If history teaches anything about "H.M.S. Pinafore," it's that Americans can't get enough of it.
The whimsical satire of Britain's class structure took the States by storm in the late 1870s, spawning roughly 150 unauthorized American productions within two years of the operetta's debut in London. At one point, eight bootleg productions ran simultaneously within a five-block radius in New York.
Though the comic opera's creators, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, filed lawsuits in the United States, they had no international copyright protection, and received few earnings from unauthorized productions during the American "Pinafore" craze.
The Virginia Opera hopes to revive this love of "Pinafore" this weekend when it brings its production to Richmond CenterStage. Set on a British warship in the 1800s, the plot sends up class, patriotism and the Royal Navy through song.
"I like to think of it as the original musical British invasion," conductor Adam Turner says. "It was tremendously popular before these guys even came across the pond to show off the real version."
In the opera, sailor Ralph Rackstraw falls in love with the captain's daughter, Josephine. She returns the feelings, but they can't be together because of their difference in class. Further complicating matters is Sir Joseph Porter, the first lord of the Admiralty, who already proposed to Josephine. What follows is a hilarious chain of events that skewers classism.
To properly navigate these Anglophilic waters, the Virginia Opera hired a native Brit to ensure fidelity to the operetta.
"I'm cracking the whip, both in terms of English accents and in terms of choreography," jokes director Nicola Bowie.
She sees the popularity of shows such as "Downton Abbey" as proof of America's continued fascination with British class structure. "Americans love looking at our class system and enjoying it," she says, "even though you have a class system [as well]."
For Jake Gardner, who plays Sir Joseph Porter, at its root the operetta is a spoof of the upper class.
"It's definitely about the fact that the stations in class cannot mix, and that's the bottom line," says Gardner, who plays the stuffiest of characters. "He's very, very upper crust, his accent is very posh. He's so privileged that he's out of touch completely. I've played golf with people like that."
Audience members who've never seen "H.M.S. Pinafore" may be surprised by how familiar they are with the score.
"If they've watched 'The Simpsons,' 'The West Wing' or 'House' or 'Star Trek,' they've probably heard some of the tunes from 'Pinafore,'" says Margaret Gawrysiak, who plays Little Buttercup in the opera. "It's very classic Gilbert and Sullivan, heavy on the comedy and filled with catchy tunes."
The operetta's creators had many triumphs afterward, but "Pinafore" is a highlight of their canon. "It was their first big success," Turner says, "and Gilbert and Sullivan are known for being the perfect marriage of words and music." S
Virginia Opera's "H.M.S. Pinafore" plays Nov. 21 and 23 at Richmond CenterStage, 600 E. Grace St. For information call 1-866-OPERA-VA or visit vaopera.org.