to you”.

F: I thought Animaniacs was a kids show?

T: The jokes always work on multiple levels. It’s fun for kids and adults.

F: And kid-like adults?

T: Heck yes! The second song I don’t remember what it was about in Pinafore, but it’s Pinky and the Brain singing about world domination:

Noriega, Genghis Khan, Saddam Hussein and me, the Brain, we all have this one thing in common: we are into world domination.

F: Sounds like Animaniacs is a lot darker than I remember.

T: It’s fabulous. They’ve rebooted it now as well, but I don’t know where I can watch it. But that’s beside the point. What did you make of the whole Porter clan being redheads? It looked like a Weasley family reunion.

F: I guess it was meant to be a way to show they were all related, whereas in The Barber of Seville there was no connection, they just wore big red wigs for no reason.

T: The dresses were very colourful. Big hoop skirts and everything.

F: And an old woman who falls down holes for laughs. Where I come from you care for your elders, you wouldn’t let them fall down holes.

T: I think you may be overthinking it a tiny bit there. It’s meant to be amusing.

F: It ain’t tickling my funny bone is all. Would be stupid if we couldn’t laugh at different things, though. I get it.

T: It’s a good visual gag, if nothing else. There were plenty of those. Especially when the stage was revolving and you saw the back of the ship and with each spin they had rearranged the letters of the ship’s name into funny anagrams.

F: That amused me a lot more.

T: I’m surprised at how innuendo-y it was, but on the other hand, British humour is very heavy on innuendo. They made a whole film series out of it, from what I’ve gathered.

F: For real?

T: Yup. 18 years here and I’ve yet to watch a whole Carry On film, despite it being such a … cultural institution.

F: But can you truly say you’ve missed anything?

T: Probably not. People going “oh myyy” at a woman losing her bra feels very dated and wouldn’t really tickle my funny bone. It’s very of its time.

F: Which was a long time ago?

T: Correct.

F: The guy playing Sir Joseph reminded me of someone.

T: I thought he looked a lot like Harold Zidler from Moulin Rouge!

F: Yes! That’s who it was! I take it the guy is some sort of local celebrity?

T: Les Dennis, yes. He’s an actor and entertainer, who apparently now does opera.

F: I didn’t mind him.

T: Is that the polite version of “he wasn’t half bad – but he wasn’t half good either”?

F: No. Well, yeah, at first I didn’t rate him, but I came around. Were there better singers in that company? Without a doubt, but I strongly doubt anyone would consider Sir Joseph to be in the same league as Rossini’s Figaro with regards to the kind of caliber you’d need to be as a singer to pull off the role.

T: That’s probably a correct assessment, but I thought he was surprisingly good.

F: Were your expectations really low to begin with?

T: Not quite. They wouldn’t have cast him if he couldn’t sing. He might be famous in the UK, but I wouldn’t say his name alone can cover for any lack of vocal talent, but I could be wrong. I mean he’s clearly not in the same league as the singing Hugh Grant, who is an actual opera singer.

F: You talking about that Rafe-not-Ralph guy?

T: Yes, that’s the one.

F: I was confused when I read about it and it clearly said “Ralph”, and then they all mispronounced it.

T: Ohh, buddy. It’s not a mispronunciation, it’s a Welsh thing. Or British. I tried to look into it but that was the closest explanation I could find.

F: Those little islands of yours are quaint.

T: Yeah, well …

F: It is what it is?

T: Definitely, but yeah, Rafe is not a mispronunciation. It’s how they say it here.

F: I still think it should be Ralph, but fair enough.

T: What did you think of the cabin boy?

F: The kid? The kid was great! Great comic timing. Good tap-dancer too.

T: It almost turned into Riverdance for a while there. But yeah, I thought he was fab. And to think he was just the backup!

F: The backup?

T: Yeah, he wasn’t the main actor for the part. He only did a few performances, apparently.

F: Including the one they happened to film.

T: Yup. But hey, if he was that good, how good must the other boy have been?

F: Hey, maybe they saved this one for special occasions?

T: I kind of like the idea of that.

F: Has a nice ring to it.

T: Out of curiosity, did you notice the digs at modern politicians?

F: There was that clown of yours on the zip line?

T: I’m sure there were others as well.

F: I probably didn’t notice those.

T: No, why would you? But did you notice how they kept breaking the fourth wall?

F: Yeah, they kept addressing the audience and orchestra directly. I thought it went with the general whimsy of it all. It felt right at home with all the other silliness.

T: I agree. Imagine Mimì and Rodolfo asking the audience for help looking for the key, or asking the conductor if they could have a look around the orchestra pit just in case it fell down there.

F: I’d rather not, thanks! Philistine.

T: So a little silly comedy would be out of place in La Bohème?

F: There’s a bit of comedy to it already, sure, but nothing like that. Nor should it be. It’s what I like about this. This is funny. It’s meant to be funny. Like Così fan tutte or The Barber of Seville.

T: Except those aren’t necessarily laugh-out-loud funny to us these days.

F: No, but the point is that they’re meant to be funny. La Bohème ain’t a comedy, so to add something wholly whimsical like that would clash with the tone of it all. Ruin it. You don’t ruin La Bohème like that. It’s a classic.

T: No, that would be wrong, I agree. You’d need to re-write it completely for that. Like Moulin Rouge!

F: Now, that’s a silly movie.

T: And yet …

F: Oh yeah, there are a few similarities there, but it ain’t the same thing. It’s silly but it ain’t disrespectful.

T: What about this show? It’s silly, but is it disrespectful?

F: To the source material? This is the source material. Only way to disrespect it would be to make a production that ignored the silly and played it straight.

T: Like when Rafe comes with a noose and is about to go hang himself and no one seemed to bother trying to stop him?

F: I forgot about that. That was weird as all hell.

T: They’re just going to stand there and watch?!

F: Someone does that shit in front of you, you don’t stand by and do nothing. They’re supposed to be his friends, right? You see your friend like that, you do something. Anything.

T: So you think it was badly handled?

F: It was visceral, and it made a point, but … don’t mean I have to like it.

T: I think a gun is involved in the original, according to the synopsis. Would that have been better?

F: Hardly. Not if he was supposed to be waving it around. It could have a marginally different meaning with a gun, but not necessarily a better one. It’s complicated.

T: It often is.

F: You got any other thoughts about H.M.S. Pinafore?

T: The sisters and aunts and cousins Porter looked like French fancies. Sort of.

F: They’re some kind of cake, right?

T: Yup.

F: But you don’t like them?

T: They really only taste of sugar, so no. I like my cakes to have flavour.

F: Does this opera have flavor?

T: Yeah, I’d say so. It’s definitely colourful, but not colourful but bland like French fancies.

F: It was a little bland.

T: Really?

F: Hey, I like what I like.

S: Would you want to watch more English operas?

F: They ain’t as passionate as Italians, but they ain’t as long-winded as the Germans, so yeah. I’ll take silly British comedy over Wagner any day.

T: By the time this is posted, I may be agreeing with you! We’ll then have watched our first Wagner live on stage, as mentioned earlier. In a “concert staging”, which apparently means with the orchestra on stage, and making use of video projections and stuff like that. Allegedly.

F: How very avant-garde.

T: Indeed. They’ll be in costume and stuff too, though, it’s just that they’ve put the orchestra on stage.

F: Small place?

T: It’s a concert hall.

F: Not an opera house?

T: We don’t have one of those in Nottingham. We have a concert hall, a playhouse and a beautiful old theatre. I don’t know why it’s at the concert hall and not the Theatre Royal, though. Perhaps the theatre is even smaller.

F: Either way it ain’t exactly the Met.

T: No. But on the other hand we don’t have to dress up to the nines either.

F: What a shame. I’d love to see the two of youse in your Sunday best.

T: Another time, perhaps.

F: You got a preference for what we’re doing next?

T: Not really, no.

F: Then it will remain a mystery until next month.

T: I’ll be 40 next month.

F: So we’ll find ya something special to watch and discuss. But until then?

T: I get to say the catchphrase?

F: Sure, why not? Treat yourself. You’re the one taking one for the team by giving up a quarter of your day to experience Wagner live.

T: You’re really not impressed by Wagner, are you?

F: He’s too self-indulgent and preachy. Music’s good, though, but I wouldn’t go see any of it live. I got things I need to do.

T: And on that note, we say a presto!

F: What she said. We’ll be back in July!

Francis

An old school gentleman in a modern world, longing for the simplicity of days gone by. Definitely not a saint. Enjoys The Sopranos and going to the opera. A meticulous dresser with Strong Opinions™ about Italian food. Wonders why "Fedora-wearing" is an insult, as he doesn't feel dressed without one.

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