Theater's 'Most Ridiculous' Opera Sails Into Hobby, Starring a Guy Who Used to Prefer 'Serious'
SNOBBISH IS NOT a word one would use to describe Houston baritone, director, educator and children’s book author Dennis Arrowsmith.
However, upon arriving in Houston in 1999 to study voice and music performance, Arrowsmith, like many budding classical singers, assumed the 19th-century comedic operas of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan — works he actually knew very little about — were a step or two beneath the exalted warhorses of European opera. The opportunity to perform in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers completely changed his tune.
“My eyes were opened to how fun and clever and well-put together the shows are,” says Arrowsmith, who has performed with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston since 2005, and sings the formidable role of Major-General Stanley in the Society’s upcoming production of The Pirates of Penzance. The show runs July 22-30 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Arrowsmith (photo by Fil Nenna)
Dennis in costume as Major-General Stanley
The Pirates of Penzance may be Gilbert and Sullivan’s funniest and silliest creation. It’s certainly their most popular, made even more famous thanks to the 1983 film version starring Kevin Kline as the Pirate King and Linda Ronstadt as the Major-General’s daughter Mabel (he has several). “The characters are very likeable,” says Arrowsmith, whose acting and comedic skills are rooted in his love for musical theater. “But every character is ridiculous!”
The storyline revolves around Frederic, an orphan whose apprenticeship to a gang of bumbling, soft-hearted pirates was set to end when he turned 21, but whose Leap Year birthday date condemns him to indentured servitude for another 63 years. (The alternate title of the opera is The Slave of Duty.) It’s just the sort of paradox Gilbert and Sullivan loved to posit and resolve through Gilbert’s tongue-twisting lyrics and Sullivan’s music which wholeheartedly parodied the classical canon, even as it defined a new genre of music and theatrical performance.
The end of act one of Pirates heralds the arrival of Major-General Stanley, who appears on stage not brandishing a sword or pistol, but rhymes; lots and lots of rhymes, delivered in a rapid-fire style of singing known to 19th-century audiences as “pattering,” and similar to the lyrical delivery in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop infused musical Hamilton. As it is in every Gilbert and Sullivan opera, words are crucial to the plot of Pirates. “There are swashbuckling moments and swordfights, but all of the conflict and resolution is wordplay and paradox,” says Arrowsmith. “It’s never a battle of might. It’s more a battle of smarts.” While there will be surtitles, Arrowsmith says he and the cast work “very, very hard” on their diction. “My goal is to have the audience look at me and not the surtitles,” says Arrowsmith.
July’s performances of Pirates are the first since the retirement in 2022 of the Society’s renowned stage director Alistair Donkin, a longtime member of the London-based D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was created to produce and present Gilbert and Sullivan’s repertoire, and Arrowsmith admits to feeling just a bit of pressure stepping into a role Donkin sang for so many years. “The first time I did Pirates I was the Sergeant of Police, and I was doing cartwheels and dancing,” laughs Arrowsmith, “and now I’m struggling to get up from the ground.” (Opening night will mark Arrowsmith’s forty-second trip around the sun.)
In addition to performing with the Society, Arrowsmith keeps busy as the education and engagement manager for HITS Theatre in the Heights, which provides students K-12 with the opportunity to study and perform with theater professionals. He has also been a member of the HGO Chorus for two decades, and managed HGO’s Opera to Go! touring program, which presents over 150 kid-friendly programs annually in Houston schools, libraries, and community spaces.
“It’s always been a passion of mine to demonstrate and hopefully inspire not only future arts participants but also patrons,” says Arrowsmith. “Because without an audience, there’s no point.”
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