Director: 'Pirates of Penzance' likely to draw large audiences

When it comes to the growing popularity of opera, the proof is in the numbers.

"More tickets are sold in opera than at sporting events," said Mark Ferrell, associate professor of music at Kansas University, citing a recent national study. "There are more opera companies than professional sports teams."

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Melissa Lacey/Journal-World Photo

Running a scene from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera "The Pirates of Penzance" are, from left, Joshua Farrier as Frederic, Holly White as Ruth and Joseph Campbell as the Pirate King. The opera opens Friday in Swarthout Recital Hall in Murphy Hall.

KU Opera has had to turn away as many as 120 people a night because all seats in the performance hall were taken.

"We often have sellout crowds, but it depends on the time of year and basketball games," Ferrell said.

Ferrell expects KU's upcoming production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" to sell out quickly, even though it will open a couple of days after the spring semester begins. Ferrell is music director for the show, while John Stephens, KU music professor, is stage director.

"The Pirates of Penzance" follows Frederic who, as a child, was mistakenly apprenticed to a band of pirates. During the two-act opera, Frederic and his pirate companions fall in love, stir up trouble and find redemption.

The opera was first performed in December 1879 at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York City. University Theatre staged the opera about a dozen years ago at KU, with Ferrell serving as conductor.

Because "The Pirates of Penzance" is not that taxing vocally, it provides an opportunity for KU Opera to cast younger, or less experienced, singers in major roles.

"It's a show that's a lot of fun to do, for the performers and the audience, and we usually draw pretty good crowds for Gilbert and Sullivan," Ferrell said. "It falls lightly on the ear and invites toe-tapping and whistling when you leave."

Stephens said the students and the audience seem to appreciate the witty, intelligent humor of Gilbert and Sullivan, who often parody society at large.

"It's well-acknowledged no one has surpassed Gilbert in cleverness of his text. (Stephen) Sondheim and (Neil) Simon are the closest," he said.

"There's always a kind of twisted logic to the story that people like," Ferrell added. "There's a dilemma set up by people following some sort of rules, but they really can't live by the rules, and then there's some sort of resolution of comic effect."

Stephens said KU's show is based loosely on the Joseph Papp production in 1980 that starred Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith and Kevin Kline.

"We have chosen to update the orchestration. We will have three synthesizers and a busy percussion player," Ferrell said, adding the orchestra also includes flute, piccolo, clarinet, saxophone and electric bass. "It will have a bright sound but still maintains the integrity of the score."

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