Cole’s showbiz turn is camp and challenging

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“HMS Pinafore” sailors with Tobias Cole as Captain Corcoran.

OPERA singer Tobias Cole has been taking a dive into the world of showbiz in Kate Gaul’s production of “HMS Pinafore” or “The Lass That Loved a Sailor”, heading for Queanbeyan in February.

When we caught up with Canberra’s best-known opera singer, he was off to Brisbane with his ballet-dancer son Marcel to run summer classes for Zen Zen Zo theatre, but Cole could hardly suppress his enthusiasm for the production, already a hit success at Sydney’s petite Hayes Theatre during November to December. 

It’s a bit of a coup for The Q and will follow a brief season at the Glen Street Theatre in Belrose.

“It’s been wonderfully exciting and challenging, with such an eclectic cast who have skills in many areas – opera, musical theatre and instrumental playing, too,” says Cole.

More familiar to audiences from his leading roles for Opera Australia, Cole has been returning to his student days when he studied violin and viola, pulling out his trusty fiddle and practising, because in this show the cast perform the music – some playing guitar, harmonica and woodwind.

Tobias Cole.

“It starts out with the overture played by a group of sailors, but gradually twists and turns so that by the interval everyone is hooked.”

Gaul’s high-camp production of the Gilbert and Sullivan favourite – their first big hit – is an ensemble where the actors play different parts. 

“It’s very funny when we’re all mucking in,” Cole says.

Opera lovers will be fascinated to know that in his role of Captain Corcoran he sings as a baritone, not his usual countertenor.

“It’s been a great opportunity to work on that voice and see what potentially might be if I wanted to do more in it, but there is a very clever moment when my other voice appears for a moment.”

Cole knows I’m not a G&S fan, but he assures me that this one has “a captivating plot which is as silly as. It doesn’t bear too much thinking about, especially the deus ex machina at the end which brings about the happy ending.

“I think the role of the Captain is a lovely part,” he continues. “He wants his daughter Josephine to marry the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph Porter, but she has other ideas and this production is all about her agency… the poor old Captain is just a ragdoll who gets thrown around.

“HMS Pinafore is all about people wanting love but being obstructed by society and social status, so the Captain doesn’t want his daughter to marry below her.” 

In Cole’s view, the character Dick Deadeye’s comment: “When people have to obey other people’s orders, equality’s out of the question”, shows librettist WS Gilbert at his wisest.

“One of the delightful parts of my role is that he doesn’t realise how much of a snob he is, and this will resonate today. Lots of people say they care for equality but they don’t. He’s just a snob,” says Cole.

Thomas Campbell as Little Buttercup with Tobias Cole as the Captain.

Happily, even though it’s discovered that the Captain is of low class, he gets something out of it in the end – he gets his girl. 

That “girl” is Little Buttercup, played by a man, Thomas Campbell, while female actor Billie Palin plays the lowly sailor/lover, Ralph Rackstraw.

“Kate’s production is extremely clever,” Cole says. 

“She changes the sex of two characters, in the sense that a woman is played by a man and a man by a woman. That’s nothing new in opera, here a bearded man plays the female and a young woman plays Ralph but nothing else changes, and that’s why it works.”

“I really concur with Kate,” he says. “She and I love the same kind of theatre… she grew up in Tasmania and the first show she directed was actually ‘Pinafore’. She’s worked at Belvoir theatre with people like Neil Armfield, and now she’s holding her own in a male-dominated profession.”

“Sure, the show is camp in the sense of being incredibly fun…Kate’s got a great eye and she’s great at bringing us all together to keep a high level of energy.”

“HMS Pinafore” at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, February 25-29, book at or 6285 6290.

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