Emma Black is directing Pirates Revisited with the Opera North Youth Company – a show inspired by, and featuring music from, The Pirates of Penzance. We asked Emma to tell us what it’s been like working with a youth company and what Gilbert & Sullivan means to her.
Tell us more about Pirates Revisited. What can the audience expect?
Pirates Revisited is our take on the classic story of The Pirates of Penzance. The writer John Savournin has crafted this wonderful adaptation where a group of children discover scripts, props, costumes, etc. in an abandoned attic, and in the great tradition of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland decide to “put on the show right here”. The audience can expect the familiar G&S choruses that make Pirates so special, with a smattering of the original dialogue, and 23 incredibly talented young people singing and acting their socks off!
What does the role of director entail in a production like this?
It’s been a very collaborative process, so I’ve had the privilege of working closely with my fellow colleagues to get the show up and running. I’ve felt incredibly supported throughout, which then has made the directing and rehearsal part of my job a joy. On a more pragmatic note, I also learnt very quickly that, to get some kind of performance from teenagers before midday, you have to be the person bringing Tigger-like bundles of energy into the room! Needless to say, I have been drinking a lot of coffee these past few weeks…
Did anything inspire you in particular when you were preparing to direct Pirates Revisited?
I’m currently having a summer of operetta (I’ve just assisted on a Fledermaus in Weimar, and I’m then assisting on The Merry Widow at Opera North, with Pirates Revisited falling neatly in the middle), so I’ve been immersed in gorgeous music for several months now, which I feel can be a great source of inspiration. It’s also such a joy to listen to as a genre, so I’ve often found myself on public transport beaming away whilst listening to whatever operetta I’ve been prepping that day! I also re-watched some classic MGM musicals, specifically Summer Stock, that centre around creating a show in unlikely places.
How does working with young people differ from working with professional opera singers?
Not as much as you might think. The youth company has worked so hard, and it’s been a really lovely rehearsal process. I did an initial workshop for them back in March and was completely blown away by the high standard of singing. All the principals turned up on day one with everything memorised, which made the first few days of rehearsal fly by, and every bit of choreography I’ve thrown at the company they’ve picked up in a matter of minutes. Hearing them sing with the orchestra for the first time did cause me to well up, as they sounded so fantastic. I couldn’t be happier with the work they’ve achieved, and I can’t wait for our audiences to see it. As an added bonus (which I don’t think I would have had from professional singers), they’ve taught me how to do the floss dance!
How much does the production owe to The Pirates of Penzance?
All the music is from Pirates, as well as a fair chunk of the dialogue, so a lot! In our production, The Pirates of Penzance is the play within a play, and the children perform large sections of it, as well as also commenting on the various plot points that arise.
What do you think it will be like for the children performing in Harrogate in front of people who know Gilbert & Sullivan’s work really well?
I think they will have a fantastic time performing to a crowd who know Pirates so well, as there are quite a few jokes in the piece that only die-hard G&S fans will get. Also the chance to get to perform in the beautiful Harrogate Theatre is a wonderful opportunity.
You’ve previously directed HMS Pinafore. Are you a big Gilbert & Sullivan fan? When did you first get introduced to their work?
I am a huge G&S fan! The first thing I ever saw in the theatre was The Mikado when I was five (the 1992 D’Oyly Carte production) – my parents had played me the music over and over in the weeks leading up to the show, so I was fully prepped! We were on the front row of the dress circle in the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, and apparently I was spell-bound from start to finish. We then saw Pirates a few years later with Paul Nicholas as the Pirate King, and from that a life-long love was born. I’m also pretty sure my family were the only people in Nottingham to see Topsy Turvy in the cinema!
What is your favourite Gilbert & Sullivan opera and/or song?
Pirates is the G&S opera I love the most – I directed it at Leeds University in my final year, and it was the catalyst for thinking that I might pursue opera as a career, so when I got the phone call from Opera North offering me Pirates Revisited I jumped up and down quite a lot. My favourite song however is ”When the buds are blossoming” from the Act 1 finale of Ruddigore. It’s so beautiful, and has such a lovely sentiment to it. Five of my very talented friends performed it at our wedding (my husband very sweetly let me pick the music for our ceremony!) and for that it will always be my favourite G&S song.
Please sum up Pirates Revisited for us in three words.
Uproarious, hilarious, joyous!
You can catch Pirates Revisited at 2.30pm in Harrogate Theatre on Friday 10 August.