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Approaching "H.M.S. Pinafore" at Tacoma Opera

Oh joy, oh rapture

Aboard the H.M.S. Pinafore, a tale of love, hypocrisy and mistaken identities unravels when the captain's daughter falls secretly in love with a common sailor. Photo credit: Peter Serko

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There was a period in my life when I knew, but didn't know I knew, H.M.S. Pinafore. Not that I could distinguish Gilbert & Sullivan, the composers of that masterpiece, from Lerner & Loewe, but I recognized some of their songs. Just as Bugs Bunny had introduced me to the sturm und drang of German opera as a child, pop culture opened a door to more classic material in my adolescent mind. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it seems Indy's Egyptian friend Sallah (played for some reason by hearty Welsh actor John Rhys-Davies) is a G&S fanatic. Before saving his archaeologist friend from "bad dates," Sallah croons "I am the monarch of the sea" from "My Gallant Crew, Good Morning." In response to a smooch from Marion Ravenwood, the Anglo Egyptian busts out a chorus of "A British Tar." Such was the popularity of H.M.S. Pinafore, even half a century after its 1878 debut, that Sallah's regard for its delights is among Raiders' more plausible moments.

Harder to believe, but just as memorable, is Bart J Simpson's familiarity with 19th-century comic opera. In The Simpsons' 1993 episode "Cape Feare," Bart distracts his homicidal nemesis, Sideshow Bob Terwilliger (Kelsey Grammer), by imploring him to perform H.M.S. Pinafore in its entirety. A flattered Bob replies, "Very well, Bart. I shall send you to Heaven before I send you to Hell." He follows through with a medley of "We Sail the Ocean Blue," "Hail! Men-o'-War's Men!" (Little Buttercup's Song) and a falsetto'd climax from "He Is an Englishman." So guess what? If you recognize either of those pop culture references, then you know some Pinafore, too.

I mention all that as a counter to my observation that most 21st-century Americans view opera, even Gilbert & Sullivan's lighthearted form, as stodgy and boring. The truth is these classics still resonate with smart comedians, singers and actors, not because they're revered by theater historians but because they're fun. This one's about a beautiful, highborn woman in love with an uncouth sailor. It takes the piss out of the stuffy British class system and, like The Importance of Being Earnest (which premiered two years earlier), stoops to a contrived but amusing missing-baby subplot. Snippets from Pinafore have turned up on Animaniacs, Family Guy, House, and The West Wing. A number of scholars believe it all but generated what we now regard as "American"-style musical theater.

That all sounds lovely; but who can afford a trip to the opera, right? You can, for one. If last October's The Magic Flute was any indication, Tacoma Opera does a praiseworthy job of staging beloved opera classics for reasonable ticket prices. Their production of Pinafore boasts vocals by Boston Lyric Opera soloist Michael Drumheller, Seattle Opera Guild's Ksenia Popova and returnees from The Barber of Seville. Give it a shot. You may find yourself becoming a super-smart opera fan like Sallah and Sideshow Bob. Now, somebody join me in a round! "A Brrritish tar is a soooaring soul, as free as a mounta-ain bi-ird. ..."

H.M.S. PINAFORE, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8, Rialto Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $29-$90, 253.591.5894

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