It's hard to think of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" as real opera because it's just so much fun. But the music is challenging for any singer, from soaring arias to the added difficulty of the occasional fast-paced, tongue-twisting patter song.
This production by Wichita Grand Opera this weekend in Century II was a delight for the eye with colorful costumes of Japanese kimonos, a beautifully streamlined set (Stefan Pavlov and Gianni Coppola) and gorgeous lighting effects (Steve Heinz) that gave the stage dappled texture of sunlight through leaves with skies that went red and yellow to punctuate excitable moods.
This production, the most thoroughly Kansas-grown of any opera to be performed this season, was also a treat for the ear with many strong voices, close, blended harmonies, and clear and precise diction that allowed us to understand virtually every word of this Victorian-era political satire, which premiered almost 125 years ago and is just as cheeky as ever. The orchestra, under the direction of Wichita State's Mark Laycock, was spirited but not rushed and always let the singers shine.
But the real fun, as always from past G&S offerings, was that WGO laced lots of local references into the political and social satire, giving Wichita ownership of this show with some surprising jabs at local movers, shakers and controversies.
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One song particularly lent itself beautifully to tinkering: "I've Got a Little List" about "society's offenders who would not be missed" if they were done away with. Here, instead of lady novelists or people who puff peppermint in your face, the list included such folks as Fox newscasters, Rep. Joe "You Lie!" Wilson, failed GOP VP candidate Sarah Palin, third-place rated Katie Couric, "balloon boy and his parents" and, ahem, the Eagle critic reviewing this opera.
I wish the program had given credit for the almost complete new lyrics because they were satisfyingly sharp, precisely rhymed and often hilarious. The troupe also played with "To Make the Punishment Fit the Crime," including telling county commissioners where they could park for the new arena.
Stage director Eric Gibson, from Tulsa's Light Opera Oklahoma, came up with inventive ways to position the chorus members to keep them from forming a straight line. He used clusters that created unique vignettes yet blended into a compatible background. And when he needed a line, he gave it undulating curves to keep it interesting.
He also, apparently, encouraged his cast to throw caution to the wind for slapstick moves that seemed straight out of vaudeville or the Keystone Kops. This was very zany — and enjoyable — stuff.
John Tedeschi, a theater faculty member at University of Hartford/Hartt School, played the lead role of Ko-Ko, a lowly tailor promoted over his abilities to Lord High Executioner of Japan because of a fluke. Tedeschi displayed a comic sense somewhere between brash Groucho Marx and cynical John Cleese (with a few silly walks thrown in).
He was terrific, even if he never bothered to keep track of his pseudo-British accent. His patter song about "a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block," aided by Cory Neal Schantz and Brent Cockerham, was delicious.
Basso Schantz was sometimes as manic as Robin Williams as the self-important Pooh-Bah, the epitome of slimy, buck-passing politician. He was a highlight as he allowed people to "insult" him with bribes. Tenor Cockerham as the notary Pish-Tush didn't have as many comic possibilities but held up his end of the trio vocally.