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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 22, 2005

Shiver me timbres

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

The "Pirates of Penzance" is a popular operetta about an orphan mistakenly apprenticed to pirates. This production's cast features professional guest talent.

Andrew Shimabuku | The Honolulu Advertiser


• Operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan, produced by the Hawaii Opera Theatre

• Premieres at 8 p.m. today; repeats at 2 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. July 29, 7:30 p.m. July 30, and 4 p.m. July 31

• Blaisdell Concert Hall

• $20-$75; all seats $10 children and $15 adults for family matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday; all seats $25 for 7:30 p.m. July 30 military and group night (military ID or minimum group purchase of 20 tickets)

• 596-7858, www.hawaiiopera.org

Mabel (Korliss Uecker) embraces Frederic (George Dyer), who thought his pirate apprenticeship would end at age 21 — but because he was born on a leap day, he must stay through 21 of those "birthdays."

Photos by Andrew Shimabuku | The Honolulu Advertis

The pirate crew's Ruth (Jean Stillwell) points her pistol at Mabel (Korliss Uecker) and Frederic (George Dyer).

Rebecca Breyer | The Honolulu Advertiser

Frank De Lima plays the operetta's sergeant of police.

Andrew Shimabuku | The Honolulu Advertiser

William S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan provide a happy middle ground for music buffs who may find Richard Wagner intimidating and Andrew Lloyd Webber indefensible — particularly in summertime, when the livin' is easy and longhair operatics may seem a bit stuffy.

The Hawaii Opera Theatre's "The Pirates of Penzance," which opens tonight at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, is fun, accessible and easy to swallow.

Light in spirit, "Pirates" still is hefty in concept. Top-tier opera soloists have taken key roles. Singing local comic Frank DeLima plays a police sergeant.

The costumes are a rainbow of color and textures — spotlighting the couture creativity of Anne Namba, who forsakes her usual kimonos in the name of piracy.

And yes, there will be Honolulu Symphony Orchestra members in the pit.

"This is the second chapter in what we're calling a five-year pilot," said Henry Akina, general and artistic director of HOT. "We did G&S last year ('The Mikado') and found audiences loving it. ... This production helps us raise funds and also bridge the gap in retaining an audience."

HOT has traditionally focused on winter shows, staging three productions between January and March; otherwise, opera used to pretty much disappear from the radar the rest of the year. But the company's addition of Gilbert and Sullivan to its repertoire is changing all that.

We chatted with four troupers about their roles, summering in Hawai'i, and in DeLima's case, what it's like to tune up with the big guns. Here's what they had to say.


Soprano, portraying Mabel

"We're in heaven," said Korliss Uecker (pronounced "yoo-ker"), the 13-year veteran with New York's Metropolitan Opera who landed the role of Mabel and is very happy to be performing in Hawai'i.

Uecker brought along the whole family — daughter, Katya, who's 6, and husband, Jerry, first cellist with the Metropolitan Opera, along with her folks.

"It's my father's first time here since serving at Iwo Jima, and spending time in the Islands when he was 18," she said.

The family has been visiting attractions such as Sea Life Park, Honolulu Zoo, the Waikiki Aquarium, Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park, museums and lots of beaches.

And it's Uecker's first Mabel. "My colleagues have been helping me a lot, to find a sincere but stylized Mabel," she said. "It's been a completely different experience for me, especially doing dialogue (few operas have spoken words) that's tight and difficult to memorize because of the Victorian speech. It's been a mouthful for me, trying to get everything word perfect, and properly placing the prepositions, but it's been such fun from a very fresh perspective."

Besides stints with the Met, Uecker has performed in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Monte Carlo, Germany and Ireland in more than 100 roles.


Tenor, playing Frederic, the pirate apprentice

George Dyer, who has been a regular guest with opera companies throughout North America, including Hawaii Opera Theatre, adores the silliness of Gilbert and Sullivan. "It's lighter, it's comic, it's summertime fun," he said. "But it's got action, too. And it helps you forget your normal life. It's escapism."

He felt a kinship the first time he encountered Frederic. "He is the 'Slave of Duty,' which is the subtitle of 'Pirates of Penzance,' and he has made a commitment," he said. "At any cost, Frederic will do his duty. I think as people, that's something we all feel many times in our lives, whether it's getting married, having children, and so on. Frederic, above everything else, is a kind-hearted, simple person."

G&S is Dyer's first summer show with HOT, but he was here for "Cosi Fan Tutti" and "Eugene Onegin."

Dyer also made time for summer fun, with visits to Hanauma Bay and circle-island drives with his wife. "The people here are wonderful, the cast is professional and the atmosphere is relaxed," he said. "Who wouldn't want to come here ... to work?"

He's also trying to learn to surf during this visit. "You gotta do something new, too," he said.


Mezzo soprano, portraying Ruth, a piratical maid-of-all-work

Stillwell rarely has a summer off; last year, she was singing in "Rigoletto," and in another month she has a recital in Germany.

Stillwell has vast international credits. In the weeks ahead, she has commitments for Opera Columbus, where she is playing the Mother/Witch in "Hansel and Gretel" and Jenny in "The Three Penny Opera."

"To perform in Hawai'i, and taking on Ruth in 'Pirates of the Penzance,' which I've never done before, is such a treat," said the Toronto-based singer.

This is her first visit here, so Stillwell has been in tourist mode. Housed in a 33rd-floor apartment with an exquisite view, she's the envy of her colleagues back home, she said. "You know they're jealous of me — but thrilled. A few of my colleagues have been to Hawai'i — and they've all had a wonderful time. I can see why."

Stillwell has quickly become an ace visitor.

"One of my colleagues here rented a car, so we've been driving around the island and going to the beaches, going through the tunnels in the lovely mountains, marveling at the beautifully refurbished hotel with the white pillars (the Sheraton Moana Surfrider), enjoying margaritas, checking out the zoo and the aquarium," she said. "I've even had time to see two movies."


Baritone, playing a police sergeant

About a month ago, the comedian-singer had a medical procedure to tend to a problem of a fast-beating heart.

"I'm robotic now — I create sparks," DeLima said.

He called the gizmo, an implantable cardioverter defibrillator that stabilizes his heartbeat, the Delimanator. With his medical problems resolved, DeLima has been devoting most of his energy to memorizing his dialogue and lyrics ... not an easy task.

"Omigod, so many words," DeLima said. "Beebe (Freitas) was teaching me my song, but even reading the words was difficult. Imagine, if you can't read, you can't memorize, so everyone's been really patient with me. The words spit out like machine-gun fire.

"Having recall is not one of my traits. But I got Wisa (D'Orso) to coach me (she helped him when he was doing his holiday-time 'Scrooge' at Diamond Head Theatre), so it's really been a team effort."

DeLima finally employed a memory-inducing technique from a nun who once advised him "to write words over and over and over again." So he's been using discarded phone books, plus a felt-tip pen, to repeatedly scribble down his lines. "I've gone through three old phone books already."

The experience has changed his image of opera singers. "I'm not just intimidated, I'm in awe. They're really fun people, not tantaran (pidgin term for showy or boastful). I'm doing penance, I think, for all the ills of my past. I've never worked so hard."