Forbidden Love, Deception and a Little Fun.
Why do people still like Gilbert and Sullivan, more than 125 years after the two Englishmen were composing and writing their comedic operas?
The team of Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the librettist William S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan. The two men were active collaborators from 1871 to 1896. In 1886, the two crafted a thinly-veiled satire about English bureaucracy set in feudal Japan titled The Mikado. The Lyric Opera of Kansas City ends its 2012-2013 season with the whimsical operetta. Performances are April 20, April 22, April 24, April 26 and April 28 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
So how can these quick-witted and sometimes silly operettas survive well into 2013 and beyond? Just ask Robert Gibby Brand, the actor and baritone singer from the Kansas City area, who will play Ko-Ko, the executioner in The Mikado. “What’s the appeal? There’s really nothing else like it. It’s creativity and nonsense thrown together with biting commentary that is truly amazing.” Brand has been in four Gilbert and Sullivan operettas including three productions of The Mikado. He’s known for nailing the quick patter songs such as Modern Major General from The Pirates of Penance. Just listening to Brand’s eloquent speech patterns, it’s easy to understand him articulating the rapid humor of Gilbert and Sullivan.
“I would hazard to say that the only one close to the comedic text or the quick pacing today is Stephen Sondheim,” Brand says. “Consequently, Gilbert and Sullivan holds up because people still enjoy the intellect and the challenge that it takes to listen to Gilbert and Sullivan as well as be part of one of the shows.”
Known as G&S to the legions of fans, the operettas are performed all over the world. As with many fans, Brand grew up in a household that treasured G&S shows. His mother sang in several while the family lived in Pennsylvania and New York. “First and foremost, the music is charming. The tunes are delightful and many people can hum a G&S tune. That was the great strength of Sullivan.”
Mark Ferrell, chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, will direct. He also understands the appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan. “The melodies are accessible. The stories are about humanity. It might be about feudal Japan, but bureaucracy running amok is something any of us can see in today’s world. The mistakes people make, those foibles, are put under the spotlight. We are able to laugh because no one is attacked, but the parody is sharp.”
While Brand enjoys the strength of Sullivan’s music, Ferrell revels in the genius of Gilbert’s word play.
“The Lyric Opera founder Russell Patterson was known to program G&S operettas and he often placed them in April as well. When companies perform G&S shows, there are built-in audiences and almost always, the operettas sell out. There’s a prejudice to G&S in the classical music world … they are only fit for amateur companies and children. Many high schools give G&S a go, but in truth, when G&S is performed with a professional cast, there is something so inviting. The sung dialogue and songs are just delightful,” Brand says.
In The Mikado, Brand plays Ko-Ko, the lord high executioner who may lose his position if an execution does not happen soon. “He thinks it is more of an honorary position, but then comes up with a list of offenders who might not be missed. It’s pretty funny.” This coincides with his List Song (As Someday It May Happen). “Ko-Ko is always in a state of crisis.” Here’s the basic story: Nanki-Poo, son of the Emperor of Japan, is desperately in love with Yum-Yum. But she is betrothed to Ko-Ko, the lord high executioner. This tale of forbidden love, deception and beheadings surprisingly makes for a light-hearted favorite.
Parody has a historical function and Brand sees G&S capturing the pervasive feelings of the British in the late 1880s. “It’s too funny when the cast is in Japanese costumes, speaking in a British dialect.” Brand expects help from the Figaro System which will help with comprehension. “While the show is sung in English, it needs some subtitles. However, the big humor and the catchy tunes will be easy on folks.” Some of the memorable tunes are A Wand’ring Minstrel I, Three Little Maids from School Are We, and On A Tree by a River (Willow, Tit-Willow). The idea “pooh-bah” also started as a character in The Mikado.
Whether people know of G&S or not, Brand assures an audience that the vocal and physical energy of the cast is something to behold. “These roles can be tiring. It takes a lot of energy to be part of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.” During mid-March, he will also provide some spoken text to the Kansas City Ballet’s performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with actress Vanessa Severo.
Ferrell says the challenges to put together Gilbert and Sullivan include singing lots of syllables quickly, whether in the patter song or in another aria. “I know that when people learn the music, there is an energy that flows from doing a job well,” he says. “It is self-propelling when the songs generate a sense of energy. When our singers put forth their best and the orchestra joins in, the energy feeds on itself. It’s also fun when a love interest is taller or shorter and the singers can work on that. Of course, the audience clapping and laughing helps too.”
This all new whimsical production based on Japanese screens and scrolls is designed by R. Keith Brumley (The Flying Dutchman 2013, Turandot 2011) and directed by William Theisen (The Barber of Seville 2012, H.M.S. Pinafore 2009). “I have seen people come in with their scores; I know people enjoy G&S and that pleases all of us.”
Other opera experiences include free programs presented by the Lyric Opera Guild: 7 p.m., April 1, At Ease With Opera – So You Think You Would Like to Be an Opera Singer; 7 p.m., April 8, At Ease With Opera – It’s Not Just the Three Little Maids from School; and 7 p.m., April 15, At Ease With Opera – The Mikado: Topsy Turvy in Titipu. All these are held at the Kauffman Foundation. The pre-show opera events, presented by Lyric Opera Guild member Rebecca Johnson, are held one hour prior to curtain the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.•
For more information or to order tickets, visit www.kcopera.org. For questions, contact Patron Services at (816) 471-7344.