United States 2019 New York Opera Fest  – Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado: Soloists, The Bronx Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Michael Spierman (conductor), The Bronx Opera, Lovinger Theatre, Lehman College, The Bronx, New York, 28.4.2019. (RP)
Director & Script Editor – Benjamin Spierman
Sets – Jim Howard
Costumes – Eric Lamp
Lighting – G. Benjamin Swope
Video – Maxwell Bowman
Chorus master – Michael C. Haigler
The Mikado – Wil Kellerman
Nanki-Poo – Jonathan Price
Ko-Ko – Seán Kroll
Pooh-Bah – Michael Blake O’Hearn
Pish-Tush – John Callison
Yum-Yum – Barbee Monk
Pitti-Sing – Jackie M. Hayes
Peep-Bo – MaKayla McDonald
Katisha – Erica Koehring
The Metropolitan Opera may have its Austrian crystal chandeliers that ascend as the house lights dim, but watching the Lovinger Theatre’s orchestra pit descend below stage level is pretty neat too. Even better, and for the second time in almost as many days, I could just sit back and enjoy an overture without any onstage distractions. And what could be more delightful than Sullivan’s infectious melodies, buoyant rhythms and brilliant orchestrations, including the boom of the tympani and tinkling of the triangle, in the overture to The Mikado? I’ve seen almost all of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon (Utopia, Limited awaits) and, being a glutton for punishment, most more than once. Hands down, the tale of the Town of Titipu is my favorite.
In Queen Victoria’s day, Gilbert opted for exotic or fictional locations as settings for his operettas which allowed him to more freely satirize British politics and institutions. In The Mikado, Japan served the purpose at the time, although nowadays non-Asian casts portraying the stereotyped characters sends up red flags. For the Bronx Opera Company (BxO), Benjamin Spierman avoided that pitfall by setting the action in the White House Press Room, or what passes for it in 2019.
Instead of the Gentlemen of Japan, it was the reporters of the failing New York Times who sang the opening chorus. The buzz words of the day – Fake News, Mueller, Twitter, The Border Wall – were sent up in grand style. There were calls to ‘Make Titipu Great Again!’, and the satire became more biting with the arrival of The Mikado in the personage of a Russian official. For the final scene, the stars of the US flag were rearranged into the Hammer and Sickle, leaving no doubt as to who was calling the shots at the White House.
Spierman also took aim at our narcissistic, interconnected age. Press and political lackeys alike were glued to their smartphones and falling all over themselves taking selfies at every opportunity. Unsurprisingly, the cast and chorus were naturals at executing those antics, which were the best sight gags of the show.
Ideally, the repartee in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta should be as light and frothy as the music. The concept had its moments and definitely drew laughs, but the dialogue was often leaden. Another factor was that some of the cast did not have the fluidity and lightness of touch to deliver the barbs. They are opera singers after all, but on the plus side that meant that musically things went swimmingly.
Barbee Monk as Yum-Yum and Jonathan Price as Nanki-Poo were naturals, with the requisite glibness and bounce to make their characters spring to life. Their tongue-in-cheek approach to the high drama of this delicious comedy lifted the entire performance. Monk slathered her dialogue with a rich Southern drawl and lavished her plush, vibrant soprano on Sullivan’s lilting melodies. Price’s Nanki-Poo was remarkably nonchalant about his fate, never taking the prospect of his imminent beheading too seriously. Vocally, he was equally adroit; there was not only a gleam in his eye, but also a shine to his fine tenor, especially in his lilting rendition of ‘A wandering minstrel I’.
The role of Ko-Ko, the reluctant erstwhile Lord High Executioner, was undertaken by Seán Kroll. His delivery of the spoken patter was uneven, but there were no reservations about his singing. ’Willow, tit-willow’ was right on the mark. It’s so hard to find a Katisha with the requisite appalling face and physical decrepitude, but Erica Koehring made up for those deficiencies with brusque efficiency of manner and a dramatic mezzo-soprano. She could have mugged it up a bit more for my taste, but I like a Katisha who almost steals the show.
As the Pooh-Bah, Michael Blake O’Hearn had a laundry list of duties including White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, Bronx Borough President and serving as a Billy Bush Bus tour guide. Grand and imposing in every sense of the world, O’Hearn brought a touch of classic Savoyard mock grandeur to his role. The Mikado was Wil Kellerman, who spoke but did not sing with a thick Russian accent, and had smug, one-dimensional and autocratic down pat. Kellerman didn’t spend much time on stage, but he immediately got into the swing of things.
John Callison has a particularly appealing baritone, and by playing it straight was consequently quite funny as Pish-Tush. Of all the characters on stage, Jackie M. Hayes as Pitti-Sing planted me most firmly in present-day Washington due to her uncanny resemblance to Lisa Desjardins, the PBS NewsHour correspondent who covers news from the US Capitol. She has a lovely mezzo-soprano as well.
On the podium was Michael Spierman, BxO’s Founder, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, as well as the father of the show’s director. The orchestra and chorus were excellent, and both had a rollicking time performing Gilbert’s fine score. Tempos were brisk, the melodies bouncy and the musical textures transparent, as they should be.
BxO is just one company that makes up New York City’s remarkably diverse and exciting opera scene. For the next two months, the New York Opera Fest will harness these synergies with performances in venues ranging from cemeteries to museums. Imagination and daring are the name of the game when it comes to stagings, but judging from past seasons, exciting musical performances are the norm.