Vancouver Opera House’s HMS Pinafore anchors at the Queen Elizabeth Theater with a full cast
As a theater student and young actress in Edmonton, Brenna Corner never thought opera would be her thing.
In a telephone interview with the Straight from her home in Atlanta, Corner reveals that she didn’t really understand classical music at that time. And she felt it wasn’t much fun.
Then one of her teachers encouraged her to listen to the Victorian duo of WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, describing their performances as a “bridge” between musical theater and opera.
“She was absolutely right,” Corner says. “Gilbert and Sullivan [shows] are a bit like a musical, except with the narrative nuances of opera. [There’s] the live orchestra and the unamplified human voice, which brings me incredible vulnerability and honesty.
Today, Corner features one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s timeless classics, HMS apron, a comic love story aboard a ship between Josephine, the captain’s daughter, and a handsome lower class sailor. Vancouver Opera will present this show with an adapted libretto by comedian JD Derbyshire. Rosemary Thomson, Music Director of the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, will make her debut at the Vancouver Opera.
“There are parts of this that will look exactly like a traditional HMS apron that we all remember or may have seen on TV or in movie clips,” says Corner. “And then there are parts that are suited to a more modern sort of sensibility.”
She points out that when this opera was first presented in 1878, it was a commentary on this period. Corner and Derbyshire wanted this new production of HMS apron resonate similarly with modern audiences.
Some of the changes were practical, like adjusting the language to dispense with words that no one understands or are simply unacceptable these days. Corner reveals that there were also a few changes to the booklet to tweak the structure and development of certain characters. And some props have been updated for some of the jokes.
“We wanted to create a piece that felt like it represented our community and was more inclusive,” she says.
For Corner, this show is a kind of reunion. In 2014-2015, with the goal of becoming a director, Corner immersed herself in the art form after being accepted into a 26-week residency with Vancouver Opera’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists program. . Another participant in the program that season was soprano Caitlin Wood, who plays the role of Josephine in HMS apron.
Corner’s directorial debut came the following year with Hansel and Gretel for the Vancouver Opera. And Corner has since conducted operas across North America, including Lady Butterfly and Stickboy for the Vancouver Opera.
She marvels at the way the performers of HMS apron can capture and communicate the human condition so eloquently with their voices. Tenor Ernesto Ramirez plays Josephine’s love interest, Ralph Rackstraw. Baritone Jorell Williams voices the role of Captain Corcoran and baritone Peter McGillivray plays Sir Joseph Porter.
When asked if she had any favorite songs from HMS apron, she responds immediately by saying the set pieces. It’s because she’s so thrilled to hear a group of singers perform together again after not going through this during the pandemic.
“I love working with this company and I love working with the choir here,” adds Corner. “They are such an amazing group of dramatic storytellers and musical storytellers. It’s still so fun.