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Arts & Life

A Model Millennial 'Major-General?' Loveland Opera Has Updated Penzance's Earworm

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Darlene St. John
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Darlene St. John Photography
Adam Ewing (center) performs as the Major-General in Loveland Opera Theatre's 'Pirates of Penzance.'

Before rehearsing his opening song in Loveland Opera Theatre's production of the classic Pirates of Penzance, opera singer Adam Ewing needs a little warming up.

"I think the speech-like nature of it lends itself very easily to being sung and kind of stumbled over," Ewing said of his opening number, "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" – more commonly known as the "Major General's Song."

And it is a very commonly known song.

"Something about it - it's just kind of in the public consciousness," Ewing said.

As the Major-General, Ewing introduces his character with the infamous 'patter song' – called such for its rapid-fire pacing. It was a favorite style of songwriters Gilbert and Sullivan.

"The nice thing about this particular aria is it's in a very comfortable range," Ewing said. "Gilbert and Sullivan were really smart when they wrote it. So the hardest thing about it really is just getting all of the words in your mouth."

Words like 'parabolous,' 'animalculous,' and 'Heliogabalus.' The "Major-General's Song" is also filled with tongue twisters like: "I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical; I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical; About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news; With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse."

The fact that a lot of these words aren't typically found in our lexicon anymore makes them all the more difficult, said Juliana Bishop-Hoch, Loveland Opera Theatre's artistic and executive director.

"I'd say that the words that we don't generally use anymore are probably the hardest to make sure that you're pronouncing them correctly," Bishop-Hoch said. "Sir Caradoc's. Um… Arithmetical something or other. It's like, 'what the heck is that!?'"

Luckily for the audience, they won't need an early English dictionary. The company gave the song's lyrics – which were originally penned in the late 1800's – a little update.

So lines like: "I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus, in conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous."

Are now: "I quote in Wookie all the lines of Yoda from the Star Wars flicks, I'm very good at taking the best selfies without selfie sticks."

"It's just fun to make it contemporary. So that people can relate to it as opposed to just appreciate it," Bishop-Hoch said. "That was a tradition with Gilbert and Sullivan. They changed the lyrics so that it would fit the location of where it was being performed."

So much so that, in addition to "The Major-General's Song" being one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular, it's also one of the most frequently parodied.

Over the years, it's been the subject of parody in movies, cartoons, and even video games.

"I think my favorite – I'm going to nerd out for a bit – is in the video game series Mass Effect," Adam Ewing said. "One of the characters parodies it to great effect."

Why this song in particular seems to have earwormed its way into the cultural consciousness, Ewing said he's not totally sure. But…

"It seems to be the one song that people come out of the show singing."

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