by Sophie Hill, Alec Evans, Jacob Cooper and Guy Withers
Cardiff University Operatic Society is a new contribution to the Students’ Union wide variety of societies.
Formed in October 2011, the society held a small performance of one of Handel’s most popular works, ‘The Messiah’, in December 2011. The success of this performance led to the society’s premiere production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’ on Thursday 29th March 2012 in the School of Music Concert Hall with Jacob Cooper taking the role of Musical Director and Sophie Hill as Producer.
Many members of the society were surprised to discover at the beginning of their university life that there was no Operatic Society within the University or near-by area. Act One, the University’s drama group, produces a musical each year as well as a range of various plays and theatrical performances. However, to those interested in the more operatic area of theatre, there is little opportunity. For those who are unaccustomed to the nature of an Operatic Society, our aims are to: hold a production of an operatic nature once a semester; to make opera accessible to the uninitiated, primarily by through productions that are easily understandable, and easy to digest; and promote operatic repertoire. We are not specifically a G&S/Operetta society, nor even specifically high-end musical theatre; we aim to do productions that span all of these genres. We aim to include non-staged repertoire during the year, including Oratorios and encourage new members that are interested in any aspect of musical production to get involved. This includes singers/actors, orchestral musicians, set design, make-up, back stage crew, props production, direction and management, advertising and musical direction.
In keeping with our ideology for the society, ‘The Mikado’ was an ideal starting point. Written in 1885, it is possibly the most popular work by the librettist W.S Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. The theatrical partnership collaborated to create thirteen operas, now known as the Savoy Operas, and are some of the most frequently performed works in Amateur Dramatics.
‘The Mikado’ is essentially a comic opera. It is operatic in style but on a smaller scale, comprising only two acts of mostly smaller musical numbers and includes spoken dialogue. Also imperative to this genre is the farcical plot; a satirical parody of British institution and politics in Victorian Britain. However, many of these jibes and issues are still relevant in today’s society. ‘The Mikado’ is set in Japan and part of the comedy is British people dressed in Japanese attire (needless to say this isn’t too politically correct today!). Unfortunately, in some amateur productions, the attention given to the comedy and farce isn’t always adequate, and in consequence often leads to the audience missing the point and being rather confused by the story. As a team, we worked very hard to make sure the satire was obvious to the audience, and by the hilarious reactions from the audience, it is fair to say that we achieved this. As a new society, the issue of lack of funding creates difficulties. However, with determination, ‘The Mikado’ was proof that with hard work and using one’s own resources, it was still possible to put on a great show.
As previously mentioned, the humour is relevant to the modern day, and therefore the setting was brought forward to the present and allowed cast members to create their own costumes. The Japanese schoolgirl idea with influences of Harajuku fashion outlined the female chorus and Three Little Maids roles. The Gentlemen of Japan and principals were transformed to business men. The story is rather confusing, and not easy to summarise in one paragraph, but here is a ‘simple’ outline! The act opens in the fictional town of ‘Titipu’ in which ‘Japanese’ gentlemen (with rather British mannerisms) introduce themselves. Nanki-Poo (Guy Withers), who is the son of the Mikado and heir to the throne of Japan, comes to Titipu disguised as a wandering minstrel. He tells the gentlemen that he is seeking his love, the fair Yum-Yum (Rebecca De Coverly Veale). Nanki-Poo is distraught to find that Yum-Yum is in fact betrothed to the Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko (Paddy Graham). The nobleman Pish-Tush (Thomas Simm) and Lord-High-of-everything-else Pooh-Bah (Henry Morgan) inform Nanki-Poo that Ko-Ko (yes the names are supposed to sound ridiculous) was imprisoned on account of flirting and due to receive the penalty of death, yet was released and promoted from tailor to the Lord High Executioner ‘by a set of curious chances’. However, in keeping with Titipu law, all executions must take place in order, and since Ko-Ko was due to be executed first no more executions can take place until Ko-Ko had been beheaded, meaning he would have to cut off his own head!
Ko-Ko receives a letter from the Mikado instructing him to carry out an execution within a month, or the town of Titipu will be demoted to the rank of village. The finger seems to point immediately to Ko-Ko who is first on the list for execution, but instead he decides to find himself a substitute. At this point, Nanki-Poo oh-so-conveniently decides to hang himself as life without Yum-Yum is not worth living. After stopping him on the grounds that the act of suicide is punishable by death, Ko-Ko convinces Nanki-Poo to take his place as substitute. Nanki-Poo agrees on the condition that he is allowed to marry Yum-Yum for a month first. The citizens of Titipu celebrate the good news until out of nowhere, a hideous and elderly woman (with a left-elbow that men have travelled far and wide to see) named Katisha (Sam Hickman) appears and claims him as her lover. As is revealed, Nanki-Poo was engaged to marry Katisha under instruction from his father the Mikado, forcing him to flee in disgust. After a good dollop of slapping and parading round the stage, Katisha gives up and the young couple continue with their wedding arrangements. Yum-Yum, after being made-up by her fellow maids Pitti-Sing (Jess Mabin) and Peep-Bo (Louisa Turner) and fellow school girls, is ready to marry. However, Ko-Ko interrupts and adds yet another spanner in the works after discovering that when a married man is executed, his wife must be buried alive! As the Mikado approaches Titpu, the terrified Ko-Ko agrees to forge a certificate of death with the help of Pooh-Bah if Nanki-Poo leaves immediately to marry Yum-Yum and never returns.
After a display of complete madness and almost non-sensical lyrics in a rendition of A More Humane Mikado by the character of the Mikado (Alec Evans), it turns out that the Mikado is actually only in Titipu to try and find his son, Nanki-Poo. Katisha discovers that the execution, described in brutal detail by Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah and Pitti- Sing, was actually of her beloved Nanki-Poo! Leaving Ko-Ko and his cohorts a gory punishment of “something with boiling oil in it”. After being persuaded by Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko attempts to save himself by throwing himself at Katisha’s feet and professing undying love to her. He and Katisha marry, only for Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum to reveal themselves alive. The Mikado decides in his own completely irrational logic that “nothing could be more satisfying” which cues more laughing song and merry dance!
We faced many difficulties in putting the show together such as only nine weeks of rehearsal (approximately 12-13 rehearsals!) and the loss of two principal actors. One of the music department curfews resulted in the final rehearsal being finished outdoors in the dark! And the orchestra were only able to have three rehearsals. We were lucky to have the skills of three engineering students who constructed and beautifully painted three screens which were used as scenery. However, due to their size cast members had to carry them from the Engineering building to the music department only hours before the performance!
Nevertheless, the saying “a bad dress rehearsal means a good show” was certainly applicable. The performance was well received by the audience, who were treated to a variety of different costumes, ridiculous dance routines and contemporary references to, amongst many other things, music department staff and Live Lounge. Feedback from the audience was very positive and encouraging. Many audience members commented on the fantastic vocal talent of the chorus who kept the musical energy paramount. The working relationship of all involved was very encouraging, not only in the cast who were a great team, but within the orchestra and off-stage responsibilities. It was great to have volunteers who helped with front of house and programmes, a student make-up artist and the afore mentioned Engineering students who so kindly gave up their time and skills to create our set. It is inspiring to see what a group of young people can collaborate to do with their talents and something that the society hopes to expand on next year and in the future.
Anyone interested in becoming involved in the society in anyway can contact us via the Facebook page under “Cardiff University Operatic Society” or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.