Elizabeth Sorenson & chorus in The Mikado. Photo courtesy Kentucky Opera.
Music by Sir Arthur S. Sullivan
Words by Sir W.S. Gilbert
Directed by Daniel Pelzig
Conducted by Clinton Smith
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents copyright © 2017 Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
We know the characters. We know the premise of the comedic opera: In the Japanese town of Titipu a wondering minstrel by the name of Nanki-Poo arrives in town to declare his love for Yum-Yum, who is betrothed to her ward Ko-Ko, the recently appointed Lord High Executioner. Ko-Ko soon receives notice from The Mikado stating that if there is not an execution performed in Titipu within a month the town will be demoted to a village and that he, himself, would lose his head. Upon learning of Yum-Yum’s impending marriage, Nanki-Poo decides that he shall end his life. In taking advantage of the distraught Nanki-Poo he offers a deal that he may marry Yum-Yum but in a month he must come back to Ko-Ko and be executed and then Ko-Ko will be free to marry the young widow. As the couple begins to make their way to get married by Pooh Bah, the Lord of Everything, Katisha arrives and claims her stake as the rightful fiancée of Nanki-Poo, as was decreed by his father, the Mikado. The townspeople run her out of town and she swears to reveal to the Mikado where his son is.
With Katisha out of the way Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo prepare for their wedding, but just as they begin Ko-Ko uncovers a law that states that when a married man is executed, his wife is then buried alive. Having no want to be a part of that the marriage is called off and Nanki-Poo then asks to be beheaded right there. As it turns out, Ko-Ko has no desire to do so and the together they devise a ruse to trick the Mikado into thinking there was an execution. Nanki-Poo agrees to the ruse in exchange for Yum-Yum’s hand with the caveat that the couple must leave Titipu forever.
With Katisha in tow, the Mikado arrives in Titipu. Ko-Ko believes he has come to see if an execution has taken place. With the assistance of Pooh-Bah and his ward Pitti-Sing, Ko-Ko presents documentation of such an execution. The Mikado, satisfied with the documentation, then tells everyone of the true nature of his visit: to find his son. Meanwhile, Katisha is looking over the document and sees that it is her unrequited love Nanki-Poo who was “executed”. Upon hearing this news Katisha is in despair and demands justice. With the condemnation of his life and the others’, Ko-Ko pleads to Nanki-Poo to reveal himself. Fearing the wrath of Katisha he hesitates but convinces Ko-Ko to woo her and if successful, then she would no longer have claim over him.
If you are at all familiar with the writings of Gilbert and Sullivan, then you know that Sir Gilbert had a knack for hiding his views of politics and agendas within his operas, and The Mikado is no exception. Using the newly fashionable discovery of Japanese culture, Gilbert placed his smart humor within the fictional town and townspeople of Titipu. And British audiences ate it up. The Mikado was the second longest running production to ever grace the Savoy Theatre of London, with close to 700 runs in1885.
Kentucky Opera has fast forward one hundred years and set the production in1985 London, England. Punk was king at that time and everyone was living it. With a set of raised platform with steps and the stage’s back wall showing, an upright piano, sits facing upstage whereupon a man, with blue hair, sits at the keys and begins the first chords of The Mikado. Soon another, similarly dressed person joins in, and directs a group of characters to enter as our Louisville Orchestra takes over and we soon see a dragon on stage. What? Welcome to director Daniel Pelzig’s reimagining of this classic. Directed as a play within a play, the stage is soon filled with chorus and principles that are in full on punk regalia going through a rehearsal process for, you guessed it, The Mikado. While I really liked the idea of this device, I wish it had been used a little deeper and longer, because it didn’t take long before the whole of the opera comedy was taking place. I would have liked to see how far that illusion could have been taken. But, make no mistake; this Mikado is absolutely enchanting and entertaining.
This operetta is filled with memorable music, themes, and characters that we still perform with enthusiasm 125 years later. And for good reason: it is timeless and able to be molded. Case in point, the 1980’s punk setting and the references to themes, names and buzzwords of that period and even 2017 strewn throughout the whole of the performance. Pay special attention to the lyric changes of Ko-Ko’s solo w/ chorus “As some day it may happen”, affectionately known as The List Song. In fact, I’d love to see a transcript of it. Also, watch the surtitles; there are some interesting twists in them too.
Conor McDonald’s Pish-Tush was clever and even. Rachel Blaustein’s Peep-Bo, while not given a lot of solo opportunity, was confident and funny during The Mikado’s court scene. Clara Nieman’s Pitti-Sing was bold and fun to watch. Despite only being on stage during the second act as the Mikado, Peter Strummer was effortless and delightful in his execution (see what I did there?). The lovely Elizabeth Batton’s Katisha was anything but plain. She sang through her character’s pain and heartache and made her shine. Jasmine Habersham, as Yum-Yum, was, in a word, yummy. She had great comedic timing and you could sense her love of singing and enjoyment in each note, especially her “The sun’s rays are all ablaze.” Just as enjoyable to listen and watch was Daniel Shirley’s Nanki-Poo, whose voice has a great balance of desire and honor within. Even though through the duet “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted” Ms. Habersham and Mr. Shirley’s voices seemed to lose a little strength, they quickly recuperated. In the role of Pooh-Bah, Chad Sloan was perfectly cast. His baritone was ideal for the character’s shady doings and softer sides.
Sometimes in theater a role is written that seems tailor made for a given performer. Upon watching the magic that was created by Curt Olds as Ko-Ko, I have to believe that that could be true. I would liken him to comedic actors such as Jerry Lewis and Martin Short, with a voice similar to Hugh Jackman or even Joel Gray. Mr. Olds is that rare performer comfortable in both opera and Broadway. Like a siren’s call he dazzled and entertained throughout the evening and one could not help but to be entranced.
I’ve mentioned this before; our Kentucky Opera is good at finding great talent, and the chorus is not an exception. Strewn throughout its ranks are beginners and pros. Now, with that, I have to say the good with the not so good. For the most part the chorus was tight as a drum, but often I could hear solo voices, especially during the songs at the end of the first Act. There was even, what I would characterize as, some discombobulating. A few choristers missed a mark or two, but were quick to bounce back.
I adored the Japanese kimonos and the punk look, but there was one look that was out of place for the opening scenes. A chorus member looked more gypsy than punk rocker. I did notice later on that the look altered. Much better. The make-up and props were just as I would expect, although I would have loved to see a few more ornate fans. Also, I’d challenge any director to come up with some different choreography during The Mikado’s “A more humane Mikado” number with chorus.
A few patrons, opera lovers, and performers asked me after the performance what I thought and unflinchingly I said the following: easily among the top 5 Mikados that I have either seen or been in. While Katisha says that “it takes years to train a man to love me”, it takes a far less amount of time to fall in love with this Mikado. A wonderful way to end the Kentucky Opera’s 2016-2017 season.
February 10 & 12, 2017
W.L. Lyons Brown Theatre
315 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.