Kentucky Opera’s The Mikado: Behind the Curtain

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Cinton Smith & Daniel Pelzig with the cast of The Mikado

Kentucky Opera is excited to present Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, directed by Daniel Pelzig. Normally, our audiences walk into the theater to enjoy a finished product with little insight into the months of work that precede opening night. However, for this particular production, we want to pull back the curtain for the audience to experience the back stage evolution.

Pelzig sets The Mikado in 1985 London, where an alternative and progressive British theatre company is celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Mikado. To capture this concept, the design includes looks from 1985 London, as well as the original 1885 version of The Mikado. Pelzig explains that his approach is influenced by his research of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The duo collaborated in the late 1800s, during the height of Victorian era England. Society publicly valued high morals and tradition, yet tended to look the other way when their own behavior would contradict these views. Gilbert and Sullivan chose to expose these societal hypocrisies through humor and farce. While Gilbert and Sullivan were sometimes seen as rather frivolous composers, their popular melodies and witty social commentary fostered many fans.

At the same time in England, Far Eastern influence permeated popular culture. Gilbert and Sullivan were both exposed to exhibits featuring Japanese culture, including martial arts, dancing, music and visual arts. Gilbert concocted a satirical commentary on society, veiling the elaborate Victorian values in the interactions of characters in an imagined Japanese city. Those who did not recognize the satire were still entertained.

Despite the success of The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Pirates of Penzance, Sullivan felt especially frustrated with the partnership. Fortunately, Gilbert’s concept of The Mikado instilled in Sullivan the confidence that the story would inspire new musical ideas. The Mikado premiered in 1885 as a comic piece for The Savoy Theatre. Richard D’Oyly, Gilbert & Sullivan’s business manager and partner, built The Savoy Theatre to be equipped with state of the art technology for producing new works, like The Mikado, which in turn enjoyed long successful production runs.

Rachel Blaustein as Peep-Bo, Jasmine Habersham as Yum-Yum, and Clara Niemann as Pitti-Sing

As Pelzig developed his concept for The Mikado, he narrowed down his goals to linking the original British and Japanese inspirations for the piece in a way that would work for audiences in 2017, as well as invite the audience into the production and rehearsal process. Pelzig states that his inspiration was to find a “framing device,” or a way to keep the integrity of the original production, while abandoning the “racial caricatures that exist in the show’s origins.”

Pelzig begins Act I as a rehearsal for the theatre troupe, with the cast in street clothes. Throughout the course of the evening, more scenic and costume elements are added, transitioning from the 1980s punk look to traditional Japanese costumes. Pelzig relies heavily on his production team and cast, stating, “I’m a big fan of the collaborative process between the singing actor, conductor and myself. Things will always evolve and change and we will always have conversation about what works best: any good product is only as good as the openness of its process.”

For Kentucky Opera, this process begins with the artistic team choosing three main stage productions to feature each season. The task is to choose not only great operas, but also ones suitably fit for the company. The general director and music director work together to consider which three operas form a cohesive yet varied season.

Two major factors to consider are whether the opera has been recently produced in the area and the size of the required orchestra. Companies often pair the beloved classics with lesser known productions or newer works in order to grow the audiences’ repertoire. To successfully program these operas, the company needs a clear marketing and engagement plan. Ian Derrer, Kentucky Opera General Director, explains that he aims “to balance the season with musical and artistic variety, while keeping in mind the various needs particular to each production.”

From left: Conor McDonald as Pish-Tush, Chad Sloan as Pooh-Bah, and Curt Olds as KoKo

Principal conductor Joseph Mechavich curated the 2016/17 season lineup during his time as Interim Artistic Director. His tenure of almost ten years collaborating with Kentucky Opera, as well as his role as a guest conductor among a myriad of companies around the world, greatly influenced his understanding of opera programming. Mechavich adds, “Because of my travels, I have been able to assess the success and challenges companies have when choosing a season. The one very basic premise when deciding a season for a company is to know your audience.” While planning the current season, Mechavich also considered the parameters of the budget: the set, costumes, and size of both the orchestra and chorus. He further united the three operas with a general theme of the “Far East.”

Mechavich views casting as if he were inviting the artists to become a part of the Kentucky Opera family; “It is called an opera house for a reason. It is our ‘opera home’, and casting is crucial. There are so many talented artists out there, but I enjoy working with artists who have generous souls both on and off stage. It is so exciting to share an artist who I love and respect with my opera family in Louisville.” Kentucky Opera holds main stage principal auditions, but Derrer comments that, “There are certain roles which cannot be left to the fortuitous findings of a good audition. Often you plan a production with particular artists in mind. That said, good auditions have been known to sway decisions and influence repertoire choices in future seasons.”

Budget often determines whether or not operas will be built in-house or rented from other companies. Thorough research on the available options is integral. Dan Feith, production manager, echoes Derrer’s comment that the size and capacity of the venue is imperative during this process. Considering that the Brown Theatre stage is smaller than other venues, a good bit of research to find a set that will utilize the space effectively is crucial.

While the audience sees the cast, there are many individuals working behind the scenes, including stage managers, stagehands, the props master, and the costume designer. The stage director consults with costume, lighting, wig and makeup, and prop designers as they develop their concept. The props play an important role, enhancing both the sets and costumes. Alice Baldwin, the props master, maintains the inventory of all past productions, which gives her a starting point for each opera. She both pulls from the KO stock and rents from other companies. Baldwin emphasizes that, “Each production is unique, and even if it is a favorite that we’ve produced before, like Carmen, or Madame Butterfly, the design and direction is never completely the same. Many of the Kentucky Opera sets are rented, or co-produced with other companies. It remains my responsibility to locate additional furniture and props that the director requests. I have a list of artisans who help me with specialty built props, and I really enjoy making small hand props myself when time permits.”

Work on costuming starts six months to a year prior to the rehearsal period. Costume designer Lorraine Venberg discusses the preliminary work that goes into costumes before any sewing begins; “I research the era when the piece was originally written, then the time and place where it is set, and the general, political and art history as well as clothing history. If the director wants a show design through another artistic movement or influence, I research that as well. I try to bring to the table as much background as I can.”

When items are rented from other companies, designers work closely with the stage director to curate the aesthetic with the director’s concept for the production. These decisions are sometimes informed by how the characters may change psychologically throughout the piece and how their clothes reflect this change. When Venberg works with a director on a new production, they examine the existing designs and costumes together. Venberg shares, There are always some changes to adapt to both concepts and the clothes. Some obvious examples are that the performers are not the same size and the clothes are not alterable. In that case, I try to replicate the original clothing, staying close to the design. I shop for fabrics, trims, shoes, even modern clothing or underwear, if necessary. If the director truly wants to change looks then I need to create or design a new look that satisfies all involved. It’s just about the same as starting from scratch.”

From left: Daniel Shirley, Jasmine Habersham, and Daniel Pelzig

Pelzig talks about the challenges of working within an existing physical production and having to make the various elements cohesive. He acknowledges, “In most regional theatres it can be expensive to design and create new productions. In the financial world of opera, one often inherits an already existing production and cast.” The KO’s production of The Mikado utilizes a rented set from Utah Opera. The in-house costume shop manager, Josette Miles, constructed the traditional Japanese costumes in the early 1980s.

Pelzig boasts that for those new to Gilbert and Sullivan, “audiences continue to be delighted by the wit in the lyrics, the great imagination and the ability to contrive and create a great plot.” The concept will ultimately use all the pieces of the original design over the course of the evening. It will happen incrementally, allowing the audience to experience The Mikado, but also the process of making theatre: the creation, rehearsal, design development, and the imaginations of the singer-actors. Pelzig concludes, “There are many facets of theatre, which an audience never experiences, and I want our audience to see the process over the course of the evening…and experience the magic of theatre as we create the show.”