Valley Light Opera presents Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ in Northampton over next two weekends

Laste modified: Thursday, March 06, 2014
Gilbert and Sullivan are two of the most famous composers of the 19th century, and “H.M.S. Pinafore” may be their most celebrated creation. The Valley Light Opera will perform the comedic operetta over the next two weekends at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

“H.M.S. Pinafore” is the tale of a navy captain’s daughter, Josephine, who falls in love with a common sailor, though her father wants her to marry a lord. The opera combines a love story and a comedy of manners on the high seas, and finds most of its humor in poking fun at the British class system and the incompetence of those in authority.

The VLO, a nonprofit community opera company based in Amherst, is dedicated to performing primarily Gilbert and Sullivan works, though the company also mixes operas by other composers into its schedule from time to time. Since Gilbert and Sullivan only wrote 14 operas and the VLO has been putting on two or more shows a year since 1975, the company has performed many of the duo’s works multiple times.

Their newest rendition of “Pinafore” marks the fifth time the company has put on the classic. But each season, company members say, they add something new.

“Even if it’s the same show, the acting is different, the choreography and the blocking are different, the time period may be different,” said Nina Pollard of Hadley, a chorus member in this year’s production and a 10-year veteran of the VLO. “Everyone’s directing style is different.”

Graham Christian of Pelham, the show’s director and choreographer, has taken steps to ensure that his version of the well-loved operetta is unique, though still recognizable as the show that was first performed at the Opera Comique in London in 1878. He’s chosen to move the setting back to 1805, the year the British Navy won the Battle of Trafalgar over France and established itself as a dominant military power.

“I like something rather specific to hang my hat on for a production,” Christian said in a recent interview at the Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley, where the group rehearses. “It says something about the way characters carry themselves, what their expectations are, the society in which they operate. It’s also a tremendous boon to costume designers and set designers to say ‘Where are we? When are we?’ ”

Christian says he chose 1805 because that era is particularly recognizable to audiences, both for its culture and its history.

“There’s a real attraction to positioning the play in the world of Jane Austen, in the world of ‘Master and Commander,’ ” he said. “There’s a little danger if you’re not specific, that you end up in this sort of vague operetta land. I’ve seen plenty of operettas where it’s just set somewhere in the 19th century.”

Head of costuming, Elaine Walker of Amherst, has taken inspiration from the time period. The VLO’s costume shop is set up in the church as well, in a small room off the main lobby. At least 10 sewing machines are crammed in the space, and at any time during rehearsals 15 or more costumers can be found hemming dresses, attaching buttons and hand-stitching details onto the hundreds of pieces the cast of 51 requires.

Walker maintains a book pasted with Victorian inspirations for costumes, including images from films such as 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice” and 1996’s “Emma,” both based on Austen novels. She did most of her research for the production on the Internet.

“Online, it’s so easy,” she said. “You can download the images to find all the little details that one would want to put on a costume.”

The costume shop does not buy or rent any clothing, but produces every article themselves. Walker began working on “Pinafore” in April.

Conflict on dry land

The change in setting is not the only adaptation Christian made to put his own stamp on “Pinafore.” Though the opera traditionally takes place almost entirely aboard a navy vessel, the director has added two ballroom scenes that occur on dry land.

“In this period, that kind of social dance was a crucial way for people to interact,” he said. “For relationships to be established, for you to make contact with your social superiors and inferiors, to flirt with somebody, and for marriages to be made or engagements to be broken.”

Christian says the new scenes also provide more insight into the relationship between the male and female leads.

“This is an opportunity for the hero and the heroine to encounter one another up close and personal and to fall in love at that moment. The conflict is set up in the first ball,” he said. “Then in the second ball, the intensity of the conflict is emphasized.”

Christian says he considers himself a self-taught dance historian; he teaches social dance in Amherst and throughout Massachusetts, a genre that emphasizes socialization and the chance to interact with multiple partners. Examples include English country dance, contra dance and square dance, among others.

The ball scenes that he has incorporated into “Pinafore” will add something special to the performance, he said, without alienating audience members who want to see a production with which they are familiar. “And that’s what we have. It’s more or less the show they remember,” he said.

Like a family

This consideration for the wishes of the audience is part of what makes VLO a community theater; it’s a group putting on opera by locals for locals, organizers say. Members also value the friendships and relationships made during the rehearsal process, says Pollard, the chorus member.

“I fell into the VLO and it became like a family, Pollard said. “It’s a huge, wonderfully supportive community of people.”

And everybody pitches in to get the job done. Actors, for example, are expected to put in hours sewing in the costume shop or building the set, and performers and crew members hold multiple positions. Walker, the costume head, is also a “Pinafore” producer, and sang for 20 years in the VLO chorus while also creating costumes. Christian also worked for five years as a choreographer for the group before adding director to his title in 2009.

As a nonprofit, the VLO is also dedicated to giving something back, Pollard said. The troupe does outreach by performing at local schools and senior centers.

“This is all volunteer, and it’s hard work,” she said. “It’s funny to think of community theater as volunteerism because you’re having so much fun, but it is volunteerism. It is something that is a benefit to the community.”

The VLO will perform “H.M.S. Pinafore” Nov. 9, 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 10 and 17 at 2 p.m. at the Academy of Music, at 274 Main St. in Northampton.

Tickets cost $25; $20 for seniors and students; and $10 for children 12 and under. To purchase, visit www.academyofmusictheatre.com.