As every eighth-grader knows (or should know) Commodore Perry (attended by several gunboats) opened Japan to European trade in 1854. In the decades following, European arts became virtually drunk with the craze of "Japonisme". Japanese prints, woodblocks, watercolors, kimonos, fans, screens, etc. were wildly popular, and the great artists of Impressionism were, almost to a man, deeply influenced by Japanese art—Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, and especially van Gogh. Literature and drama were likewise affected: "Madame Butterfly" appeared as a short story in 1898, was adapted by Belasco as a play in 1900, and became Puccini's opera in 1904.
Well, good old Gilbert and Sullivan were right there in the middle of it. "The Mikado" opened in 1885 and its gloriously irreverent comedy is still delicious today.
"The Mikado" is in the grand tradition of mockery of foreigners. "Racist," do I hear you cry? Oh, well, yes, but those grand masters of the D'Oyly Carte have so steadily and so thoroughly mocked the English; who's to deny them the liberty to mock those funny Japanese?
The production by UMSL Opera Theatre, under the brilliant, inventive direction of Stella Markou, appeared last week-end. What a delight! It was in the small Lee Theatre, the intimacy of which added immensely to the experience. Gilbert's fiercely witty (and often rapid-fire) lyrics are for the most part clear as a bell.
The overall design is wonderfully successful. The stage is simplicity itself: an ornate red bench stage right, a simple red bench stage left, and the whole back of the stage dedicated to huge, very beautiful projections of Japanese architecture or landscapes. The effective lighting and gorgeous projections are by Glen Anderson. Marty Baragiola did the beautiful and witty graphics. Even the program participated in the merry fun and wit that permeates this production. Stella Markou not only directed the show, but she was also costume designer and choreographer; what's more, she's director of vocal studies at UMSL—and thus she must properly be termed the "Lord High Everything Else". Her costumes are a surprisingly successful blend of classical Japanese and modern "pop": we see, for example, breath-takingly lovely colorful silky kimonos, but they're open to reveal short skirts and lovely legs in brightly-colored tights; we have camo-ninja security guards for the Mikado.
There is occasional conflation of Chinese with Japanese: the ornate bench is distinctly Chinese (it's even what we used to call "Chinese red"); there are some Chinese collars among the wedding party; even among the faces of the maidens of the chorus there is at least one that shows that deep, swallow-your-gum Chinese beauty. But this matters not a whit; to me, as to those d'Oyly Carte audiences in 1885, it's all just exotic oriental beauty.
The story is complex silliness indeed: The Mikado, the ruler of everything, has made flirting a capital crime and poor Ko-Ko has been sentenced to decapitation. To circumvent this law the town of Titipu has made Ko-Ko their Lord High Executioner. Thus, they figure (in the spirit of first-come first-served) before Ko-Ko can execute anyone else he must first chop off his own head.
Ko-Ko is engaged to the beautiful Yum-Yum. But Nanki-Poo, the Mikado's son, is also in love with her. Disguised as a wandering minstrel he returns to Titipu. Complications and a great deal of silliness ensue.
Music director Donna Pyron elicits fine performances from her student singers. (She also serves excellently as "orchestra"—well, really "pianist".) Fine voices abound. Chaston McPeek (as Nanki-Poo), Brandon Smith (as Ko-Ko), Adam Stefo (as Pooh-Bah) and Mason Scott (as Pish-Tush) all do splendid work. Rachel Sexon and Carrie Walther are charming as Yum-Yum's friends, and Devin Kemp brings a stunningly clear and powerful operatic voice to the role of Yum-Yum. Rebecca Siefert makes a Mikado of great strength and humor. And Gustavo Perez Diaz is hilarious in the drag role of the singularly un-beautiful Katisha—who fiercely claims the affections of Nanki-Poo.
Beneath all these remarkable vocal talents the whole production is simply bursting with fun. I realize now that Gilbert and Sullivan were really exercising their inner school-boy. It's as if all those Monty Python fellows were the pledge-sons of Gilbert and Sullivan in some elite English prep-school fraternity. Such masses of pre-adolescent humor! Such little-boy delight in making all those performers say the word "Titipu" a hundred times!
But what surprise! What delight! Amid all this goofy silliness, again and again we are stunned with the true musical beauty that Arthur Sullivan simply can't suppress. Duets, quartets, and a heart-stoppingly lovely madrigal spring up from this ground of comedy.
I love it! I wish it could run for a month. But, alas, there were only two performances. That lovely evanescent thing was "The Mikado", performed by the Opera Theatre at UMSL.