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The Virginia Opera keeps "The Mikado" tradition alive.

Japan via England

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When the curtain rises this weekend on the Virginia Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado," audiences will be transported to a mythical town named Titipu, in a Japan that never existed except in the minds of its creators.

In spite of its Oriental trappings, "The Mikado" remains the quintessential example of the witty, zany and deliciously ironic art of one of the most successful teams in the history of music.

Technically, "The Mikado" is an operetta. Generally, that means a lighter, comic subject and spoken dialogue. It doesn't mean easier, as both men who are in charge of this production are quick to point out. The great operettas in the repertoire — the Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations, works by Strauss, Offenbach and Lehar — all possess a level of musical and theatrical sophistication that would be the envy of many an opera composer, despite their reputation for being "lighter" works.

"It's extremely challenging," Director William Theisen says.

The performers are switching from speech to song throughout the piece, and they have to put over both the words and the music, and make it seem natural. Theisen knows from experience; he has directed "The Mikado" countless times.

Although he knows some of the singers from other productions, the set is new to him. This helps to keep him on his toes, he says, and forces him to rethink his approach to the piece.

Theisen promises a traditional production. Although he feels that innovation can work in G&S, he has a more difficult time with concept-type productions that fail to consistently illuminate the work being done.

On this go-round, Theisen will play the work in the Japan its writers imagined, complete with lavish costumes and the obligatory fans. The operetta will be performed complete. Supertitles will be used for the musical numbers, so that the audience can catch all the clever wordplay of Gilbert's lyrics.

No microphones will be used. This is a controversial issue in opera houses today. While companies often resort to miking for musicals, it works less well for operetta, where the singers usually don't need such help.

The job of making sure everyone can be heard falls to conductor Dan Saunders. He also speaks of the multiple challenges of doing G&S. He has to make sure the singers have plenty of time to articulate their words, he has to keep the orchestra playing lightly and crisply, he has to dovetail dialogue into song so that the pace doesn't flag, and he has to find the proper balance between words and music.

"Comedy is really a lot harder to do than tragedy," says Saunders, adding that in tragic operas, the weight and force of the music propel the drama, whereas in comedy, timing and articulation are everything.

Interestingly, "The Mikado" came close to never being written. Sullivan was tired of the comic opera genre and longed to create a grand opera. Gilbert, for his part, had come up with a new idea for a work that revolved around a magic potion. The famous partnership was close to ending when Gilbert saw a Japanese exposition in London in 1884.

Gilbert's Japan provided Sullivan with the inspiration he needed to start writing again, and when "The Mikado" opened on March 14, 1885, it was a huge success and ran for more than 600 performances. It was performed all over the world and was even translated into German and Russian.

It's not difficult to find the reasons for its success. Sullivan's score is a delight from start to finish, while Gilbert's characters manage simultaneously to be comic, human and thoroughly English. The chorus in the first scene may call itself "gentlemen of Japan," but we know that this is a witty sendup of British Victorian society concocted by two of that country's greatest writers.

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