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'The Student Prince'

John Stephens in Winter Opera St. Louis' 2017 production of "The Student Prince"

Photo by Wylde Brothers Productions

Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta “The Pirates of Penzance, or, the Slave of Duty” is one of the duo’s best and best-known works. Opening on New Year’s Eve 1879, it matches some of Arthur S. Sullivan’s finest music — tuneful parodies of grand operas and art songs — with the irresistibly witty wordcraft of W.S. Gilbert.

Winter Opera St. Louis opens its 2019-20 season Friday night with “Pirates.” It’s the story of Frederic, whose hard-of-hearing childhood nurse Ruth mistakenly apprenticed him to a pirate, instead of to a pilot. Freed from his indentures when he turns 21, he falls instantly in love with Mabel, a daughter of Major General Stanley.

Frederic swears to stamp out piracy, only to be foiled by Ruth’s revelation that he’s indentured until his 21st birthday; since he was born Feb. 29, in a leap year, he’s still got 63 years to go, and duty compels him to return. (Mabel promises to wait for him.) The pirates, Frederic, Stanley and his daughters and a bumbling band of policemen meet in singable music and hilarity.

To direct “Pirates,” the company brought in an experienced hand: John Stephens, a professor of voice at the University of Kansas. This is the sixth time he’s directed “Pirates.”

“But my main experience with this show has been singing it,” says Stephens, a bass.

In 1982, he was the Pirate King in a production by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, directed by the late Colin Graham. He’s also performed various roles in productions at Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and other companies. “I know it, and I love it,” he says.

He directed it for the first time a decade ago. There’s no need for a prompter when he’s there: “The cast laughs at me,” he says, “because when somebody forgets a word, I just blurt it out. You live with this stuff, and it becomes a part of you.”

Don’t look for trendy updates or concepts here. Stephens takes a traditional approach to the Savoy operas, as they’re known.

“I don’t make fun of the material,” he says, unlike some contemporary directors; he prefers to let the material poke its own fun at British society and the human condition. He says he has his own observations that will find their way into the staging.

What makes “Pirates” so special? “I think it’s the wittiness of the lyrics, and of course Arthur Sullivan’s music is so beautiful. There’s the duet between the tenor and the soprano, and Mabel’s (mock Donizetti aria) ‘Poor Wand’ring One’ is a tour de force. There’s the humor of British noblemen who decide to become pirates and a stuffy British major general who’s bought a baronial estate complete with family tombs, and says, ‘I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are.’ There’s something inherently hysterical about this whole thing.”

Making this production special is what Stephens describes as “a really fine singing cast. My challenge is to take folks who aren’t necessarily Gilbert & Sullivan people and make them comfortable with the wordplay. There’s a wonderful set by Scott Loebl, with lots of levels, lots of ups and downs and places for people to be located. And Scott Schoonover is in the pit. That’s always a nice attraction as well.”

Most of all, he says, “Pirates” itself is special.

“That’s the deal for me, just to present the material to audiences,” he says. “Thirty-five years ago, everybody knew ‘Pirates,’ but I get blank stares now: ‘What’s that?’ I’m happy just to be maintaining it.”

What “The Pirates of Penzance” • When 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday • Where Viragh Center for the Arts, Chaminade School, 425 Lindbergh Boulevard • How much $10-$55 • More info 314-865-0038; winteroperastl.org

Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.