Times Music Writer

The hearty laugh and ever-smiling offstage presence remain; age seems not to be catching up with Donald Adams.

And why should it? At 57, the veteran Gilbert & Sullivan singer, principal basso of the D'Oyly Carte Opera for 16 years (1953-69) of its Golden Age, is making a whole new career--in grand opera.

"It really started as a fluke," Adams said earlier this week in the administrative offices of Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena, where he appears as guest artist this weekend with Opera a la Carte in "Pirates of Penzance."

"Four years ago, I was in the film of 'The Mikado,' for the Brent Walker (Gilbert & Sullivan opera) series, and I was approached to appear in the Chicago production--the Peter Sellars version--of 'Mikado.' Because of that, I began to get offers to sing roles in 'Barber of Seville' and 'Fledermaus.' Now, I'm doing it all the time."

In those four years, Adams has sung in "Katya Kabanova" under Simon Rattle ("an absolute joy to work with him," he says), in "Boris" under Claudio Abbado, and in 'Merry Widow' with Maria Ewing.

The ebullient, white-haired singer relates all this with an energy and relish that would be unremarkable in a young professional. From one who has been on the road since 1951, the year he joined the D'Oyly Carte troupe, it is positively alarming.

"The road? I love it. It's a way of life," Adams responds when asked about his feelings about four decades of touring. More to the point, he says he enjoys learning new roles.

"If I'm not really what you might call a 'quick study,' at least I get the job done. The one great irritation, however, is learning new translations. Right now I'm suffering with my third English translation of 'Barbiere,' this one for the Welsh Opera. It seems every time I do the role of Bartolo, I have to learn it all over again."

Before his first guest appearance with Richard Sheldon's California-based Opera a la Carte, as the Pirate King in the "Pirates of Penzance" to be given tonight at 8:30, and Sunday at 2 and 8 p.m., Adams remembers his first meeting with Sheldon.

"It was in 1970, when I did my one-man show at the Wilshire Ebell here. Richard came back and asked to audition for me. There wasn't time then but later he came to London, sang and appeared in my then-company, 'Gilbert & Sullivan for All.' "

Adams says he is enjoying this production particularly because, "I don't do that much G&S; anymore."

In the next few months, for instance, all Adams' engagements are purely operatic. He sings in Glasgow with Scottish Opera, in Amsterdam with Netherlands Opera. In "Fledermaus," he will be Frank in Chicago in 1987 and at Covent Garden in 1988. And he is now preparing, for a later season, his first Sacristan in "Tosca," also for Chicago.

But whether the composer is Sullivan or Puccini, Adams' regimen is the same.

"I do look after the voice. No, I don't smoke. I used to drink, but since I've been these past four years in the opera world, I take no spirits. I do exercise and walk a lot. And, faithfully, I sing scales for one hour every day."

Adams describes the Opera a la Carte "Pirates" as "semi-traditional." But how did he feel about the Joseph Papp/Linda Ronstadt "Pirates"?

"Actually, I think it had a wonderful vitality. Of course, I don't really feel good about that music when played by synthesizers. But, on the whole, I think that production did G&S; a lot of good."

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