USA Opera Theatre Details Preparation for “The Pirates of Penzance”

Article and photos by: Milena Mata | Contributor |

Directing, conducting, designing, building, sewing. Almost one year of work for two performances. 

The USA Opera Theatre performed “The Pirates of Penzance” on April 22 and April 24. “The Pirates of the Penzance” is a comic operetta written by Arthur Sullivan and William Schwenk Gilbert. 

The process of working on a production of this size began in August. Dr. Thomas L. Rowell, director of USA Opera Theatre, began studying the orchestra score, taking notes and planning the blocking. He then contracted the orchestra. This was rather new for Rowell as he usually does not conduct the orchestra pit during the performances. The task demanded organization because he had to focus on different aspects of the opera production simultaneously.

“Basically, I’m doing everything,” said Rowell. “I have to do staging. That’s my job. I come up with the traffic patterns…and I go through all the acting with them and singing. I prepare not only the music, I have to prepare the show.” 

Auditions for the show began around the end of September. “The Pirates of Penzance” is a British operetta, which means it has dialogue. Therefore, students this year also had to prepare a monologue with an English accent. Rowell is always assisted by a panel during the auditions to give the students experience for the professional world.

Around the end of November, Rowell started working on the chorus, which anyone can sign up for without auditioning. The students had to learn the music and study their roles over the winter break.  

The spring semester began with two read-through rehearsals with just the singers and one read-through with everyone, including the orchestra. The first full rehearsal was a wandelprobe, in which the cast sang through the show with the orchestra while loosely blocking on the stage. Everyone rehearsed twice a week for around two and a half hours, totaling to five hours a week. 

“It’s a lengthy process because it’s very tedious,” said Mary-Bradley Knighton, a junior vocal performance major who played the role of Mabel. “You have to make sure what you’re doing is reading well to the audience.”

Rowell has a blocking book to help him organize the music and the movements of the students.

“I write out the traffic. I’ve got the diagram on one page of what’s happening on the stage next to the page that it’s happening on in the music,” said Rowell. “I’ll mark it in the music to go with what I see on the other page.”

He also used sticky notes to write the movements of the students on the music sheets. This helped him easily rearrange the notes.

Organizing this may seem like a handful by itself. However, rehearsals consist of not only working with the music but also preparing the set and costume design. It is important to have an image of the set to plan the movements of the singers. Rowell had to adjust the opera performance to the Laidlaw recital hall.

“We don’t really have a performance hall, we have a recital hall. It was not built for a performance for a production,” Rowell said.

Therefore, Rowell has to make a movable set every year. He built wagons and created the set on top of it. One side of the wagons had the decoration for Act I. During intermission, the wagons were turned around to reveal the set for Act II. The set is mainly made of styrofoam. Rowell painted the foam and used a wire brush to distress it, creating the illusion of brick and stone. The students also used a hand saw to draw lines and make indentations for a realistic look.

And where does Rowell come up with innovative ways to create the set?

“The University of YouTube,” he said.

Rowell borrowed the costumes from old pieces used in previous performances, the USA Department of Theater, Mobile Opera and even Amazon.

Rowell and his team worked until the last minute to make sure everything was perfect for the show. He even got up at 5 a.m. Wednesday morning to sew sashes for the pirate costumes.

“I do a little bit of everything when I’m doing these operas, and I’m not afraid to try,” said Rowell. “I’ve learned to sew. I’ve learned to build sets.”

Arranging the show comes with a lot of work. Therefore, Rowell does not do this entirely by himself. 

Dr. Clive Woods served as the dramaturg and dialect coach. He is the associate dean of the College of Engineering and has a vast knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. He is also a native of England. He taught the students how to properly speak and sing in English accents. 

The operetta was written in the 1870s during the Victorian era, so the terminology does not translate well to the modern language. Woods put some of the words in context to help the students convey their roles more clearly.

Dr. Doreen Lee, assistant professor of piano, was the rehearsal accompanist who played the music when the orchestra was not present. Rowell also received help in various areas from four graduate assistants and most of the other students as well.

One challenge was that most of the students had busy schedules.

“One of the hardest things with how overloaded music majors are is they’re pulled in so many different directions, and that’s something that I have to constantly be thinking about,” Rowell said. “Keeping them motivated and keeping them energized can be a challenge…I try to make it contagious because I love doing this, and I want them to love doing it.”

Passion for live performance helped maintain motivation throughout the rehearsal process. Rowell loved working with his students and wanted to make the show fun for them by spreading positivity. 

“Keeping them motivated is a difficult job because it saps it out of me, but we have to do it,” said Rowell. “It’s no good to have great performances if the students can’t enjoy them while they’re doing them. It has to be rewarding for them.”

However, toward the last week of production, the need for an audience becomes important. Rowell described that the students become tired and need the feedback of the audience to feel affirmation. The audience ignites enthusiasm back in them.

“I hope that they see all the hard work that we’ve been doing paying off and also that they enjoy it just as much as we do because learning and prepping everything has been very exhausting and sometimes frustrating,” Knighton said.

One of the most important parts of being the director is to remind the students that he acknowledges the hard work they put into their performances. This motivates them to continue their efforts before the show. 

“Because there are so many layers that the students are involved in this process, the satisfaction is more than just the audience clapping for them,” Rowell said.

The students certainly received plenty of feedback from the audience, with multiple applauses throughout the night and a standing ovation to finish it off as they took their bows with the director.