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Why Gilbert and Sullivan Are More Relevant Than Ever

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Could the time be ripe for a Gilbert and Sullivan revival?

After taking in Vancouver Opera's opening night of The Pirates of Penzance, I am inclined to say yes.

What's that you say? Gilbert and Sullivan and their famous Savoy operas are the height of sentimental, bourgeois entertainment.

Not so fast, critics. Director Mike Leigh, whose 1999 film Topsy Turvy captured G&S and their Victorian era beautifully, has called W.S. Gilbert "a true anarchist."

In a 2006 Guardian article, Leigh wrote:

"Gilbert saw the world as a chaotic place, in which our lives are brutal accidents of birth, fate and human blunder, a jungle of confusion and delusion, where we all aspire to be other than who we are, and where nobody is really who or what they seem to be. Power. Status. Rank. Duty. Hypocrisy and affectation. Youth and old age. Gilbert's obsessions inform all these operas, his greatest being the arbitrary nature of society's absurd rules and regulations."

And later,

"But, for all his appearance as the very model of conservative respectability, his merciless lampooning of the heartless constraints of laws and etiquette reveal him, underneath it all, to have been a genuine free spirit and a true anarchist."

Perhaps this take on G&S comes as somewhat of a surprise. Especially if your exposure to the Savoy operas has involved enthusiastic amateur productions by close friends and relatives, or -- horror -- being forced to sing opposite sex roles in school plays.

But the VOA production of Pirates of Penzance may just erase those painful memories, and bring you back on side.

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While some say that we still exist in a neo-Victorian reality, and the whole steampunk movement celebrates the best of times, as opposed to the worst, hypocrisy, affectation and absurdity are hardy perennials.

And just as the Victorian era's medical and technological breakthroughs co-existed with rampant poverty and industrial revolution spawned labour pains, and its obsession with conventional morality masked rampant child prostitution, so does ours walk a fine line between delusions and reality.

From presidents promising hope and delivering predator drones that offer murder by remote control, to politicians applying "international law" arbitrarily to aspirationalist North American dreams rubbing shoulders with growing gaps between rich and poor, ours is an era ripe for satire.

In the VOA production, deftly directed by Christopher Gaze who also plays Major General Stanley, there is a contemporary nod to political satire with a special verse of the famous Major-General's Song, "For the Empire" (one should duly note that it was during the Victorian era when the largest wave of British emigration to Canada occurred). All I will reveal is that it is quite witty and involves a clever rhyme with Ignatieff and another with Saskatchewan.

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And while Pirates is steeped in Victorian convention (these days would a romance between a 21-year-old like Frederic and a (gasp) 47-year-old like his nursemaid Ruth -- played to the hilt by the venerable Judith Forst -- be worthy of a Madonna meets boytoy headline?) there is much that rings true.

When the Pirate King (played to great effect by Abbotsford native Aaron St. Clair Nicholson -- whose opera company in Idaho is doing a steampunk Rigoletto next season) uttered his famous line, "I don't think much of our profession, but, contrasted with respectability, it is comparatively honest," some relatively contemporary equivalents sprang to mind.

How about a Pirates set on a beach in Somalia -- with the Major General as a BP executive covering up toxic waste dumping in the Red Sea? Or the pirates as a boatload of asylum seekers landing on a Euro-beach? It could give a whole new spin to the romance between Frederic (played with great wit by Roger Honeywell) and Mabel (sung by golden voiced Rachel Fenion).

But really, Pirates -- whose bumbling cops, ridiculous military types and inept criminals reveal the roots of almost every Monty Python sketch imaginable -- is all about the song. The Major General's song has been adapted by everyone from The Muppets to Ron Butler's YouTube parody of President Obama.

And I really can't get it out of my head now. It can be applied to so many difficult situations -- and seems to make them somehow more bearable. Here's a version for dear John Baird, our hapless foreign minister (which the character playing Baird should perform in a petticoat and a yarmulke).

"I am a pompous nitwit with no feeling for diplomacy,

I idolize John Bolton and his UN bureaucracy."

Or how about one for Stephen Harper?

"I am a cold-eyed alien disguised as your prime minister,

Obsessed with the war of 1812 and many things more sinister."

Or that ex you sometimes see lurking in the produce section at Safeway

"I am the kind of guy who pleads innocence when caught in the act,

A commitment phobic liar whose lame excuses never lack"

See -- Gilbert and Sullivan operas are hardly anachronisms. As Mike Leigh also wrote, in a way the pair were "proto-surrealists" and their infectious sense of absurdity and general merriment still serves us well today.