This spring Opera Holland Park took Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, on a journey from London to Penzance as part of our education and outreach programme, Inspire. We caught up with some of the team, including singers Peter Martin and Rose Stachniewska and OHP Associate Producer Monique Foulger, to find out more about the project and hear their reflections on three weeks ‘on the road’.
“Pirates to Penzance” began as an intergenerational project in 2015, when OHP took a reduced and relaxed production of The Pirates of Penzance to a local primary school and care home. ‘We always planned to take the production to Penzance, stopping off at schools and care homes along the way. With performances of the operetta scheduled to take place with Charles Court Opera in the 2020 Season, this year just seemed like the perfect time to do it’, Monique explains.
And so, a team of 10 singers, a pianist and a stage manager left port from London on Wednesday 4 March, stopping every 20 miles or so on the way to Penzance, to perform the operetta in community settings. The workshops and performances mainly took place in primary or secondary schools across the South West, with people from care homes or sheltered housing invited to watch the final performance.
‘It was a nice project from lots of different angles’, Peter reflects, ‘not only was it an opportunity to introduce younger audiences to opera, we found it also revived passion for Gilbert and Sullivan in the older generations who knew some of the tunes but hadn’t seen the show for a long time. By having the different groups together in the same room it also encouraged interactions between them, which was lovely to see.’
The benefits of intergenerational programmes have been widely documented, and this aspect of the project was a really crucial one for the team. ‘We know that a lot of people in sheltered housing don’t get many opportunities to be around younger people, and the energy that children bring can be really contagious. And likewise, it’s also important for the kids to learn to interact with elderly members of the community,’ Monique explains.
The abiding goal of Inspire is to bring the community into opera, and opera into the community. ‘We do a lot of work with local organisations, but we really wanted to expand outside our local vicinity, working with different communities that might not have as much opportunity as those living in a cultural hub such as London’, Rose explains. ‘A lot of the feedback we got was that many of the kids hadn’t experienced this type of singing before. So it was great to be able to share it with them.’
Before the performance, the schools and care homes were sent resource packs which included activities and ideas for workshops, information on the characters, opera terminology and background to the story. Many of the schools also participated in workshops with some of the cast before the show. ‘The workshops were great fun, and I think it helped to get them involved and more excited about it. We taught them the opening song with actions such as pouring “Pirates’ Sherry” and various dance moves, which they joined in with when the performance began.’
The participants were invited to make their own props for the show, including pirate hats, swords and parrots. ‘In one school one of the kids got super involved with the prop-making and turned up to the performances dressed as an actual boat’, says Rose. ‘He had made it at home out of cardboard with his head poking out of the top! It was just fantastic… At another performance, some of the kids hadn’t had time to make the props, but the older group had made some and gave them to the kids to enjoy. That was a really lovely moment too.’
Why was The Pirates of Penzance chosen for this project? ‘Gilbert & Sullivan was perfect for this project in so many ways. Musically, the piece is easy to engage with. The tunes are fun and catchy,’ Peter explains. The English language also helped make it even more accessible, with no need for surtitles and plenty of opportunities for audience involvement. ‘It was just pure entertainment’, adds Rose, ‘for people who have preconceptions about opera – about it being intellectual or heavy, for example. This project debunks all those myths. With all the props, singing along and actions, it encompassed an hour of not having to think about anything serious – just being entertained and having fun.’
On tour was no capacity for huge costumes or sets, but that added to the impact of the project, says Rose: ‘I’ve done quite a few projects over the years with OHP Inspire and they are really such unique performing experiences. There is something very special about being in these intimate social situations – just some voices, a piano and an audience. These settings allow for a different kind of audience interaction. It’s very special and you feel very connected to the participants’.
Sadly, the team didn’t quite make it to Penzance as the project was cut short due to increasing concerns around COVID-19, and the final performance was on Monday 16 March at St Minver School, with St Breock. ‘It was a shame not to finish it but we also feel really lucky that we were able to do even part of it before lockdown’, says Monique. ‘Now that we have the show ready, a fantastic group of people who know the piece, and relationships with schools and care homes who are all really keen for us to come back, we hope to be able to start where we left off, or even do the whole project again! It’s definitely something we want to keep alive and build on in the future.’
Find out more about the what the project involved in our short video below, which was filmed at the start of the tour.