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Still Funny After 120 Years

April 08, 2007

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    April 08, 2007
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    Opera Carolina News

Still Funny After 120 Years

Opera Carolina ends season with classic Gilbert and Sullivan show

Long before "Pirates of the Caribbean" set sail into movie theaters, another seafaring band began taking audiences captive. They'll land at the Belk Theater this week when Opera Carolina caps off its season with "The Pirates of Penzance."

With characters who are walking wisecracks and music whose catchiness never stops, Gilbert and Sullivan's comedy has retained its firepower for more than 120 years. Here's a primer:

Which is which

Though anyone other than their most devoted fans may never think about it, Gilbert and Sullivan do have first names. William S. Gilbert, the wordsmith of the pair, worked as a bureaucrat and lawyer before turning to his gift for satire. Arthur Sullivan composed prolifically for the church and concert hall. Outside of his collaboration with Gilbert, though, he had only one lasting success. In 1871 -- the year he first worked with Gilbert -- he wrote the music for the church hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers."

A better bandit

Maybe Gilbert was destined to come up with a tale of skullduggery. Travelling through Europe with his family as a 2-year-old, he was kidnapped by bandits in Italy and held for ransom. The bandits he created with Sullivan are much less threatening, though. "They're not very good pirates," says stage director Bill Fabris, stage director of Opera Carolina's production. That's where the fun comes in.

The know-it-all

Gilbert trained for the military, so he must've run into his share of officers. Even the most colorful could hardly have equaled the one he created: Major-General Stanley, whose daughters catch the pirates' eyes. He introduces himself with the showstopper number, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." He parades his knowledge at top speed, and here's some of what he's talking about. (The numbers refer to the song's full text below.)"I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's": Most viewers know about King Arthur, of Camelot fame. But Sir Caradoc? He belongs to the same legends: He was one of the knights of the round table. (1)

The "crimes of Heliogabalus": Heliogabalus was an emperor of ancient Rome, and his cruelty became legend. According to one tale, he killed the guests at a dinner party by having them smothered under a deluge of rose petals. (2)

"I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies": Raphael was a big-name painter. Dou (as his name is usually spelled) was a 17th-century Dutch painter who studied with Rembrandt. Johann Zoffany was a German active in England during the 1700s. He became a favorite of George III and Queen Charlotte -- yes, the Queen City's namesake -- whom he painted in informal scenes with their family. (3)

"I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes": The ancient playwright has his actors engage in mimicry. Want to try it? Aristophanes' frogs say, "Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax ..."(4)

"A better major general has never sat a gee": In other words, has never sat on a horse. "Gee-gee" was a child's term for horse, coming from an equine command. (5)

Taking aim at everyone

The fact that opera companies produce Gilbert and Sullivan shows today is an irony the two creators might never have foreseen. They delighted in poking fun at operas that were the rage of London in their day. When the reluctant pirate Frederic learns about his background from the servant Ruth, it's a takeoff on the convoluted tale a gypsy tells in Verdi's "Il Trovatore." The big tune in the finale, director Fabris notes, is a spoof of the rousing "Triumphal March" from Verdi's "Aida." But give them credit for evenhandedness: They even poke fun at one of their own shows. In Major General Stanley's big number, he brags that he "can whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense, `Pinafore'! "

Opera Carolina presents Gilbert and Sullivan's comedy.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. April 15.
WHERE: Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130 N. Tryon St.
TICKETS: $14-$90.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000; www.operacarolina.org.


In Act 1 of "The Pirates of Penzance," Major-General Stanley introduces himself in a mile-a-minute song that's a Gilbert and Sullivan classic. To help you get ready, here's the text:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's; (1)
I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus, (2)
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies, (3)
I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes! (4)
Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense `Pinafore.'
Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you every detail of Caractacus' uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin,"
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat,"
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery;
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy,
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee. (5)
For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

To learn more about Gilbert, Sullivan and their shows: http://math.boisestate.edu/GaS/.