I was excit-a-nxious going into Vancouver Opera’s 2022 edition of HMS Pinafore, a comic opera furnished by our 19th-century musical wits, W.S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan.
They were an elite comedy thesaurus
As shown in their redundant rhyming chorus!
I, myself, am an operatic lightweight (I still can’t tell the difference between a Verdi and Puccini tuney)—
He finds opera to be so confusing
That he worries his brain is contusing
—but, with curiosity as my guide, I have attended Vancouver Opera’s repertoire since 2003.
One day, though, my opera mentor, Tom Durrie, introduced me to composer Arthur Sullivan and wordsmith W.S. Gilbert who coalesced in the late 19th century to create comic operas that were so ear-grabbing in their tunes and witty in their rhymes that even a musically-confused fellow like me could follow along.
He no longer had to curse
At every obfuscating verse
So I was filled up with delighted anticipation this season as Vancouver Opera announced that they were returning for only the second time in my loyal following to Gilbert & Sullivan with the tune-bursting HMS Pinafore.
He was looking forward to the tunes
That would leave his toe-tappers in ruins
But then I watched a promotional interview on VO’s website, in which their HMS Director, Brenna Corner, and their HMS Conductor, Rosemary Thomson, foreshadowed my upcoming dismay. They explained that they had, let’s say, adjusted HMS Pinafore for our modern sensibilities and understanding.
He felt his back filled with encrustments
As they talked of making playful adjustments
Explained Director Corner:
“This version is a traditional HMS Pinafore… It’s like the same gem, but just seen through a slightly different angle… So, like, the colours that sparkle through it are slightly different than maybe what we’re used to.”
All the gems will be traditional
With a few sparkles that are additional
Added Conductor Thomson:
“Even, you know, years ago, decades ago, people would change the words a little bit to suit their time place. And so we’ve done that as well. But the music, itself, is still going to be what people have come to know and love about HMS Pinafore.”
Their changes are so suitable
They’ll feel so very dutiful
Good, yes, I thought: the signature sound and humour of Gilbert & Sullivan is a distinct entity that should be present in every production calling itself a descendant of G&S. But, sure, go ahead and play with the particulars so that we’re getting the same genius but with a new look that’s more accessible to our modern understanding.
He says he’s an amenable fellow
To their moulding of operatic Jell-O
Nevertheless, I noticed that, as the leaders of this production were explaining their updates, they sounded a wee bit defensive.
He’s a lot apprehensive
That they seem a jot defensive
Said Conductor Thomson:
“They [the team] added some different text here and there. I actually wrote a bit of extra recitative [musical dialogue] to fit that text in, and we’ve added a couple of verses into some of the songs, which is actually quite traditional.”
They’ll be making a few changes
That are well within normal ranges!
Added Director Corner:
“The thing is with HMS Pinafore and a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan has a history of being played with, of being adapted, of being altered, and being jeujed a little, right? And that’s really what we’ve done with this piece. We’ve just sort of jeujed it in a slightly bigger way.”
Nothing here’s a trigger
They’re just jeujing a little bigger
Understood: we opera-goers have a reputation for being a traditional lot, so the VO creatives were understandably nervous about our reaction to their alterations. So they were letting us know that, while they’d tinkered with the specifics, the key music and humour—that has kept audiences dancing and laughing in their seats since 1878—would be present and applauded for.
He doesn’t think some tinkering
Will cause the Pinafore to sinkering
Next, our VO creative powers reassured us that the leading G&S target for their rhyming wit was still going to be pompous, unmeritorious leaders, such as Sir Joseph Porter, who famously describes his conformist route to becoming “…the ruler of the Queen’s navy.” In his own Gilbert-written words:
I grew so rich that I was sent
By pocket borough into Parliament
I always voted for my party’s call
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the ruler of the Queen’s navee
“The whole genesis of their writing was poking fun at institutions and at the things that were supposed to be reverent and making them irreverent. And I think that that applies today. I think we can take a historical story that pokes fun at the—at leadership, you know, at the brass for being the sake of the brass and apply it to today’s world. So, in that way, it stays very relevant.”
They were making funny insinuations
Against leaders of their administrations
Perfect! Yes, the specifics of our leaders may have changed (indeed, the Queen of the “Queen’s navy,” as I understand it, inherited her title; whereas most present-day political brass—save for the occasional Bush or Trudeau Jr.—do not receive their jobs as hand-me-downs). But the nature of political vapidity, obsequiousness, and self-love from many leaders in many professions remains intact.
He thinks that bossly obsequiosity
Is not just a bygone curiosity
Indeed, I love reading pre-G&S-comedian Jane Austen because I see that the leading fopperies of her day are still in practice in ours, and so I feel an instant kinship with the great author every time I see her pointing out the same poor behaviours in her time that Ellen Degeneres and Jerry Seinfeld have noticed in ours.
He’s very glad Austen’s humour has held
In the works of Ellen D. and Jerry Seinfeld
So, sure, I’m delighted to hear some modern creators update the jokes to fit our own flawed bosses. But, then, the other baton dropped as our creative curators explained that they would be moderating G&S’s original japes for offensiveness. Said Director Corner:
“I mean the stuff that Gilbert & Sullivan were originally doing was really pushing the boundaries in their time period. They were definitely making some jokes that were a little, maybe only kind of acceptable in their time period. And so we want to make sure that we stay relevant with the piece that was created to be relevant… But I would say that the thing that’s interesting about HMS Pinafore is to sort of realize is that the stuff that we poked fun at hundred years ago is different than what, you know, the specifics of that. What used to be acceptable comedy then and what is acceptable comedy now are two different things.”
Their show will not be a receptacle
For jokes that are unacceptable
Hmm, I sympathize with editing an old-timey work for jokes that we won’t enjoy today, or even jokes that might offend the audience without being essential to the drama. However, I was struck by the notion of “acceptable comedy.” While some jokes may not work for a modern audience, is it the province of an artistic company to define which jokes are allowed? Is that Vancouver Opera’s role? To not only not use certain jokes, but to pronounce them unfit? Would VO also like to ban some books that they find unacceptable from the library?
He’s whining about an unlikely trip
On the friendly HMS Censorship
Corner’s cozy enunciating of the phrase “unacceptable jokes” reminded me of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s critique of the trucker convoy coming to Ottawa as possessing “unacceptable views.” While he was under no obligation to agree with the health mandate protestors heading his way, do we want our political leaders to be telling us which opinions are to be accepted for consideration and which are not?
He insults, with temerity,
Our PM’s defence of prosperity
I was thus nervous going into VO’s HMS Pinafore, not because they were going to be teasing our modern instantiation of unearned power, but instead because I suspected that they would reverse the joke and actually cheer on the sort of powerholders whom they had deemed correct. After all, is there anything more powerful than controlling language and defining what is acceptable to say?
He arrogantly glowers
Over the minor use of PC powers
Well, pardon the self-aggrandizement, but my cynical suspicions were confirmed at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on the opening night of Vancouver Opera’s HMS Pinafore as those who enjoy being morally hectored were treated to an overwrought feminist re-wording of the HMS text.
Now he’s added to his list
That he’s a double misogynist
Among other aggressive alterations, every female character was suddenly a beacon of modern feminist preferences. The lead lady love interest, Josephine, for instance, insisted throughout that, while she liked—and maybe even loved—the romantic male lead, she was equally interested in science and literature, particularly the works of female writers. (Strangely, the male protagonist, Ralph Rackstraw, was not given any such upgrades to his similarly one-dimensional and love-soaked personality.) Admittedly, HMS Pinafore is a silly story loaded with silly characters, but earnestly imposing feminist virtue onto half of those silly personalities contravenes the flamboyant comedy of Gilbert & Sullivan.
He, so very disdainfully,
Rails against ladies living gainfully
While I’m a critic of feminism, myself (because I perceive it to be a generally un-egalitarian movement, despite its insistence that its chief goal is equality), I do think that it’s a perfectly legitimate artistic endeavour to reimagine any work of art through an alternate perspective. However, please recall—
Here he has the gall
To ask us to recall
—that Corner & Thomson promised us that they would be loyal to the theme joke of the original HMS Pinafore, that of satirizing the tendency of those in power to be vapid and unworthy of their station. The leading distinction here, they said, was that, in this case, they would replace mocking the royal navy bureaucracy with teasing the pompous brass of our time.
They promised to be exemplary
In mocking every bossy contemporary
But such “irreverence” towards today’s “reverent” never arrived on stage. Instead, the production interrupted our story several times to show reverence to one of the most reverent of all Canadian clubs, feminism. Love or deride it, does anyone really think that feminism is not part of the brass in Canada in 2022?
Here, he makes a wild anti-feminist claim
Which shows that he is ugly and worthy of blame
Again, while I am a critic of feminism, I am not arguing here that the movement is flawed; instead, my present contention is simply that feminism is a powerful and influential Western institution that should count as brass for Corner & Thomson’s satirical consideration.
He blusters absurdity in the shower-full
As he suggests feminism could be powerful
For just a few examples, consider that, seven years ago, Justin Trudeau was elected as a “feminist” Prime Minister of Canada (his boast, not mine), and he promptly appointed 50% female Cabinet Ministers (from his 27%-female party), stating as his reason for the “positive” discrimination that it was “2015.” Since then, despite the fact that Indigenous men are far more likely to be murdered than Indigenous women, Canada has spent more than fifty million dollars on a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry, but there has been no formal discussion of including Indigenous men in that consideration. And now, even though the Covid pandemic seems to have killed more men than women, Canada’s publically-funded (feminist) broadcaster, CBC Radio, frequently informs us that women have been the most negatively affected.*
*Maybe one can make a nuanced case for such a claim, but—after listening to the station for ten years—I can assure you that, if women were dying at a higher rate than men from a disease, CBC Radio would follow feminist policy and diagnose any attempt to consider such nuance to be misogyny.
Instead of recognizing women’s humanity
He blathers out his toxic male vanity
But, again, even if I’m right that feminism is the world’s leading purveyor of double standards, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve gotten every argument wrong. However, the fact that feminism can maintain such inconsistency without fear of being called out is an indication of the movement’s powerful influence. Every mainstream comedy talk show host, major bank, and hockey broadcaster is elbowing each other out of the way to brag that they care the most about women.
He whines about those who are a proxy
For our beloved orthodoxy
So, while a feminist reworking of HMS Pinafore could, in theory, be interesting, celebrating feminism as an infallible truth-sayer (as this production does) is surely inconsistent with Corner & Thomson’s promise to tease our modern-day bosses.
Instead of honouring the truth of our story
He obsesses over notes, promissory
HMS Pinafore is a tale of sailors who must ply their trade under the authority of the ruler of the Queen’s Navy, who sings about his resume:
Of Legal Knowledge I acquired such a grip
That they took me into the partnership
And that junior partnership, I ween
Was the only ship that I ever had seen
But that kind of ship so suited me
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!
It seems to me that Gilbert & Sullivan were attempting, in part, to satirize class differentials and how those who get to make the decisions don’t always know what they’re doing as much as those toiling beneath them.
He’s sounding very jealous
Of the Queen’s royal fellas
I wonder, then, if VO might have considered teasing Canada’s current stammering leader of the Queen’s navy, Captain Justin Trudeau. Like him or dislike him, it’s hard to deny that he’s a bit of a linguistic bumbler whose nepotistic qualification for the job could be reminiscent of Porter’s undistinguished route to his leadership.
And now he’s cruelly grumbling
About our leader’s adorable bumbling
But, instead of teasing such a poignant analog for Joseph Porter, VO’s HMS Pinafore randomly threw in a few lines mocking the Canadian trucker convoy as a sinister threat. Again, whether one likes or dislikes the arguments and behaviours of those working class protestors, surely—if they have a Pinafore analog—it is with HMS’s working class sailors, amongst whom we find our romantic male lead, Ralph Rackstraw.
So now he suggests our favourite Rackstraw
Would have fought the noble mandate law!
I would neither expect nor want Vancouver Opera to take a pro-trucker-convoy view on that dispute. But rearranging the comedy to target the working class instead of the upper class, just to signal contempt for the truckers, is artistically incoherent.
He’s part of a terrible conspiracy
Against ever-so-mild incoherency
Again, recall that Corner & Thomson prognosticated “…a traditional HMS Pinafore… It’s like the same gem, but just seen through a slightly different angle…”
Once again, he has the gall
To ask us to recall
Mocking the working class as treacherous is more than just a new angle on G&S’s traditional satirizing of the upper class, it is a rejiggering of Pinafore to be punching in a different direction than the authors clearly intended.
He thinks that he can read the minds
Of those who wrote our timely lines
Indeed, I wonder if it has occurred to Vancouver Opera that the opera-going tend to be middle and upper class, and, therefore, we tend to be members of the collective that had an easier time during the pandemic than those who couldn’t work from Zoom. That doesn’t mean that it was VO’s role to follow the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s criticism of the Canadian government’s aggressive response to the truckers. But maybe Vancouver Opera could at least take from Gilbert & Sullivan a smidge of first-class humility that those who are rulers of the Queen (Elizabeth Theatre)’s opera house might be the Joseph Porters in these discussions.
And now he accuses our noble distorters
Of being modern-day Joseph Porters
But, most of all, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, I was offended by this production as a comedy fan. If the feminist reworking of HMS Pinafore were done with artistic and comedic panache, I might have still been annoyed, but at least I could appreciate their effort to deftly blend ideas. But, as it was, our creative leaders were so crass in their plan to force a conventional modern moral reading onto the whimsical comic opera that I felt like the HMS show was constantly being interrupted for bland public service announcements. Far from subversively teasing the reverent, as promised, they were perversely observing the values of the reverent.
And now he uses our own words of wonder
To cast our beautiful work asunder
Perhaps Corner & Thomson are the ones who “…are always answering [their] party’s call and never thinking for [themselves] at all.”
4 thoughts on “HMS PINAFEMINISM”
Well said, my good sir. When the ladies said, or at least implied, that it was traditional to alter Gilbert’s words, they were very wrong. The fact is that Sir William was adamant about maintaining his text as written. Also, his satire never (well, hardly ever) pushed the bounds of good taste very much in the Victorian sense of propriety. This was, in fact, one of the achievements of Gilbert and Sullivan. They never (yes, never) stooped to employing suggestive jokes or cheap musical effects.
We should ask ourselves just how serious are the satirical pokes at class distinctions and political incompetence. For me, they are meant to be funny–as indeed they are–and never intended to be meaningful social criticism. Take, for example, the Bell Trio in Pinafore. To a charming and merry tune, usually accompanied by dancing, the trio sings: “Never mind the why and wherefore, love can level ranks and therefore … ” What’s wrong with just being funny?
To me the G & S operas should be left in tact. Why change them to try to prove a point that isn’t there. These works are just about as perfect as any combination of words and music could possibly be. Don’t mess with them!
Well put, Sir Tom!
I was taking Corner and Thomson at their expertise on G&S “tradition,” but I’m happy to be corrected by the most experienced and expert operagoer I know.
Your comment is such a perfect combination of wit and expertise as could possibly be. I shall not mess with it (although, I did correct a typo for you).
Excellent riposte. “Far from subversively teasing the reverent, as promised, they were perversely observing the values of the reverent.” Indeed! Thank you for being alert to the ironies.
Thanks Janice! Funnily enough, I wrote that line first and then constructed the essay to get me there. Such allegiance to their own creative north star might have aided Vancouver Opera to avoid the irony you mention.