Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review of Winter Opera's "The Mikado"

Katisha (Lindsey Anderson) fails to blow Nanki-Poo's (Isaiah Bell)
cover in the Act I finale of The Mikado
I have a friend who says he loves directing Shakespeare because it’s so easy to do. Just don’t get in the playwright’s way and you can’t lose. I think the same could be said of the better Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as well. Don’t mess with G&S and you’re golden.

Winter Opera’s Mikado (presented November 9 and 11 at the Skip Viragh Center on the Chaminade campus) does, unfortunately, mess with G&S from time to time. But the tinkering is infrequent enough and light enough to let the jolly good fun of Gilbert’s wit and Sullivan’s delightful score shine through. This wasn’t a great Mikado, but it was a very fine one. If you’re a dedicated Savoyard (like yours truly) I hope you didn’t miss it.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The cast was consistently strong, and some performances were downright outstanding. Mezzo Lindsey Anderson, for example, may be too pretty for Katisha (“a most unattractive old thing / With a caricature of a face”) but behind that stylized makeup you wouldn’t have known it, and she sang and acted the role beautifully. Granted, Katisha doesn’t do much, but it takes a good actress to make her (frankly) unnecessary Act II aria interesting. Ms. Anderson certainly did that. Soprano Kathleen Jasinskas was a comic charmer as Katisha’s nemesis, Yum-Yum, beloved of “wandering minstrel” and royal heir Nanki-Poo, sung with equal charm by tenor Isaiah Bell.

Baritone Lane Johnson had the Principal Comedian role of Ko-Ko, the “cheap tailor” raised to the exulted post of Lord High Executioner despite the fact that he literally wouldn't hurt a fly. He’s gotten rave reviews for previous performances of the part elsewhere, and it’s not hard to see why: a solid voice and impeccable comic timing. Bass-baritone Edward Hanlon was an engaging Pish-Tush, making this minor character more interesting than is sometimes the case. Director John Stephens (who also sang the role of the Mikado with great relish) gave him a little romantic subplot with Pitti-Sing (local mezzo Erin Haupt in another charmer of a performance). It wasn’t strictly Gilbertian, but it worked.

Baritone Gary Moss was presumably down at the bottom of his tessitura for in the bass role of the snobbish Poo-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else whose family pride is “something inconceivable”, but you’d not have known it from his singing. His performance involved a bit too much mugging and physical business for my taste—the big joke about Poo-Bah, after all, is his stolid pomposity—but it certainly went down well with the audience. It was also in sync with Mr. Stephens’s direction, which tended to bit too loaded with shtick at times, so I expect my real gripe was with him rather than Mr. Moss.

Then there’s the matter of the updated lyrics. It has been customary for many years now to replace Gilbert’s dated (and occasionally racist) topical jokes with contemporary equivalents, especially in Ko-Ko’s "As some day it may happen" and the Mikado’s "A more humane Mikado". Most of the revisions worked pretty well, with the Mikado’s song getting some especially clever revisions that left the bulk of the lyrics intact. There were a few too many political and sports jokes for me, but that’s just a matter of individual taste. They all went over well with the audience.

I also thought it was a shame that "See how the fates their gifts allot" got cut from Act II, but if you must cut something, that’s probably the best bet.

The chorus was smallish (eight men and eight women) but it sounded big, and elocution was good enough to make the projected English text unnecessary. The orchestra sounded impressive as well under conductor Michael Mishra, although his tempi were sometimes plodding. With smaller opera companies, the band sometimes suffers from anemic violins and sloppy winds, but there was none of that here. The fact that the Viragh Center has an actual orchestra pit also eliminated some of the balance problems you sometimes encounter in performance spaces that weren’t designed with musical theatre in mind.

In fact, the Viragh Center (on the Chaminade campus in Frontenac) might just be one of the best opera spaces in town. The stage is large and deep, sight lines are good, and the seating is comfortable. The move there has raised Winter Opera’s costs, but if they can manage to make this work they will be serious players on the local musical theatre scene.

The production looked as good as it sounded, with bright cartoonish sets from Scott Loebl, colorful Japanese costumes by JC Krajicek, and effective lighting by Sean Savoie.

So, while my rapture over this Mikado was somewhat modified, there’s no denying it was an entertaining piece of work and very welcome in a town that doesn’t see many Gilbert and Sullivan productions since Opera Theatre dropped their annual G&S show at the Edison Theatre many years ago. Winter Opera’s season continues with Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe (a work I haven’t seen in decades) in February and Puccini’s Tosca in March. There’s also a Holidays on the Hill program in December at Dominic’s Restaurant on (naturally) The Hill. For more information: winteroperastl.org.

Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic for 88.1 KDHX, where this review originally appeared.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Winter Opera Saint Louis Presents Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado"

Winter Opera Saint Louis commences its sixth season this weekend with W.S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado. Far too much illegal flirting has gone on in the Japanese town of Titipu. Thus, the Mikado (emperor of all) decrees that heads must roll. Nanki-Poo (wandering minstrel and errant son of the Mikado) longs to marry lovely Yum-Yum—but he’s promised to the older (and unpleasant) Katisha! At the same time, Yum-Yum is betrothed to Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner! Beheadings, boiling in oil…punishments galore are devised to make “criminals” pay. But fear not—this is a comedy, and you’ll be smiling the moment the curtain rises. Audiences will hear several memorable, melodies including “Three Little Maids From School,” “A Wand’ring Minstrel I,” “The Sun Whose Rays,” and the “Tit-Willow” Song.

Kathleen Jasinskas & Isaiah Bell
Artistic Director Gina Galati and Music Director Steven Jarvi have assembled a cast, crew and orchestra of talents new and familiar to St. Louis audiences. Several principal artists make their Winter Opera Saint Louis debut: Tenor Isaiah Bell, who has sung for Opéra de Montréal and Calgary Opera sings the role of Nanki-Poo. Artist with Tri-Cities Opera and Shreveport Opera, Soprano Kathleen Jasinskas portrays Yum-Yum. Mezzo-Soprano Lindsey Anderson, an artist with Seattle Opera and Opera North, sings Katisha. Baritone Gary Moss, a veteran of the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire, sings Pooh-Bah. Bass-Baritone Edward Hanlon, artist with the Glimmerglass Festival and Lyric Opera of Chicago, sings the role of Pish-Tush. Soprano Emily Truckenbrod, artist with Wichita Grand Opera, sings the role of Peep-Bo. Returning artists include Baritone Lane Johnson (Ko-Ko) and Mezzo-Soprano Erin Haupt (Pitti-Sing). Mr. Johnson was last seen as Johann in Winter Opera’s Werther. Ms. Haupt sings her first principal role with Winter Opera.


(Clockwise from top left: Isaiah Bell, Kathleen Jasinskas, Lane Johnson and Lindsey Anderson)

John Stephens
After staging and performing in Winter Opera’s 2010 production of Werther, Baritone John Stephens returns to Winter Opera Saint Louis to once again perform double-duty as Stage Director and portray the title role. Conductor Michael Mishra, director of the Southern Illinois University Orchestra, leads in the pit. Nancy Mayo, adjunct professor of piano and accompanying at Webster University and resident collaborative pianist with Winter Opera Saint Louis, serves as rehearsal pianist. Jennifer Krajicek, who costumed last season’s La Bohème, returns as Costume Designer. Scott Loebl returns to Winter Opera as Set Designer. Having most recently designed for Winter Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Sean Savoie returns as Lighting Designer. Theresa Loebl serves as Production Manager.

The Mikado will be performed on Friday, November 9th (8pm) and Sunday, November 11th (3pm) at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade located at 425 S. Lindbergh Blvd. Production sung in English with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased by calling Winter Opera Saint Louis at 314-865-0038 or online at http://winteroperastl.tix.com/

For further information on the company, its future performances and special events, visit winteroperastl.org.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Union Avenue Opera Presents "Opera Gala 2012" on Saturday

Union Avenue Opera invites you to Opera Gala 2012, an evening of unforgettable arias performed by alumni artists and accompanied by the Union Avenue Opera orchestra this Saturday, November 3rd at 8:00pm. Members of the American Federation of Musicians along with several UAO singing artists have once again graciously donated their services to the company for the performance.

Concertgoers will hear arias and duets from a variety of operas including Handel's Giulio Cesare, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Verdi's La Traviata, Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, Bellini's Norma, Gounod's Faust, Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore and many more...

Maestro Scott Schoonover has assembled a lineup of singers from seasons past and present:

Joy Boland
(Freia, Das Rheingold ’12)

Jon Garrett
(Howard Boucher, Dead Man Walking ’11)

Debra Hillabrand
(Mrs. Patrick de Rocher, Dead Man Walking ’11)

Ann Hoyt Wazelle
(Susanna, Le Nozze di Figaro ’06)

Marlissa Hudson
(Bess, Porgy and Bess ’07)

Courtney Mills
(Amelia, Un ballo in maschera ’12)

Andy Papas
(Major General, The Pirates of Penzance ’10)

Marc Schapman
(Loge, Das Rheingold ’12)

Clark Sturdevant
(Froh, Das Rheingold ’12)

A reception follows at Tavern of Fine Arts. Tickets sold separately for $50 each ($25 tax-deductible).

Tickets for the Gala [Patron: $250* | Reserved Center/Balcony: $50 | General Admission: $35] can be purchased by clicking here or calling the Union Avenue Opera Box Office at 314-361-2881.

*Includes $175 tax-deductible donation and ticket to Gala Reception