Gilbert & Sullivan’s high seas adventure of swashbuckling pirates has all the hallmarks of a classic comic opera: a carousing chorus, a soprano-tenor power couple and a bass baddie. But Bryan Knowlton’s new production of “The Pirates of Penzance” at Montclair State University loosens up those conventions.
“My aesthetic is to always challenge myself artistically,” says the director-choreographer. “I’m always trying to find a new way to tell stories. I love to take old stories that people love and know, and put a twist to them.”
His latest twist is a gender-fluid production for Montclair State’s John J. Cali School of Music and Department of Theatre and Dance. Eight performances run Oct. 13-15 and Oct. 20-22 at the university’s Life Hall Studio Theatre.
When the English opera premiered in 1879, critics and audiences raved over W.S. Gilbert’s ingenious libretto and Arthur Sullivan’s sparkling composition.
“It’s got such a sharp edge,” says Knowlton. “It’s also strikingly unpretentious and infinitely clever. Gilbert’s lyrics and Sullivan’s music does all that with a very light touch.”
The opera is set in England during the reign of Queen Victoria. Frederic, about to finish his apprenticeship with the Pirate King on his 21st birthday, is blindsided by a formality: he was born on Feb. 29, so he won’t technically turn 21 for decades. He falls in love with Mabel, one of Major-General Stanley’s daughters, and is torn between his duty to the pirates and his beloved.
Knowlton approached the opera by examining the story’s essence. He found it revelatory. “I always start off by reading the script without music or anything,” he says. “I just read the lines, read what’s been written. And something I noticed was that this story was about sense of duty. In Frederic’s instance, his duty to the pirates, but also his duty to Mabel and his duty to his own self. I noticed that, and thought it was really interesting.
“But then what sort of arose to me — and I think this is where the theatrical lens should shift and needs to shift — is that I didn’t see gender. I just visualized people talking to each other, and navigating a story and a journey in that sense. So that’s how I sort of came to the idea of, ‘What does this opera look like if we just make this gender fluid, and just make this about people telling a story?’ ”
The opera industry is a bastion of tradition, but gender blurring is part of its DNA. Since the mid-18th century, composers such as Mozart incorporated “trouser roles” — female singers in the roles of men such as Cherubino in “The Marriage of Figaro” — as key protagonists.
With this production, Knowlton proposes new ways of thinking about gender identity norms and ideology by recalibrating some of the characters’ genders. The Pirate King, a male character traditionally sung by a male-identifying bass-baritone, is sung by a female-identifying singer. “The female-identifying student is playing it as her, but with a masculine sense to it,” says Knowlton. “Again, it’s just another human stepping in as an actor into this role as the Pirate King. That’s how we’re playing all of these characters.”
The male character of Frederic is sung by a male-identifying student, which follows the original libretto. But Frederic’s love interest, Mabel, a female character conventionally sung by a soprano, is sung by a male-identifying student.
Some vocal roles had to be transposed from their operatic voice classifications. Knowlton turned to his musical director, Carol Lombardi, for guidance on vocal transpositions. “I knew this was going to be difficult because this is an opera, and as far as singing-wise, what does this look like for the female voice to be in a male range and vice versa?” Knowlton said. “So I spoke to Carol and she was like, ‘This sounds really cool and really interesting,’ and then she sort of educated me on it and said it’s definitely doable. We might have to change keys, but we can navigate that!”
Other variations aimed to make the opera more accessible to contemporary audiences. “Is there a way to insert a place for a more current sound?” Knowlton wondered. He encouraged the student musicians to experiment with updated elements such as electric piano and African drums, added to Sullivan’s score while maintaining the original sound.
Choreography went through a similar process, with the help of Knowlton’s longtime associate, director-choreographer Lauren Monteleone. “We tried to make the choreography for modern audiences, so we’ve incorporated modern moves. You know how ‘Bridgerton’ (the Netflix historical-romance television series) took the waltz and made it modern and current? That’s what we’ve done here as well — that’s my take on it — adding this new accessible iconography and making it relatable,” he says.
Knowlton’s collaboration with the university’s Department of Theatre and Dance, currently in an adjunct faculty role, began about four years ago when Mark Hardy (associate professor of theatre and dance, and coordinator of musical theatre) tapped him to choreograph “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
“It was right when I had just moved to London, and I was just getting settled,” Knowlton says. “So I turned around and came back and started working on it with Mark at Montclair and just had a lovely time, not only with him but with the theater students.” Knowlton currently travels between London and New York, where his husband lives, collaborating on creative projects around the United States.
It was during Montclair State’s recent production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” that he was first approached to direct “The Pirates of Penzance.”
“Mark knows my work very, very well,” Knowlton recalls. “He approached me during ‘Curious Incident’ last year and said, ‘We want to do an opera and we want to make it accessible to the students. But we also know that you love to mess with stuff, so we’d love to know what your ideas would be if you were to do it. What would it look like?’ ”
Knowlton gives a full-hearted laugh that says he was confidently up to task.
“My first question was, ‘Why tell this story now?’ ” he continues. “Especially with students who are very aware of the theatrical climate. And I asked Mark, ‘How can we create this new playground for students so that it still captures the essence of these characters, by not only switching the genders of some roles but also by simplifying the aesthetic to match what Montclair could do in this studio-type of environment.’ ”
Knowlton’s pared-down scenography keeps the production of about 25 students in proportion to the modest, in-the-round venue. “We’re in a student setting so it’s all about challenging the students,” he says. “So not only are they learning an opera very, very quickly — in a matter of eight weeks — but it’s in-the-round. It’s a very immersive piece; they don’t leave the stage.
“I’m most excited that the students are getting the opportunity. It’s not that often we get a gift like this where you’re presented with this very classic piece of theater and artistry, yet it feels like we’ve made this from scratch with just the baseline of someone who wrote and scored the story. That’s a great opportunity for the students to workshop something new and to tell a new story.”
Discovering unique, new ways to tell iconic stories is in Knowlton’s wheelhouse. His identity as a first generation Latino American and a member of the LGBTQ+ community shaped his passion to explore culturally diverse narratives.
Gilbert’s fanciful use of satire, parody, paradoxes and double entendres inspired Knowlton to play around with gender identities in the opera. “I think that’s the curiosity that Gilbert & Sullivan inspire,” he says. “That was definitely part of our inspiration and exploration — poking fun at different things … my hope is to maintain the grandiosity of this very intelligent piece of theater, and to maintain the curiosity of how to tell this piece now for a new generation of theater-goers through a modern and explorative approach.
“Our production puts aside gender to challenge the notion of masculinity and femininity through a new theatrical lens, and it’s through that new lens that I believe we are able to keep these classic stories alive, and sort of pay homage to what came before us.”
Knowlton made the transition to director-choreographer about a decade ago, after a successful career as a singer, actor and dancer in film, television and Broadway, which included the role of Paul in “A Chorus Line” in the 2006-2008 Broadway revival. “Then about four years after that,” he says, “as I was sort of rounding the end of my time as a performer, I really desired to be on the other side of the table, and to be able to explore that and to see what that was like.”
He finds the back-of-house artistry enriching and fulfilling. ”It’s been such a joy and experience to watch something come to life rather than be in it all the time as a performer. There’s something really courageous about watching actors go through motions, and find and navigate whatever the journey is within their stories, and to bring it to life.
”And then watching it come to fruition, seeing it that opening night and how many people it takes to create a production … directing and choreographing, you’re dealing with all the designers, technicians, the actors, and wearing that other hat is a much greater place to be. There’s much more gratitude and grace in that portion of it, rather than performing, because performing is just you.”
“The Pirates of Penzance” will be presented at the Life Hall Studio Theatre at Montclair State University, Oct. 13-15 and 20-22 at 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 15 and 22 at 2 p.m. Visit montclair.edu.
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