Wichita Grand Opera hopes to make a splash with outdoor ‘Pirates’

Wichita Grand Opera first dipped its toes into the outdoor-performing waters with its 2003 production of “Carmen” at Bradley Fair.

The company’s annual series of big plunges continues next weekend with two performances of “The Pirates of Penzance,” setting up a ship as part of the outdoor mall’s “Opera on the Lake” series.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operetta, in English, will be performed on an island in the middle of the water area that Wichita Grand Opera president and CEO Parvan Bakardiev is dubbing “Arena di Bradley Fair.”

“There is no other place where they have an opera on a lake in a shopping mall,” said Bakardiev, who founded the company in 2000.

A large pirate ship will be a part of the staging, mounted on a barge that Bakardiev likens to an aircraft carrier. Lighting will be on trusses to avoid blocking any audience member’s view, and a sound system will be concealed in the ship.

“It’s unique to build the whole set on top of the water,” he said. “We feel that we’re really getting where pirates are from.”

“Pirates of Penzance” debuted in New York City in 1879, and came to life for a new generation in a 1980 revival with Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline and Rex Smith.

In Wichita, Metropolitan Opera tenor Brian Frutiger returns as the “very model of a modern major general,” in one of “Pirates’” best-known numbers, and Michael Nansel returns to Wichita Grand Opera as the Pirate King. Three newcomers play other leading roles: tenor Clark Sturdevant as Frederic, soprano Lydia Bechtel as Mabel and mezzo-soperano Tara Curtis as the Major General’s nurse.

John Stephens, who directed and starred in Wichita Grand Opera’s 2008 version of “Pirates,” returns as director.

The performance will end with fireworks launched from the ship.

An amphitheater formed around the water will seat about 700 audience members, Bakardiev said, between Newport Grill and Healing Waters. Grand Opera subscribers will receive preferred seating, and VIP dinner space will be available at Newport Grill, which will become a dinner theater for those seated on its patio.

“You can shop and drop and dine and get there and see something really unique,” Bakardiev said.

Bakardiev said the company is utilizing the mall area to its advantage. The former Ann Taylor store, which closed in Bradley Fair earlier this year, is being used for dressing rooms and to house the voluminous costumes.

“People have no idea what a humongous undertaking even that is,” Bakardiev said. “Forget the barge and the boat – moving the costumes is just as difficult.”

Bakardiev said he still has in mind the 2003 performances of “Carmen,” when the weather played havoc with the show.

“If it rains – it’s Kansas, you never know – this gargantuan effort will be a big disappointment to ourselves and to the spectators,” said Bakardiev, who has reserved Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center for a Saturday performance for all ticketholders in case of rain.

“The only escape is, at Century II, it will obviously be without the island and the barge,” Bakardiev said. “But we have no other option. That’s the gamble of the weather.”

For those wanting a guaranteed indoor seat, “Pirates” will also be staged on May 22 at the McPherson Opera House.

While a “safe” option would be to stage the opera indoors and without all the variables of the weather, Bakardiev said an outdoor “Pirates” on the water would put Wichita on the cultural map.

“It builds the reputation of the company,” Bakardiev said. “You have to do something different, something unusual to compete with places like Chicago or New York or San Francisco.

“They can do much more because they have much more money,” he added. “Other companies may have better theaters, but they do not have the setting that we do.”

And while a similar production in a major metro area would cost between $800,000 and $1 million to produce, Bakardiev said his budget is just under $150,000.

Jessica Dunbar, marketing and property administrator for Bradley Fair, said the “Opera on the Lake” is a welcome addition to the center’s outdoor-entertainment calendar, which continues with five free concerts on Thursday nights in June.

“It definitely has become a Bradley Fair tradition,” she said. “Opera on the Lake is definitely part of our year-round events.”

Bakardiev already has plans to launch another nautical-themed opera in the next few years. British composer Benjamin Britten wrote the sacred opera “Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood),” and Bakardiev envisions an ark atop the water at Bradley Fair – complete with a rainbow projected at the finale.

“Truthfully, we don’t have the money of Kansas City, we don’t have the money of Dallas,” he said. “But this way, we can compete in a different way.”

‘The Pirates of Penzance’

What: The Gilbert and Sullivan comic piece continues the tradition of “Opera on the Lake”

When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 20-21

Where: Bradley Fair, 2000 N. Rock Road, Wichita

How much: $85, $58 and $37, with discounts for seniors, students, groups and corporate; Newport Grill is also offering a three-course VIP dinner and performance package for $150, or $1,000 for a table of eight.

Free seating with limited visibility is available on the north end of the lake next to the Hilton Garden Inn. Bring lawn chairs.

Information: 316-262-8054 or SelectaSeat.com