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The Mikado

Not having known anything about Gilbert & Sullivan, nor read anything about the operetta The Mikado, I was quite taken aback when I opened the program after we had settled into our seats at the Lyric this evening. Aiyoh. Another western opera about the “orient”. And the characters’ names are possibly even more cringe-worthy than Turandot’s Ping Pang Pong: the protaganists are called Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum. OMG.

But then, the opera started, and we quickly realized that the setting and the characters’ names were more incidental to the plot than a commentary on Japanese life. Also, according to a critique of the opretta in the program, G&S wrote the opera in the late 19th century, when the British were fascinated with all things from the exotic far east. Faced with dwindling audiences in the prior two operas they had written, they decided to set their latest one in Japan, in the hopes of drawing back curious crowds.

And what fun it was! Everyone in the audience couldn’t help but chuckle – and at times laugh uproariously – to some of the silly lines. The fact that it was an operetta in English also rendered it more like a Broadway musical than an opera, and at some points I was reminded of The Producers.

And once again, I was awed by the power and beauty of Stephanie Blythe’s voice. Haha, it’s the third time we’ve seen her already, this season: the first in Met’s Das Rheingold, then at Lyric’s A Masked Ball, and now in this opera, where she was Katisha.

The Mikado, a commentary by Jack Zimmerman:

The Mikado was given in Baltimore last year without the change of a line. Not one of Gilbert’s jests of 1885 was omitted; not a single “local hit” was inserted to help out the comedians. And yet, after a quarter of a century, how delightfully brisk and breezy it seemed! How the crowds laughed once more at Pooh-Bah’s grotesque speeches and at the Mikado’s incomparable song! And how Sullivan’s tripping music tickled the ear! The world will be a long while forgetting Gilbert and Sullivan.
– H. L. Mencken writing on W. S. Gilbert’s death in the Baltimore Evening Sun, May 30, 1911.

Nothing’s changed! The Mikado is just as fresh and delightful as ever. Since its 1885 premiere, Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s most popular operetta has been performed throughout the world, translated into several languages, and has been referenced and often satirized in motion pictures, stageplays, and even television shows.

“The Mikado is one smart show,” says Gary Griffin, who will direct this season’s new production at Lyric. “It’s sharp and witty, a comedy about what we do for love rather than what we do for sex.”

Griffin, the associate artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, made his Lyric debut with last season’s The Merry Widow, a Viennese comedy more concerned with what we do for sex than love. He didn’t hesitate when The Mikado was proposed. “I’ve always loved The Mikado, so it wasn’t hard for me to take on,” he says. “There’s a delicate charm to it. The humor is simple and innocent and for it to work well, the audience has to sense that there is a light touch to everyone’s spirit.”

“These Gilbert and Sullivan works are the British equivalent of the Viennese operetta,” says Sir Andrew Davis, who will conduct The Mikado Dec. 6-Jan. 9 (Philip Morehead conducts Jan. 11-21). “We do them for the same reason we do The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus. The music is tremendously witty, but it always gets to the emotional heart of the matter.”

Gilbert’s text for The Mikado is masterful – comic writing at its very best:

Behold the Lord High Executioner
A personage of noble rank and title —
A dignified and potent officer,
Whose functions are particularly vital!

Gilbert was 49 at the time of The Mikado’s premiere. A major force in British literary circles, he began his working life as a civil servant, practiced law, and had pursued writing as an avocation. For many years he contributed writings and drawings to Fun, a humor weekly. Well before his first collaboration with Sullivan, Gilbert had written several stage plays and was considered a leading British dramatist.

Sullivan was seven years Gilbert’sjunior. The son of a bandmaster, he wrote music early on and had one of his songs published when he was only 13. Among his more famous songs were “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Lost Chord.” He studied in Leipzig, wrote numerous oratorios, symphonies, and concertos, and met Gilbert in 1871. Trial by Jury in 1875 was their first hit.

“Sullivan’s orchestration is deft,” says Davis. “That’s my favorite word for him. There’s a clarity and brilliance about his music that makes it so outstanding.”

Even though The Mikado takes place in Japan, not England, the story is classic G&S. Nanki-Poo has fallen in love with the beautiful Yum-Yum. She’s engaged to her guardian, Ko-Ko the tailor. But Ko-Ko has been condemned to death for flirting (a capital crime in the city of Titipu). He’s granted a reprieve and appointed to the post of Lord High Executioner. Because Ko-Ko was next in line for execution, he can’t cut off anyone else’s head until he cuts off his own! But the Mikado decrees that if no executions take place within one month, Titipu will be reduced from being a city to a mere village.

Ko-Ko faces the dilemma of how to escape his pending self-execution – and Nanki-Poo provides the solution: He wants to die rather than live without Yum-Yum. (Unbeknownst to everyone, Nanki-Poo is the son of the Mikado and he fled his father’s court to get away from the advances of the less-than-appealing Katisha.)

So Ko-Ko offers Nanki-Poo one month of living big, after which he’s to be painlessly decapitated. Nanki-Poo agrees on the condition that he can marry Yum-Yum immediately. Later it’s discovered that Titipu has an obscure and bizarre law on the books: the wife of any married man executed for flirting will be buried alive with her husband’s corpse!

Everyone arrives to celebrate Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum’s wedding but Katisha shows up to claim Nanki-Poo as her husband. She fails at this but makes it clear that she will return.

In typical Gilbert and Sullivan topsyturvy fashion, the plot resolves itself: Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are married. Katisha finds love with Ko-Ko, and no one is ever executed or buried alive.

“I look at the two acts of this show as style and substance,” says Griffin. “The first act is all style – getting to know the characters – and the second act is full of heart. I’m most intrigued by Katisha. You think you know her character and then she comes out and sings,

‘Hearts do not break!
They sting and ache
For old love’s sake,
But do not die,
Though with each breath
They long for death
As witnesseth
The living I!
The living I!’”

“On the surface, Katisha’s a monster, vindictive and ambitious,” says Davis. “But then she sings ‘Hearts do not break’ and you realize she’s a woman who has missed all her opportunities, and you have great sympathy for her.”

Lyric’s production boasts major star power. James Morris, the world’s most celebrated Wotan, is the Mikado. Neal Davies, who was the Major General in Lyric’s 2003-04 production of The Pirates of Penzance, is Ko-Ko. Katisha will be played by Stephanie Blythe, who makes her Lyric debut as Ulrica earlier this season in Verdi’s A Masked Ball. Toby Spence makes his Lyric debut as Nanki-Poo, and Andriana Chuchman, who was Valencienne in last season’s The Merry Widow, is Yum-Yum. Andrew Shore sings the role of Pooh-Bah (he was Dikoj in last season’s Katya Kabanova, Frank in the 2006-07 Die Fledermaus, and Falstaff in 2007-08). Chicago favorite Philip Kraus is Pish-Tush, and Pitti-Sing is Katharine Goeldner. Costumes and scenery are designed by Mark Thompson (Lyric debut). Lighting is by Christine Binder. Donald Nally is the chorus master.

The action is placed in 1920s Japan, a time when Japan had been influenced by the West but retained plenty of the fabric and style of its ancient past. Mark Thompson’s sets have a sophisticated, Zen-like simplicity – bright color drops and plenty of bold patterns. His costumes are 1920s-flapper influenced but with an Asian twist. Thompson has done the production design for such Broadway hits as Mamma Mia! and Joseph

and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

“These characters are human, not cardboard cutouts who are actors in a silly drama,” says Davis. “The silliness, though, is part of the Gilbert and Sullivan charm. That’s one of the things about all G&S works: they have a daft quality to them. It’s very British.”

It is indeed very British, and very delightful. As the Mikado himself says, “Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory.”

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