Virginia Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance RRRRRRRRRRRR the Best

Virginia Opera's Pirates of Penzance on 11/2/2022. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

Norfolk, VA – We hear the story way too ‘orphan’. A sense of duty and obligation can often land us in an unwanted place, driving us to do things we would not normally do if left to our own devices. Virginia Opera‘s rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s 1879 comedy, The Pirates of Penzance, took a comedic look at duty and responsibility and one young man’s struggle to free himself from a band of pirates, evenually marrying the woman of his dreams. Alas, such a tale seldom has a happy ending… but as I have found out in my journey into opera, the libretto quite often has unexpected twists and turns. Gilbert and Sullivan surely would not disappoint. 

The opera opens to a great celebration of the young Frederic (Martin Bakari, Tenor), former pirate apprentice, being elevated to full pirate by his new pirate peers. The celebration is short lived, however, as Frederic declares to the Pirate King (Aubrey Allicock, Bass-Baritone) and the remainder of the band of his intent to leave the fray. As it turns out, his service as an apprentice had been granted to the pirates by his father and, with a strong sense of duty and responsibility, young Frederic obliged until the commitment ended in his 21st year. The plot thickens as Ruth (Lucy Schaufer, Mezzo-soprano), tasked when he was young, to apprentice him as a PILOT, mistakenly doled him out to this band of PIRATES! Yes, the words sound remarkably alike!!

Pirates of Penzance Photo Gallery 1

Young Frederic is not hurt by this admission. He proclaims that, while his sense of duty has kept him with the pirates, he finds them disgusting and now feels he has a duty to take part in their demise. Thankfully, it is only half past 11, as he cannot be freed until the clock strikes 12. Frederic reminisces of the good and the bad. They never attack the weak, are viscous with the strong, and will never harm an orphan (and all the pirates break down as they are all orphans). At this point I started to see some, as we call it today, legalese enter the dialog. Frederic points out that their softness on orphans is well known and may be exploited. As a matter of fact the last merchant navy they attacked was made up entirely of… you got it… orphans.

Frederic leaves shortly and he takes Ruth with him. As he is now a man, he must choose to wed and Ruth, being the only woman he has ever known, is the perfect candidate. Despite the fact she is over 25 years his senior, he wishes to go forward and asks he if, compared to other women, she is beautiful. She answers, “Yes, I have been told so”. He is temporarily smitten until, as fate would have it, a band of women of his generation pass by…

One thing I had noticed to this point was that dialog was a major part of this opera. In previous operas I have seen, most of the dialog was in verse. Not so in Pirates. I think this really demonstrated the talents of the actors as, with music, often (or orphan… more on that later) the feeling can be portrayed in the musical key whereas with only dialog, a new emotional skillset is needed. Seeing this dynamic come to life in such a fun way made my night.

All but dismissing Ruth, Frederic spies Mabel (Amy Owens, Soprano) and falls madly in love. Not far behind, the rest of the pirates come upon the band of sisters and are also taken aback by their beauty. I got the sense had it ended there, they would have all taken wives and become respectable members of society. It did not, as their father (a very busy man I must say… 13 daughters?!), Major-General Stanley (Troy Cook, Baritone), enters and does not approve of this pirate takeover. 

Cook’s performance was over-the-top as he was very flamboyant and just a lot of fun. The Major-General did not approve of the relationships and was very vocal (and animated) in putting an end to the rubbish that would see his beautiful daughters wed to this band of pirates. To get their way the pirates threaten to end his life. A smart man, knowing of their sympathy for orphans, Stanley claims he is an orphan. The plot thickens. 

Pirates of Penzance Photo Gallery 2

It was here I noticed another play on words. As you may recall, Frederic was a pirate, not a pilot, because the words sounded alike and Ruth made a mistake. Well, orphan and often sound a lot alike also, and the Major-General asked whether the orphan they spoke of was of frequency (often) or of child (orphan). I would have died at this point had the Pirate King asked one of the other daughters, Edith (Katherine Sanford, Mezzo-soprano), “Do you come here orphan?” I love a good play on words and Pirates sent me straight to heaven!!

While the first act set up the storyline, act 2 tied them all together. Opening with the loyal daughters consoling their father, even to the point of Mabel sacrificing her olfactory nerves to massage his smelly feet (Owens’ expression was quite telling). Frederic had left the pirates, was intent on being a respectable man and marrying Mabel. The police, led by their Sergeant of Police (Jeremy Harr, bass), enter to protect the others from the wrath of the pirates. The portrayal of the police caught my eye as they were quite Keystone Kop ish with a flare for Charlie Chaplin. As I looked at some previous performances, I noted this is a common portrayal. The force was bumbling but very committed to their duty as officers of the law. 

I have found that operas often take unexpected turns. Pirates were no exception. Whether intentional or not, it became apparent that even in 1879, pirates were well versed in legalese (or is it that lawyers are committed to piracy? You decide). As it turns out, Frederic was born on February 29th and his contract stated that he would have to remain a pirate until his 21st BIRTHDAY. Alas, to this date he had only had 5 true birthdays. His commitment to duty took over, and he once again united with the Pirate King and recently pirated, Ruth. 

Pirates of Penzance Photo Gallery 3

As the police plot their protection of the daughters and pursuit of the pirates, while in a cemetery, they hear the pirates approach and hide. The pirates enter to plot the demise of the Major-General and celebrate Frederic’s return to soon be disrupted by the return of Stanley. They too hide. 

As the Major-General contemplates the future, the opposing forces come out of hiding and confront the issue at hand. A great battle takes place. To the dismay of Mabel, Frederic is now with the pirates. The confrontation comes to a conclusion with the pirates victorious. It does not look good for the Major-General… but of course it cannot end there. 

Enter Queen Victoria (Emily Zehir) (I LOVED THIS!!). A stoic Queen figure enters, not saying a word with the well-known Queen wave. It is here that they all realize that while they all have a sense of duty to each other, their ultimate duty is to the serve the Queen. The police are set free, the Pirate King is knighted (I loved that twist) and the pirates are free to marry the daughters as they were all respectable…. and they lived happily ever after… 


My wife and I left with smiles on our faces. Once again, being relatively new to the opera scene I was fascinated by the story, the performance, and the fun that could be delivered with powerful music combined with a well put together libretto. It has been a delight seeing operatic performances from different times. What has been most insightful is that even though the messages may be delivered in different ways with different musical tones, the stories told in days of old still have application today. It is interesting how the story can change but modern audiences can still relate. 

Additional Cast 

Samuel (Kyle White, Baritone)
Kate (Taylor-Alexis DuPont, Mezzo-soprano)
Isabel (Kaileigh Riess, Mezzo-soprano)

Additional Credits

Director – Kyle Lang
Conductor – Adam Turner
Orchestra – Virginia Symphony Orchestra
Assistant Director – Nora Winsler
Associate Conductor – Brandon Eldredge
Costume and Scenic Designer – James Schuette
Lighting Design – Driscoll Otto
Associate Lighting Designer – Jimmy Lawlor
Wig and Make-up – James P. McGough
Stage Manager – Karen T. Federing
Guest Principal Coach and Rehearsal Pianist – Jeremy Reger

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Dave Pearson is based out of Richmond, VA by way of Hayward, WI. He has long had a passion for music. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, he rocked out to the likes of Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and The Lettermen. Then, one Saturday night, being the rebel he was born to be, he caught an Alice Cooper interview (it may have been on The Midnight Special) and saw him perform, “Welcome to My Nightmare”. Dave was hooked on Rock and Roll (and many other genres as well). Dave has enjoyed (amateur) photography to some degree most of his adult life. Recently Dave started to apply his event photography skills in various music settings with success. He finds that photographing a performance gives him a much greater appreciation for the artist.