Gilbert & Sullivan returns to San Diego in a major production of The Pirates of Penzance by San Diego Opera. This lively work is by an English team producing popular 19th century light opera.  Recently major opera companies have elevated G&S to the rank of musical theater joining contemporary chamber operas.

The SDO production is scheduled to open the 2018 opera season on October 14 with a star cast and a stylish production from The Atlantic Opera. Greer Grimsley returns as the Pirate King with his wife Luretta Bybee in the cast. In keeping with the G&S family-orientated tradition, this show is also a family affair.

SDO aficionados might consider G&S inappropriate for the opera house. Historically these lively works from the 19th century are light opera falling between grand opera and the popular London music halls where the working class was entertained. Remember, there were no cinemas or television, so live musical theater was the key source of entertainment into the mid-20th century.

The Pirates of Penzance, the fifth of the 14 comic operas by the collaboration of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, premiered in 1879 and became an immediate success. Typical of the G&S style, the plot is not essential, but the “patter songs” defined the libretto as a spoof of portentous social standards and pompous personalities of the Victorian era with thinly disguised characters.

These pirates are not the blood-thirsty, swashbuckling types seeking fortunes to plunder. They are noblemen who violated the conventions of the day and are indentured in exile to a pirate ship for a specified term. Their lifestyle is more an adventure of good times, thus a comic pirate opera.

The thin plot concerns a youth Frederic who was indentured by his nurse by mistake until he was 21 years old. After falling in love with Mabel, he learns that his birthday on February 29 means he officially will not be 21 for another 63 years. Disregarding the plot, the band of pirates provides a series of jolly escapades and numerous lampoons of celebrities that the audience were quick to recognize in their day. The title of the opera is a multi-layered joke. Penzance is a docile seaside resort in Cornwall, not a brawling hangout port for rough and tough seamen.

This colorful production has a cartoonish set befitting the hilarity of the gentlemen pirates. The designer of the set and costumes, James Shuette, created productions for all of the major regional companies. The conductor is Evan Rogister and the director-choreographer is Seán Curran, both taking a turn at G&S style.

The G&S operas were so popular in England and tours abroad that a theatrical group called the D’Oyly Carte Opera Co. built the Savoy Theatre in 1881 in the West End of London to showcase new productions. It was a state-of-the-art facility, the first building in the world to have electric lighting. I suppose any visitor to London went to the Savoy to be entertained by G&S or the new musicals and plays.

Sullivan reworked many of his patter songs into new versions that contributed to the audience favorable response to a familiar tune. He was not the only one to “borrow” a theme. Musicologists claim Andrew Lloyd Webber worked some G&S into his hit musicals. Other composers who were inspired by the G&S music style in their early work include George Gershwin, Noel Coward and Irving Berlin.

The Pirates has not lost its luster over the years. A revival in 1981 ran for 787 performances on Broadway and is currently produced by several U.S. opera companies.

In addition to the Grimsley couple, the SDO  cast includes American tenor Mackenzie Whitney as Frederic making a SDO debut; Patrick Carfizzi an American bass-baritone returning to SDO as the Major-General Stanley who was identified as the English general Sir Garnet Wolseley; American soprano Maureen McKay returning as Mabel.

The Pirates of Penzance is sung in English. Performances are scheduled at 7 PM for Saturday, October 14, Tuesday October 17 and Friday, October 20, and at 2 PM on Sunday, October 22 . For ticket information, call (619) 533 7000 or visit http://www.sdopera.com.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.