Chicago Opera Companies
The English D’Oyly Carte Opera Company held the international copyrights on all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, including “The Mikado” since 1880 until they expired in 1961. However, “The Mikado,” being the most popular of all the G&S operas, unauthorized versions were performed in Chicago.
The following are reports of the most memorable performances, including a review of an official D’Oyly Carte “Mikado” when the company toured America in 1937.
Chicago Tribune November 23, 1941
ON MARCH 14, 1885, the curtain of the Savoy theater in London went up on “The Mikado,” latest comic opera conceived by two of Queen Victoria’s favorite subjects, Sir William Schenk Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan. When the curtain came down two and a half hours later the author and composer knew they had triumphed once again, for the brilliant opening night audience demanded encore after encore.
Subsequent audiences all over the world have been equally generous in their approval. The show had 672 consecutive performances in its first run. During that time three companies were touring it in the English shires. Practically every corner of the United States heard not only the authentic version of the opera given by one of Richard D’Oyley Carte’s (sic) companies but also bootleg versions by unauthorized troupes who desired to cash in oh the show’s popularity. It was taken to Australia, where the vogue for it spread like wildfire. A Berlin audience went mad with enthusiasm when it saw “The Mikado” performed In English. Even the staid Dutch turned out night after night to see a strange English importation called “Hot Mikado.”
There has been no hiatus in its extraordinary career, In one generation De Wolf Hopper could delight thousands with his impersonation of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. In another Bill Robinson could add to his fame by tapping his way thru a brilliant Negro swing version as the Mikado of Japan himself. For the currently war torn British Isles the laughter and memories engendered by the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire have brought comfort and surcease from horrible reality.
On two occasions Chicago has been importantly connected with the history of “The Mikado.” As far as it is known, the first American production of the work1 was given in this city, and the recent impetus for staging it In up-to-date fashion came from local sources.
At a time when there were no worth-while international copyright laws the Gilbert and Sullivan works were promptly seized upon by American theatrical managers as soon as they appeared In London and presented in this country without the sanction of or the payment of royalties to the authors. When the printed score and libretto of “The Mikado” were finally released here the enterprising director of the Chicago North Side museum, where a stock company held forth, decided to put It on without further ado. A week’s run of the piece began on June 29,1885. For the admission price of 10 cents a patron was entitled to see a hastily thrown together, inadequate bit of staging. The accompanying orchestra consisted of four stringed instruments, a cornet, and a piano!
Bill Robinson as The Hot Mikado, Gwendolyn Reyde as Yum-Yum
“The Hot Mikado” was a high profile version of Chicago’s “Swing Mikado,” which played in New York and at the 1939 World’s Fair. It ran for 85 performances. The Federal Theater Project’s “Swing Mikado” (described below) did perform in New York for 62 performances at the New Yorker, then was sold to other producers who opened it on March 1, 1939 at the Forty Second Street Theater, across the street from where “The Hot Mikado” was playing. This version ran for 24 more performances. It then returned to Chicago and closed at the San Francisco World’s Fair.
A week later, on July 6, Sydney Rosenfeld presented what he called “the first American production of ‘The Mikado'” at the Grand Opera house. Mr. Rosenfeld’s presentation was just as unauthorized as that of the Chicago museum, and, to judge by the reviews, scarcely less inept. It, too, ran just one week.
Later that summer Mr. D’Oyley Carte, having purchased the American rights to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, brought over a company to do “The Mikado,” first in New York and later on tour. Chicago saw it, just as it was to see many another famous production of the Japanese satire during the ensuing years. After the revival starring De Wolf Hopper came the beautiful and lavish one offered by the late Winthrop Ames. Less elaborate but almost as skilful was that staged by Milton Aborn.
Six years ago the present D’Oyley Carte aggregation came back to reveal all the flavorsome tradition that went into the original version. Those who saw the troupe during its brief stay at the Erlanger in March of 1935 will remember with pleasure the performances, in which Darrell Fancourt played the title role, Martyn Green was Ko-Ko, Sydney Granville was Pooh-Bah, Charles Goulding was Nanki-Poo. Eileen Moody was Yum-Yum, Marjorie Eyre was Pitti-Sing, and Dorothy Gill was Katisha.
In the fall of 1938 the federal theater opened its lively jazzed Negro adaptation, “The Swing Mikado,” at the Great Northern theater. The relish with which the performers let loose their enormous natural talents on the Gilbert and Sullivan conceits won so much local admiration that imitation companies sprang up in several places. The best of these was “The Hot Mikado,” starring Bill Robinson, at the Auditorium theater2.
Chicago Tribune, July 2, 1885
THE MUSEUM—”THE MIKADO.”
The complication of conflicting interests involved in the alleged performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado” at the North Side Museum is entirely beyond the common course of such things. For one cause or another round half dozen of parties have reason to feel aggrieved. Not to mention Mr. Sydney Rosenfeld, who has bought the American right of the authors; Manager Duff, who hasn’t bought it but would have done so if the price had not been too high; the intelligent public, which may happen to get its first start into the new work under misleading guidance; and the authors, who have the right to claim that the supposed performance is not really their work at all. Of all these the general public has the best time of it. It can go and sit it out, and laugh at the funny places without being haunted by the recollection of having it heard it better done by some other company. Nobody who sears it and nobody who plays in it has ever seen a performance of the work elsewhere or heard a single line of the music. It is a free field and no favor. As for Mr. D’Oyly Carte and Mr. Duff, they may settle their differences at their leisure and the lawyers will pick the bones. It does not concern the public. The author’s rights, also, may be disposed of just as easily. There is no “evidence,” as the Lord Chancellor remarked, that the composition performed on the North Side is either in essence if in outward seeming the work of the famous cockney firm. A pianoforte part and a copy of the libretto were bought in open market. Music was scored, stage business devised de novo at two days’ notice, the work given out, learned, staged, performed—and here we are.
In so far as the pianoforte score of Pond & Co. maybe accepted as evidence the tunes of the North Side work are those of Sullivan. The overture was some other one, whether by him or by another deponent sayeth not. It is a point which does not materially signify, for report has it thqat Sullivan himself, being hard pressed for time, handed out a few tunes to be worked in and gave a leisurely friend £10 to get up a rattling good overture for him. The accompaniments of the presentation, also, were new. The “full orchestra” consists of four strings, a cornet, and a piano. It is possible that the cornet may have spelled himself himself occasionally with a clarinet—there were sounds now and then suggesting such a substitution. Of all authors Gilbert and Sullivan are the least adapted for successful presentation in this imperfect form. Sullivan’s music is never more than the least little way above the line of mediocrity. It is intensely respectable and essentially commonplace. Its only air of novelty depending upon its successful imitation of old English cadences and the madrigals of 200 years ago. “The Mikado” is peculiar in another respect. So far the published score affords evidence, the work contains no airs or duets of consequence for the leading young woman, Miss Yum-Yum, and her lover. The finales are not at all elaborate. There are several songs like those of the Admiral and Lord Chancellor, adapted for singers who can act, but cannot sing. Not accepting the museum verdict that all of the airs can dispense with voices, it may be said at least that those of the Mikado and the Lord Ko-Ko are of this kind. It is quite likely that a better singer in the part of the Miss Yum-Yum would be able to make a positive effect of the song, “The sun whose blaze.” and the duet with Nanki-Poo. In the second act, also, there are two part songs, one a madrigal. the other a glee, such as few other men could have written. They are thoroughly English, and, although they go off into nonsense at the end, as Englishmen like to have their sentiment, they are, nevertheless, susceptible of producing a fine effect. It will not be surprising if upon fuller acquaintance they turn out to be as successful as “The old, old love” in “Patience.”
The libretto is thoroughly Gilbertian, clever, nonsensical, full of absurd travesty of high-flown sentiment. The first part of the work is rather slow; in fact the entire first act is so; but the second act more than makes amends. The ridiculous tangle at the end is highly amusing. s usual with Gilbert, the plain girl who sings alto and has not yet succeeded in getting married comes in for a heavy dose. The Lady Katisha, the “daughter-in-law-elect” of the Mikado, represents this principle in the present opera, and in fact has the chief musical part of the work. The Japanese element of the play was produced upon the present occasion under considerable disadvantages. As the printed copies do not contain stage directions, and as the management is perhaps a little rusty in its Japanese lore, the stiffness of the performance was one of its most striking features. It is with no intentional disrespect to then ordinary bacconist’s sign that the grace and general ease of Mr. Richard Burton as Nanki-Pooh are compared to it. The importance of this resemblance grows out of the fact that Nanki-Pooh is the leading man of the cast—the baritone lover. The best feature of the performance is Mr. J. W. Herbert’s Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner. This is the Lord Chancellor2 part of the piece. Its lines and songs are all clever. The remainder of the cast may be left without especial mention. One improvement at least might be made without any great tax upon the resources of the house. Nanki-Pooh and Yun-Yum might kiss in their duet where the lines say “and thus, and thus.” Of the opera itself one thing at least can be said, as of all others of the same author—they have made it an amusing piece without drawing upon unpleasant social relations for a motive.
Chicago Tribune July 7, 1885
MR. HAMLIN AND THE PRODUCTION OF “THE MIKADO” AT THE GRAND
There was a little excitement in front of the Grand Opera House last night owing to the fact that the doors were not opened until almost 9 o’clock. The reason was that Mr. Hamlin refused to let Mr. Sydney Rosenfeld give a performance of Sullivan-Gilbert’s “Mikado” before he had made good his agreement to pay a week’s rent in advance, so as to relieve him from all interest in the proceeds of the production. About 7 p.m. Mr. Rosenfeld tendered the contents of the drawer in the box-office, somewhat less than $100, and checks for the balance of the rent, but Mr. Hamlin came with the money, and then Mr. Hamlin surrendered the house to him. Mr. Hamlin stated to a Tribune reporter that he had been desirous of getting out of his contract with Rosenfeld, since he had been notified by Mr. D’Oyly Carte that Rosenfeld had no right to produce “The Mikado,” and the proprietors of the Grand Opera-House would be sued for damages if they permitted the performance in their place. He had been informed, however, by his lawyer that he could not break his contract with Rosenfeld that he would have no interest in the receipts of the box office, and that Rosenfeld would be the actual lessee of ther house during the week he was to run “The Mikado.” Having received his rent in advance he proposed to let Mr. Rosenfeld fight it out with the people who denied his right to produce “The Mikado.” To show that he disclaimed all interest in the theatre Mr. Hamlin, in the presence of witnesses, bought a seat for the performance, which did not begin until nearly 9 o’clock.
The opera ended at about 11:30. Mr. Rosenfeld came on for his promised speech between the acts at about 10:45. The cast contained Holand Reed as Ko-ko, J. W. Herbert as the Mikado, Signor Montegriffo as Nanki-Poo, Miss Alice Harrison as the Princess Yum-Yum, Mr. George Broderick as Pish-Tush, Mrs. Broderick as Katisha, etc. The company members were so strange to one another, and the representation was so put out of sorts by the lateness of opening that the evening was nothing more than a dress rehearsal. Signor Montegriffo was as wooden and wax-like as possible in his part. Broderick was better. Reed was Reed and no mistake. Miss Alice Harrison has a voice which at times is pleasing. She has the unusual excellence of delivering her text in singing so that it can be understood. The singing as a whole, both concerted and chorus, was not i good tune and was carried too far into the colloquial. The company contains so much talent that there is prospect of an enjoyable performance when the rehearsals have had a fair chance.
Hamlin’s Grand Opera House
119 North Clark Street
Chicago Tribune, February 21, 1890
MUSIC AND DRAMA
The revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, “The Mikado,” last evening at the Auditorium drew a large house. The opera was staged with the utmost magnificence. and with a careful attention to detail—as regards both costumes and scenery—such as has never been seen here. The scene disclosed as the curtain rose upon the first act was of such beauty that it drew forth a hearty of approval. Mr. Charles I. Bassett as Nanki-Po (sic) won immediate recognition for his thoroughly artistic work. His first solo number, “A wandering minstrel I,” secured an encore which was well deserved, and his singing throughout the opera was thoroughly satisfactory. Mr. William McLaughlin was a stately and ponderous Pooh-Bah. His powerful voice was shown to fine advantage in the role, and his enunciation, when speaking his lines, was clear and distinct. In this latter respect he was superior to most of the other members of the cast with the exception of Mr. Bell. Mr. W. H. Clark was the Pish-Tush. His make-up so changed his appearance that except for his voice it would have been almost impossible to recognize him. Mr. Digby Bell as Ko-Ko, the “Lord High Executioner,” was superb. His first number, “Taken from the county jail,” secured a hearty encore. as did also his second song, “They’d none of them be missed.” He not only acted but sang the part remarkably well, displaying an amount of ability as a vocalist such as be has not generally been credited with possessing. Miss Gertrude Sears was the Yum-Yum. She sang the music in excellent style. Her voice is of pleasant quality and she managed it well. Her action was good, though she did not appear to be wholly at her ease. Miss Louise Beaudet, as Pitti-Slng, was sprightly and spirited. An occasional bit of by-play whlch she indulged in at the expense of Pooh-Bah’s dignity was excellently conceived and well carried out. But in the scene with Katisha she made the most decided hit, and her chorus, “For he’s going to marry Yum-Yum,” was given with grace and spirit that it won a triple encore. Miss Leona Clarke as Peep-Bo did excellent work, as did also Miss Grace Atherton in the role of Katisba. The latter took the place of Mrs. Laura Joyce-Bell, who was prevented from appearing by an attack of inflammatory rheumatism from which, however, she is reported as rapidly recovering. Mr. Mark Smith, as the Mikado, sang delightfully. His first song “My object all sublime,” received a well-merited encore. The chorus was strong and well trained and the costumes, besides being bright and new, were strictly accurate. Mr. Digby Bell’s costume is especially worthy of mention on account of its elegance. It was the exact copy of that of a Japanese noble, and consisted of white silk stockings, Japanese sandals, Japanese trousers like a divided skirt, with black and purple silk gown, mauve, embroidered with flowers, a jacket of royal purple velvet with rich, heavy, gold braided designs, representing birds, dragons, etc. with a red silk sash. The setting of the second act was fully as effective as that of the first, and the entire production, while not affording the same opportunities for scenic display as did “Pinafore,” was as a whole far superior to that production in general excellence.
Chicago Tribune, February 9, 1937
BY CHARLES COLLINS.
The comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, as interpreted with scrupulous loyalty to their best traditions by the D’Oyly Carte company of London, form one of the theater’s greatest pleasures. The present generation of playgoers has rediscovered the consummate charm of these lyric fantasies largely through the tours of this English organization, which returned to Chicago last night after a two years’ absence, for an engagement of four weeks in their rich repertory at the Erlanger. A feast of the mellow, urbane humor and the happy music of the Victorian era are spread before us, and the proper slogan for the occasion is, “Come and get it.”
“The Mikado” was the opening bill, as usual, for it is the most undeniable masterpiece of the collection. Finicky connoisseurs of Gilbert and Sullivan may insist that some of the other pieces—”Iolanthe,” perhaps, or the somber “Yeomen of the Guard”—contain musical delicacies of higher merit—but they merely represent a cantankerous minority which refuses to follow any bandwagon. “The Mikado ” is my favorite—mine and the public’s—and I will match it, for general merit, against any other comic opera in stage history. It is a classic from a golden age of theatrical entertainment.
The D’Oyly Cartes are unchanged of personnel, except in one of the prima donna posts, where Sylvia Cecil, an adept in the tradition, has replaced the enchanting Muriel Dickson. She made her Chicago debut last night as Yum-Yum, heroine and singer of some of “The Mikado’s” most delectable numbers, and she conveyed that complete sense of satisfaction which is the usual reaction to the D’Oyly Carte method. We may have seen daintier and more Japanese Yum-Yums—the Nipponese lady, Hizi Koyke, for example-but none who put more vocal beauty into Sullivan’s melodies or clearer diction into Gilbert’s lyrics.
The chief superiority of the D’Oyly Cartes is that they give their audiences the meaning of the words in songs as well as in dialog. One does not have to be a Gilbertian expert who knows the texts by heart to follow the verbal tricks and felicities of the libretto, for the first principle of this organization is to treat the English language with full respect as a lyric medium. This skill in diction accounts, in part, for the company’s conquest of the younger generation, which finds in Gilbertian humor a close parallel to its own allusive banter.
Martin Green’s Ko-Ko is a fine example of easy drollery, bearing out his reputation as the best Gilbertian comedian of the tradition. With Derek Oldham as the troubadour, Nanki-Poo; Sydney Granville as the pompous Pooh-Bah; Darrell Fancourt as the awesome Mikado, and Evelyn Gardiner as the mournful Katisha (ancestress of contemporary torch- singers), this cast represents the D’Oyly Carte organization at its best. The costumes and scenery are in the gay, realistic tradition of the early productions, and the orchestra, led by Isidore Godfrey with zeal, gives Sullivan’s score its full values.
“The Mikado” will be repeated tonight “Iolanthe” is billed for to morrow afternoon and evening. Then come “The Gondoliers” on Thursday and Friday nights and “The Yeomen of the Guard ” on Saturday afternoon and evening.
Chicago Tribune, September 26, 1938
BY CECIL SMITH
How the Japanese town of Titipu has changed since Gilbert and Sullivan first brought its doings to the attention of the English speaking world a half century ago! On extremely slight provocation the subjects of the Mikado nowadays toss off a tap dance or engage in a spree of the ost authentic Harlem trucking. The Mikado himself, wearing garments of state consisting of a flowing robe of red and yellow evening stripes and a tall silk hat studded with weary feathers, explains his objetc all sublime in spicy swing rhythm.
These developments in the manners and mores of the Japanese people, and many others equally unprecedented, were revealed to an audience at the Great Northern theater last night as the Federal theater presented the premier of its all-Negro version of “The Mikado.”
The scene of the action, it must be confessed, has been changed from Japan to an unspecified coral island in the Pacific. Clive Rickabaugh has designed two imaginative sets—the first from a background of mountain peaks, from which Fujiyama is conspicuously absent, and the second a striking South Sea locale with a moon and undulating waves in the middle distance. John Pratt has solved what must have been a knotty problem of costuming by finding a striking meeting ground of African and Japanese motifs.
The performance could easily have been a sorry mess, but it is not. The swing and jitterbug element, titilating though it is, has not been allowed to break out of the comic moments of the opera into the serious or sentimental parts. The dialog is spoken straight at all times.
The principals have been schooled in many of the traditions of Gilbert and Sullivan behavior, and even employ a great deal of the time, and the choral climaxes sound almost as big as the triumphal scene in “Aida.”
Herman Greene, as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, is the one member of the cast who acts his role wholly in a vein of low comedy. Yet he is so direct, so intelligent in his unorthodox reading of his lines, and often so heartily funny in his antics, that he is actually the star of the performance. William Franklin and Lewis White, as Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush, discover a higher plane of gentility, and Mr. Franklin in particular sings cleanly and forcefully in a good baritone voice.
On the musical side Maurice Cooper, a strikingly handsome tenor with a light, pleasing lyric voice, sings with exquisite taste and choice musicianship. He is the best Nanki-Poo I have ever heard, bar none. His vis-à-vis, Gladys Boucree, likewise sings Yum-Yum’s music delightfully.
When all is said and done, this modernized “Mikado” is momentarily amusing for its iconoclasms of treatment, but much more permanently satisfying for the honest competence with which the enduring beauties of the opera are respectfully projected.
The Swing Mikado
New York Times, May 13, 1983
OPERA: ‘THE MIKADO,’ CHICAGO LYRIC COMPANY
By DONAL HENAHAN, Special to the New York Times
CHICAGO, May 12— Right off, you might have suspected that the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of ”The Mikado” was going to be unusual. During the playing of the overture at last night’s premiere, young ladies dressed as Northwest Orient stewardesses stood onstage and in the audience rhythmically miming the familiar airline drill with seat belts, oxygen masks and life vests. Suspicion deepened when the production, having landed in Japan, took us into a corporate boardroom behind which flashed signs advertising Sony, Canon, Toshiba, Fuji and that universal solvent Coca-Cola. The first number, ”If You Want to Know Who We Are,” was sung by a chorus of executive clones, 20th-century ”gentlemen of Japan” identically made up in black business suits, black glasses and black toupees.
All doubt as to orientation of this ”Mikado” fell away when Nanki-Poo, the wandering minstrel, arrived on a motorcycle, wearing shades and brandishing an electric guitar. The noble lord Pish-Tush wore the gear of a Texan and spoke with a yahoo accent. The three little maids from school, miniskirted and hormonally aroused by the very sight of Nanki-Poo (Neil Rosenshein), boogied to the strains of a shoulder-held ”big radio.” For a moment, I thought I had wandered into a revival of ”Bye Bye Birdie.”
But no. It was the town of Titipu transported to the modern world of high-tech and low comedy. It was Gilbert and Sullivan as filtered through the churning brain of Peter Sellars, the young director who recently has been stirring things up in the theatrical and operatic worlds. He has even aroused some critics to hurl the word ”genius” at him. Mr. Sellars, you may recall, dropped out as director of ”My One and Only” when the producers found his ideas too bizarre.
His ”Mikado” is designed to be a 1983 model. It is full of modernizing twists and fanciful flights, many of which are good for laughs and most of which are at least good for smiles. When Ko-Ko (James Billings) recites his ”little list” of people ”who never would be missed,” he unfurls a seemingly endless computer printout. Yum-Yum (Michelle Harman-Gulick) sings of her own unutterable beauty while wielding a hot comb, regarding her perfect image in an electrically lighted vanity mirror and cuddling a Snoopy doll. Ko-Ko’s garden is protected by one of those purple lights that zap bugs. The Mikado himself (Donald Adams3) arrives in a sporty red Datsun (license plate MI-YA-SAMA) preceded by Secret Service types.
None of this, no matter how clever, is likely to charm G. & S. hardliners, for whom much of the appeal of the operettas lies in their adherence to the D’Oyly Carte tradition. For them, Mr. Sellars will seem merely a misguided youth who puts the horseplay before the Carte, a trendy miscreant who deserves a punishment to fit his crime -something lingering involving boiling oil. That is probably too severe a judgment, but it must be said that Mr. Sellars did not entirely succeed with his ”Mikado,” even on his own terms.
The flashes of Lampoon humor did not compensate for the loss of G. & S. subleties in both music and characterization. Craig Smith’s able conducting sometimes prevailed against Mr. Sellars’s frenetic staging, but Mr. Billings went along all too willingly with the staging’s parodistic tone, stressing the hard-edged, whining side of Ko-Ko so much that his gentle befuddlement could not crack through. Yum-Yum, similarly, has a heart of stone, but that is only funny if she is also implacably sweet, prim and proper. Making her a crude teenybopper was good for giggles, but once the basic joke was set out, variations became predictable.
Whatever complaints might have been lodged against the evening, however, were wiped away by the appearance of Mr. Adams, that grand old Savoyard, in one of his most famous parts. His trembling delight in finding tortures to fit crimes continues to be, after more than 2,000 performances as the Mikado, a comedic tour de force. William Wildermann, too, knew what he was up to as Pooh-Bah, the ultimate bureaucrat, and Mr. Rosenshein’s bright tenor and ingenuous style were right for Nanki-Poo. Dan Sullivan was an aptly pompous Pish-Tush. Diane Curry, though not sufficiently decayed to be an ideal Katisha, would have been perfectly acceptable if more of her words had come through. The Cast THE MIKADO, operetta in two acts. Music by Arthur Sullivan; libretto by W.S. Gilbert. Conducted by Craig Smith; staged by Peter Sellars; scenery designed by Adrianne Lobel; costumes designed by Dunya Ramicova; lighting designed by Duane Schuler; chorus master, Giulio Favario; musical staff, Richard Boldrey and Donna Brunsma; wigs and makeup designed by Stan Dufford; assistant director, Marc Verzatt. Performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, at the Civic Opera House, Chicago.
Nanki-Poo ………………………..Neil Rosenshein
Pish-Tush …………………………..Dan Sullivan
Pooh-Bah ………………………William Wildermann
Ko-Ko …………………………….James Billings
Yum-Yum ……………………Michelle Harman-Gulick
Pitti-Sing …………………………Sharon Graham
Peep-Bo ……………………………..Alice Baker
Katisha ……………………………..Diane Curry
The Mikado ………………………….Donald Adams
Chicago Classical Review, December 7, 2010
A largely enjoyable “Mikado” this, at Lyric Opera
By Lawrence A. Johnson
They say we’re not Grand Opera but what’s that all about?
A lot of Scottish mist. I’ve got it on the list.
At least our tenor doesn’t need a swan to take him out.
Richard Wagner, Komponist. He never would be missed!
And for something even siller, Puccini perhaps appeals
With Italian miners singing “Eez there gold een them thar heels?”
With a few new marketing-friendly couplets added to the Lord High Executioner’s little list, the Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its new production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado Monday night at the Civic Opera House.
The December holiday-season operetta in Chicago has become institutionalized under the Lyric’s outgoing general director, Bill Mason. Still, even for those committed Savoyards among us, it’s not an unreasonable question to ask whether a major company should be spending its increasingly limited resources on doing an operetta every season—especially at a company where American opera has been largely missing in action for several years.
That said, you’d have to be a purist churl indeed not to respond to the company’s new production of The Mikado. With a supremely stylish cast of opera singers clearly enjoying themselves, the Lyric Opera’s new Mikado is a delightful show, putting across G & S’s abundant melodies with all the considerable charm they’re worth.
The tangled plot relocates Gilbert & Sullivan’s usual British political jibes and jokes to the Japanese town of Titipu. Nanki-Poo, the son of the ruling Mikado, has disguised himself as a strolling musician to escape marriage to the amorous old battle-axe Katisha. He falls in love instead with the beautiful Yum-Yum, but marriage is made difficult by the fact that her guardian, Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, has his own designs on his ward. As always with Gilbert & Sullivan, complications ensue.
The ridiculous scenario is satiric window dressing for an array of great melodies and Mikado is chockablock full of some of the team’s finest, with Three little maids from school, On a tree by a river, and The flowers that bloom in the spring among them.
Perhaps the bitter cold Monday night had something to do with the performance taking a while to warm up. In the early going of Act 1, much of the comedy fell flat, and director Gary Griffin, who deftly helmed last year’s Merry Widow, seemed less assured here, directing with too heavy and obvious a hand. (As Nanki-Poo, Toby Spence sported orange hair for no other reason than that it seemed something wacky to do.)
If you’re expecting a lot of the usual piquant Japanese atmosphere, forget about it. This production updates the action to pre-Imperial 1922 Japan, and drab, dark Western clothing is the norm, with the opening chorus of gentlemen of Japan clad in identical spectacles, bowlers and black business suits. The women chorus members get more stylishly varied 1920s black-and-white dresses, yet the schoolgirls’ outfits are decidedly more Oxford than Osaka.
In Act 2, we’re allowed more color with multihued Eastern-style gowns and a single cherry blossom branch. Mark Thompson’s cost-effective Minimalist set with a golden back wall looks suspiciously like a refitting of the steps and framing wall of the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
That said, once Andrew Shore’s Pooh-Bah and Neil Davies’ Ko-Ko enter the action, the evening takes off as we’re safely in the hands of British singers with veteran Savoyard experience, manifest in both men’s assured comic delivery and crisp enunication of Gilbert’s devilishly witty lyrics.
Stephanie Blythe as Katisha and James Morris in the title role in the Lyric Opera’s “The Mikado.”
But it is Stephanie Blythe who steals the entire show as the calculating villainess, Katisha. It’s unlikely that this supporting role has ever been sung with this caliber of gleaming operatic voice. She struck just the right note of not-too-serious expression in the mock-tragic Alone, and yet alive, and, with Davies, threw off the rapid-fire patter duet There is beauty in the bellow of the blast with blazing speed and crystal-clear diction
Blythe also displayed a great comedian’s timing making every punch line register. And, for a woman of such imposing physique, she showed herself a graceful and light-footed presence with her little victorious dance steps.
James Morris is a good sport in forsaking his usual Scarpias and Wotans to take on the small title role of the Mikado for the first time. While his understated ruler eschewed some of the traditional bits of business—a wry chuckle here with no Owen Brannigan-esque evil laughter in A more humane Mikado—Morris seemed to be having a high time in repertoire that is not his natural element.
The two lovers were a well-matched duo. Making his company debut as Nanki-Poo, Spence proved an engaging hero—even with the goofy orange hair–and showed an assured G & S style, though his colorless tenor lacked the tonal sweetness on top for A wandering minstrel I.
Lyric regular Andriana Chuchman was perfectly cast as the vivacious Yum-Yum. As in her Valencienne in last year’s Merry Widow, the Canadian soprano showed herself completely at home in operetta with a fine comic touch and assured vocalism, as in her lovely rendition of the The sun whose rays.
Neil Davies’ experience showed in his easy comic style and vocalism, with a nicely mellow On a tree by the river, and pinpoint articulation in his updated As some day it may happen and the quick patter numbers. He also showed great poise and humor when Blythe’s too vigorous stroking of his hair caused him to momentarily lose his wig.
Andrew Shore was luxury casting in the role of the multi-titled Pooh-Bah, bringing a bewildering array of voices to illustrate each of his many titles. Philip Kraus as Pish-Tush, Katharine Goeldner as Pitti-Sing, and Emily Fons as Peep-Bo rounded out a fine cast. The chorus sang well under Donald Nally’s direction, if too over-emphatically at times in music that requires a more nimble touch. As is standard for the Lyric’s operetta productions, dialogue is amplified, but the singing is not.
Amazingly, these are Sir Andrew Davis’s first Mikado performances. Here too, at times one wanted more airy textures and lightly sprung rhythms, but for the most part the Lyric’s music director drew alert and spirited playing that put across the many riches of this effervescent score with infectious enjoyment.
The Mikado runs through January 21.
1929 Erlanger Theater
March 18, 19, 20—The Mikado
March 21, 22, 23—The Gondoliers
March 25, 26, 27—Trial By Jury & The Pirates of Penance
March 28, 29, 30—Iolanthe
1935 Erlanger Theater
March 4—The Gondoliers
March 5, 6—Cox and Box & H.M.S. Pinafore
March 7, 8—Iolanthe
March 9—Trial By Jury & The Pirates of Penance
March 11, 12—The Yeomen of the Guard
March 13—The Gondoliers
March 14, 15, 16—The Mikado
1937 Erlanger Theater
February 8, 9—The Mikado
February 11, 12—The Gondoliers
February 13—The Yeomen of the Guard
February 15, 16—The Gondoliers
February 17, 18—The Mikado
February 20—Trial By Jury & The Pirates of Penance
February 22, 23—Iolanthe
February 24—The Gondoliers
February 25—The Mikado
February 27—Cox and Box & H.M.S. Pinafore
March 1, 2—The Yeoman of the Guard
March 3—Trial By Jury & The Pirates of Penance
March 5—The Gondoliers
March 6—The Mikado
1955 Blackstone Theater
September 13, 14, 15—The Mikado
September 16, 17—The Yeoman of the Guard
September 19, 20, 21—Trial By Jury & H.M.S. Pinafore
September 22, 23—Iolanthe
September 24—Pirates of Penzance
1962 Civic Opera House
December 18—The Mikado
December 19, 20—Pirates of Penzance
December 21—The Gondoliers
December 22—The Mikado
1964 Civic Opera House
December 23, 24, 25—The Mikado
December 26—The Pirates of Penzance
December 27—The Mikado
1976 Arie Crown Theatre, McCormick Place
April 26, 27, 28—The Mikado
April 29, 30—H.M.S. Pinafore
May 1—H.M.S. Pinafore
1978 Arie Crown Theatre, McCormick Place
May 15, 16, 17—The Mikado
May 17, 18—The Pirates of Penzance
May 19, 20—H.M.S. Pinafore
1 The same production was performed in New York City on July 20, 1885.
2 While this article states that “The Hot Mikado” played in Chicago at the Auditorium, no evidence can be found that it did. After Michael Todd failed to get the rights to produce “The Swing Mikado” for New York, he created his own version and called it “The Hot Mikado.”
3 Donald Adams was a D’Oyly Carte artist from 1951 to 1969.