A few months ago, I sent a note to the arts manager for John Bolton Wood, one of Australia's most decorated operatic tenors alive today. He has performed in countless productions of classic operas and hit Broadway musicals throughout Australia and the South Pacific and Asian performance circuits. In the early 1980s, he was recruited to perform the role of Major General Stanley in the Australian production of Joseph Papp's hit Broadway adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Wood—along with Simon Gallaher, Marina Prior, and Jon English—was able to make this production a humongous success in the Land Down Under, and recently replied to my inquiry with this delightfully insightful letter discussing his memories and impressions from the show.
Many thanks for your interest in The Pirates of Penzance. I do wish you every success with a fully orchestrated version for the future generation. I shall answer your questions as per your schedule as follows:
I am primarily an opera singer specializing in playing dirty old men, psychopaths, drunks and monks. I have worked extensively with Opera Australia, and with regional companies within Australia and New Zealand. Also, I have been a principal artist with the Welsh National Opera and with the Royal Opera Covent Garden, as it is impossible to specialize in any particular genre in Australia. One has to be flexible in order to work consistently. Musicals I have performed in have been the Joseph Papp Pirates, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd of Stephen Sondheim, and 1,498 performances as Old Deuteronomy in Catsin Australia and Asia. This year I have sung Pappa Germont in Traviata in Sydney and am about to sing Sacristan in Tosca for South Australian Opera in Adelaide. Altogether I have sung over 120 roles in opera and at the end of this year celebrate my 75th birthday.
I have always had a love of Gilbert & Sullivan from my school days when a G & S was performed every year. I was singing Rigoletto with Victoria State Opera when I was asked whether I would be interested in performing Major General Stanley in a modern version of The Pirates of Penzance. I must admit I looked closely at the score, as I am primarily an opera singer and I generally prefer roles in G & S that enable me to sing, and as most of the comedy roles have little music to sing other than patter and dialogue, I was happy when the Major General Stanley sings “Sighing softly to the river” in Act 2. The dialogue was mostly intact and to me that is almost sacred as William Gilbert was such a fine writer of the English language. I was also inspired by the fact that it was a modern version, and as Gilbert particularly was always up to date with theatrical invention, I’m sure that if he was to stage his works today they would use every modern facility that was available. The orchestration was changed but cleverly so and overall the show retained its integrity and its shape and escaped the stifling long outmoded tradition that these pieces have suffered with for so many years.
I was asked to sing the role of Major General Stanley because I was contracted to the Opera Company and had auditioned for the Adelaide Festival Centre who were co-sponsors of the production; however, when the American director (John Ferraro) arrived, he thought I was too young to play the George Rose role, but the contract was signed and he was not prepared to face the payout costs as I had made myself available for 6 months and turned down two opera contracts which were offered at the same time. I made it my business to persuade him that he could trust me to bring the role to life as Rose had done. I think he was accepting of the fact that I had performed so many G & S roles prior to Major General Stanley, and knew the style well, and that I relished the new look of the production. With every G & S role I had played, I had always tried to bring something new and of myself into the productions. I always find it a challenge to step into someone else’s shoes, and as these productions are a copy that means that everything has to be cloned so to speak. I had to do some things that did not quite make sense to me (i.e. the Irish Accent that suddenly appears when he is telling his orphan story); however, I was able to put enough of the way I felt about the character and what he had to say to satisfy my need to communicate his story.
The character of Major General Stanley is based on Sir Garnet Wolseley, commander of the British Army at the relief of Khartoum and in the Zulu wars after Lord Chelmsford was relieved of command. He was known as the modern major general, hence the song. It does not follow the usual pattern of patter songs where one event leads to another and if the sequence is right the order of words flows accordingly. Rather, Major General Stanley is saying anything that comes into his head in order to get the Pirates’ minds away from lascivious thoughts about his daughters. The song follows no fixed pattern and as such needs to be learned by rote and is certainly one of the most difficult of the patter songs written by this duo.
The cast I worked with in the Joseph Papp version was truly wonderful. Jon English, who played the Pirate King, to this day is one of the finest performers I have ever worked with, giving never less than 150% every show, so generous with his fellow performers, a wonderful team player, and given his background as a rock singer we often used to laugh about how both of us would sing things. Also we fought to include in the dialogue the play on words for orphan. When you say “orphan,” do you mean orphan--as in a person who has lost his parents—or often (pronounced “orphan” in England and Australia), frequently? It was cut from the American version as “often” is said as it is spelled and that is OFF-TEN—so it is not a play on words or a joke to American audiences, but it is in Australia, so Jon and I made such a big deal of it, when the audience laughed so much the director thankfully said “Let’s leave it in.”
My only other opera colleague in the cast was June Bronhill, who played Ruth. June was such a fine singer and headliner on the West End of London in Robert and Elizabeth, Sound of Music, etc. who had also sung Lucia di Lammermoor at the ROH Covent Garden and was a resident artist with the English National Opera for many years. She was such a lovable Ruth and with Marina Prior, David Atkins, and Simon Gallaher, and the most wonderful and talented chorus and orchestra and conductor, we had a wonderful and successful tour. It was hard work; but when it was so enjoyable, who noticed that the work was hard? I always used to practice the Major General’s song in my dressing room at least five times before I went on stage, so when I reached my 100th performance of the role, the cast gave me a big cake celebrating my 500th “I am the very model of a modern major general.” I have since performed the Major General in an Opera Australia version in a slightly more subdued way, but still in the way I wanted to play him. I definitely loved “Sighing softly” as a solo from The Pirates, and I also loved the dialogue at the beginning of Act Two about the family escutcheon. Every Saturday night after the two shows I would go to the theatre bar and have a drink with the cast as there was no show on Sunday. I couldn’t think of exactly what it was I wanted as I reached the bar, so one of my daughters ordered for me escutcheon soda (a scotch and soda). They were very quick witted indeed!
One of the greatest thrills to me has been the fact that the modern generation loves Gilbert’s wit and words and actually understands what is being said. He was one of the great writers of the English language and the fact that his words are understood in the modern world of texting is remarkable and as such will perpetuate the quality of the English language and its proper use. The Pirates of Penzance and pirate stories in general always fascinate the younger generation and as such The Pirates always presents well. To my mind Mikado is my favorite overall, and yet I do have so much affection for Iolanthe although the subject in that production is not so pertinent to the modern generation as the ones in Pirates and Mikado are; however Iolanthe has some of Sullivan’s sweetest music and it would orchestrate well into a bigger format.
I do hope this answers all your questions and many thanks indeed for your kind inquiry.
Cordial good wishes,
John Bolton Wood A.M.