Opera with an edge

Even with no knowledge of opera, the opening strains of “The Mikado” are still incredibly recognizable – even 125 years after it debuted in London. Think of John Williams’ ominous “Jaws” theme.

Still not convinced to give opera a try? Maybe Honolulu native Jamie Offenbach, who plays the title role in “The Mikado,” can be more convincing.

“My experience is that most people who say they do not like opera have never really seen, nor been to an actual opera before,” he said. “I have seen what happens to people when they come to the theater for the first time to see an opera. Something changes from the moment they walk into the theater, and the curtain rises. There is a certain magic that happens when watching an opera, live, in-person that cannot be experienced by any other art form.”

Presented by Hawai’i Opera Theatre (HOT), W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” set for Castle Theater on Wedsday, is a great introduction to the genre because it makes a mainstream production even more accessible to modern American audiences. HOT’s performance, led by a stellar cast, infuses pop, anime characters, Harajuko girls, ultramod costumes and more. This version is sure to win over opera enthusiasts and newcomers alike.

“From the direction to the costuming to the creativity of the soloists, makes for quite a unique experience,” Offenbach said. “The sung and spoken dialogue is very topical and serves as a social political commentary on what is happening in our current local and national landscape – of course, all done within the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan, but it will certainly raise an eyebrow or two.”

In Titipu, flirting is punishable by decapitation. Local authorities, in an effort to disrupt this decree put forth by the Mikado, appoint Ko-Ko as the Lord High Executioner. Because Ko-Ko is condemned to death, no executions may proceed until he cuts off his own head. Nanki-Poo, “A Wandering Minstrel I” and the son of the Mikado fled the royal court to escape an arranged marriage to Katisha. Nanki-Poo loves the maiden Yum-Yum, but Katisha, the cougar, is determined to marry him, and he would rather kill himself than lose Yum-Yum.

Elaborate plot twists like quotas of executions that can no longer be carried out and conflicting suicide laws, combined with a covert “Romeo and Juliet” subplot tossed in, heightens the conflict. However, in true Gilbert and Sullivan fashion, “The Mikado” has a much happier ending than Shakespeare.

A great deal of urban legend surrounds the original 19th-century production, overly dramatized in the Mike Leigh film, “Topsy-Turvy.” The story goes that successful duo Gilbert and Sullivan had a falling out. Sullivan felt Gilbert’s stories had become formulaic and mundane. Gilbert’s unwillingness to scrap a newly completed book led to a split at the height of their popularity. He had been inspired to write a Japanese comic opera after visiting an exhibition on Japanese culture in Knightsbridge, London.

In reality, the exhibition did not open until long after Gilbert finished the book. A fad among upper-class Victorians for all things Asian was likely Gilbert’s spark, and that fad led to “The Mikado” – arguably the team’s most successful work.

The popular “Mikado” even made its way into the Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn film, “Foul Play.” In it, the pope, played by an actor, attends a San Francisco Opera production where several lengthy “Mikado” scenes are performed.

Japanese names for characters Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo, Katisha, Ko-Ko and the town of Titipu might seem a little politically incorrect in the 21st century. In truth, “The Mikado” is a comedic melodrama lampooning the Victorian age, transposed to Japan. HOT will turn it up a notch by merging absurdity and the techno, pop-culture imagery that is ever-present in modern-day Tokyo.

Playing the role of Katisha is internationally-renowned Metropolitan Opera star, Victoria Livengood. The mezzo-soprano’s acting has been compared with Joan Crawford and her singing with Maria Callas; she has been called one of the leading singer-actresses of her generation. Besides her frequent performances at the Met, Livengood has performed for the New York City Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Washington Opera and the American premiere of “Beauty and the Beast” for Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

“I grew up on all kinds of music, except opera,” Livengood said. “My family all sang in barbershop music, and we had a family quartet that performed in gospel music in churches.”

While studying to become a lawyer, she auditioned for the choir, and within the hour, had a full scholarship in classical vocal performance. “I then saw my first opera during my freshman year, and it was like I was hit with a lightning bolt. This operatic art form had everything that I felt my gifts were suited to. It had beautiful music and singing, it had dancing, they get to play dress up and play with makeup, they sing in foreign languages, they get to be singing actors – wow.”

Joining her is bass-baritone Offenbach, who studied music at University of Hawaii at Manoa and has performed at venues around the world. His appearance in Florentine Opera’s production of “Elmer Gantry” earned two Grammys in 2012. Tenor Joshua Kohl, as Nanki-Poo, reprises the role he performed with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Baritone Curt Olds, described as “born to interpret Gilbert’s witty libretto,” plays Ko-Ko. And rising-star soprano, Sarah Asmar, will play Yum-Yum. Accompanying this stellar cast is the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tim Shaindlin.

Livengood, the world-renowned mezzo-soprano, shared her thoughts about the future of opera. “The key to our future is educating the next generation. We must teach them about classical music and opera and help ensure its future.”

With opera on Maui being a rarity, to say the least, I wanted to know why audiences should make this production a must-see. “It is rare that the Hawai’i Opera Theatre travels to Maui to perform,” Livengood said. “This is my sixth time singing in Honolulu, but my first time singing in Maui. ‘The Mikado’ is one of the most popular operas in the world. It is sung in English, it combines music with dialogue, and it is a comedy that is full of laughs. Grammy winners and stars of the Metropolitan Opera and the stages of Broadway are headed to Maui to perform in this delightfully magical and romantic comedy.”



The Maui Academy of Performing Arts presents “Pippin,” music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson and Bob Fosse, directed by Sally Sefton, choreographed by Katie Higuchi and under the musical direction of Marti Kluth. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays, July 5 through 13 in Steppingstone Playhouse at Queen Ka’ahumanu Center. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students. For tickets or more information, call 244-8760 or visit