DP2A Destination #1: Japan — The Mikado at the Detroit Opera House

DP2A Destination #1: Japan — The Mikado at the Detroit Opera House

For its 40th anniversary season, the Michigan Opera Theatre is once again presenting four full-scale operas (after scaling back to three last year — Nabucco; a very well-received Tosca, which I missed; and a lackluster, half-hearted Don Giovanni, which I almost regret to have seen), but surprisingly two of the four selections are slightly lighter fare:  Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado and one of Mozart’s more whimsical operas, The Magic Flute.

For the launch event of the 2010-2011 season of the Detroit Passport to the Arts, 400 passport holders were welcomed into the Detroit Opera House for the penultimate performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. I was warned prior to the performance that it was comedic, even campy. Reading through the cast of characters – names like Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum – I found myself wondering just what kind of cheesy musical theatre had I committed myself to for the night?

The result was a wacky, delightful opera experience, certainly unlike anything I had ever seen before. Gilbert and Sullivan were known for their bracingly political works satirizing 19th-century British government and aristocracy (ironically what would have been the same audience who attended their shows). The Mikado, set in the fictional “exotic” location of Titipu, Japan – the “exoticness” of which is commented on very directly within the show itself, making a mockery even of what (and why) an audience might believe a place in the ORIENT, the FAR EAST would be “exotic;” in other words, further cutting commentary on the arrogance of the audience that likely went largely unnoticed in Gilbert and Sullivan’s day.

Much of the satirical humor would be lost on modern audiences, or perhaps more accurately would not be appreciated as the biting social commentary it once was. Right from the opening number “If you want to know who we are” sung by the male chorus, court life is described and duly mocked;

“If you think we are worked by strings,
Like a Japanese marionette,
You don’t understand these things:
It is simply Court etiquette.”

Then there is the discussion in the beginning of Act II between Yum-Yum and her handmaids, commenting on how beautiful she is and how much MORE beautiful she is than anyone else in the world: the arrogance of the aristocracy is flayed at every opportunity from the safe removal of being set in such a far-flung foreign land. Characters are bestowed with multiple titles of authority (the Brits did love their lords and chancellors). Witty ridicule becomes outright ridiculousness when considering the entire premise of the story is based on people trying to avoid execution for outlandish reasons — clearly Gilbert and Sullivan were not fond of British imperial law. Death here — specifically unjust execution — is treated lightly, as if it could be so commonplace. The laws are absolutely absurd — flirtation is punishable by death — and the story follows minstrel Nanki-Poo (secretly the Mikado’s son) and Yum-Yum as they try to circumvent the laws requiring both of their executions so they can be together.

The fact that the opera itself is in English and there are also spoken parts make it much more accessible to a wider audience. And what really made this production exceptional was the way in which it was modernized for a contemporary audience and further targeted specifically for this Detroit audience. When Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko (Yum-Yum’s warder and fiance played by Michael Wanko who is hilariously reminiscent of Vizzini in the Princess Bride) performs his “List Aria” in Act I and the Mikado sings “A more humane Mikado” in Act II the lyrics are changed to reflect modern absurdities, everything from “the ladies from The View” to Kwame’s text scandal. At first the audience seemed hesitant to laugh, not really sure if they really just heard the contemporary jokes correctly, but as Ko-Ko continued rattling off his list of modern-day cultural, social, and political offenders (“They’ll none of ‘em be missed!”) the audience broke out in raucous laughter, drowning out half of the remaining jokes. The wink-wink tone and mannerisms Wanko used ensured that the audience knew that ALL of us, cast included, were in on the joke. From that moment on the audience seemed to relax and embrace this irreverent (yet still relevant) production, like opera by way of Monty Python.

The set was very simple, comprised primarily of large ornately-painted “oriental” screens that could be easily rolled across the stage.  The costumes were elegant yet also simple.  The actors were all talented (though I simply couldn’t help but notice that feudal Japan was certainly rather multi-cultural) without a single disappointing or lacking performance in the group, though the real standouts were Wanko and Melissa Parks as Katisha, Nanki-Poo’s mistakenly betrothed.  Parks was a comedic gale force with an equally powerful voice, demanding laughs from the audience as she commands the cast to “BOW!” in “Mi-ya Sa-ma” as easily as she demands tears in her mournful aria “Alone, and yet alive.”  It would also be easy to assume that Arthur Sullivan’s score would take a backseat to the sharp wit of W.S. Gilbert’s lyrics, but the music is also quite beautiful, and despite its satirical undertones, The Mikado is still an earnest love story with a refreshingly happy ending.

In other words, this is not, by ANY stretch of the term, a typical night at the opera.

PS, every time I hear “Three little maids from school are we” I think of the Simpsons; I can’t help it.

Afterwards the DP2A afterparty on the second floor of the Opera House featured sushi and chicken satay as well as Asahi beer, sake and live music from traditional Japanese instrumentalists.  I missed the boat on the sushi unfortunately, but space was packed and I was able to meet some of the other passport holders and chat with DP2A organizers and Opera House staff.  The entire evening was fun and light-hearted, an all-around great way to kick off a new season of arts.

My only complaint?  That it appears the overpaid and overprivileged (yes I said it and I will again: overpaid and overprivileged) DSO musicians will not have their wage disputes resolved in time for DP2A Destination #2 at Orchestral Hall, which was to include a performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”  I’m sure an equally great performance will be rescheduled in its place for passport holders, but despite the fact that I’ve seen the DSO perform this piece before I’m still disappointed.  All I can say is that they BETTER get this settled by the end of November because if I don’t see Robert Schumann’s ONLY Violin Concerto performed I WILL cut a bitch.