Stephen Quint as the Major-General Stanley. New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players Courtesy
Stephen Quint as the Major-General Stanley. New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players Courtesy

Arts & Culture

The message behind the operetta ‘Pirates of Penzance’ remains relevant today

By Molly Gilmore

Contibuting writer

March 09, 2017 07:53 AM

Written in 1879, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” remains relevant — and funny — even today. The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ production of the operetta about a group of softhearted pirates stops Tuesday in Olympia.

Proof of its endurance? The song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” (the newspaper apologizes if it’s now stuck in your head) has been sung on “The Muppet Show” and parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”

It’s even referenced in the current hit musical “Hamilton,” in which George Washington raps that he is “the model of a modern major general/the venerated Virginian whose men are all/Lining up to put me on a pedestal. (Writer/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda told the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead, “I always felt like ‘mineral’ wasn’t the best possible rhyme.”)

The enduring popularity of “Penzance” makes sense to Albert Bergeret, the players’ artistic director and founder, who’s been making a career of the duo’s operettas for more than 40 years.

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It’s about human nature and excesses of human institutions and individuals that transcend any generational bound,” he said in a phone interview last week.

To avoid having his works be censored, librettist W.S. Gilbert disguised his satire in silly trappings. “Pirates,” for example, involves a troupe of seafaring criminals who are kind to orphans and an apprentice bound to serve till his 21st birthday, which because he was born on Feb. 29 will be a very long time indeed.

“He made it possible for people to laugh at themselves without feeling that they were being threatened,” Bergeret said. “There is some pretty strong social commentary in all of the works, but it’s the kind of commentary that makes you laugh at the absurdity of human existence.”

“Pirates” is a big production, literally. The players sent a cast of 23 plus four staffers from New York to the Northwest, where the production is making a rapid tour, hitting Bremerton, Edmonds, Bellingham, Wenatchee and Olympia in five days. They’ll be accompanied by a 17-piece orchestra composed of Seattle-based freelance musicians.

Bergeret travels with the group, referring to his role as “factotum.”

“I drive the truck, help set up the scenery and then put on my tuxedo and go conduct the performance and then get back into my T-shirt and jeans and take it down and drive away,” he said. “All in one day.”

The Pirates of Penzance

What: The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players come to Olympia with the classic operetta about the pirates’ run-in with “the very model of the modern major general.”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia.

Tickets: $39-$67; $35-$61 for seniors, students and military; $20-$34 for youths.

Information: 360-753-8586,