Monday, August 9, 2004

Tenor Kevin Anderson brings broad emotional range to the romantic lead of Nanki-Poo, while Kathryn Krasovec brings an appropriate dark, heavy tone to the role of Yum-Yum.

Taiko drums and gag lines
add local flavor to operetta

Hawaii Opera Theatre added a new twist to its traditional season of winter operas with a summer production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" on Friday evening. Designed as a lighter counterpart to the regular season, the show was packed with gag lines and humorous situations, many of them specifically geared to the Honolulu audience.

"The Mikado," presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre, continues at 8 p.m. Friday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 to $75. Call 596-7858.

Director Henry Akina made the most of the Japanese elements in the play by adding numerous local touches. It was clear from the very beginning that this was no ordinary production when the curtain was raised by sumo wrestler Ace Yonamine to reveal a set of taiko drums played by Kenny Endo. Surprisingly, the drums continued in combination with Sullivan's music. A tempo disparity with the orchestra along with the overpowering volume of the taiko drums made this opening musical number jarring, but Endo's later collaborations were much more sensitive.

A high point was the appearance of the consul general of Japan, Masatoshi Muto, who introduced the Mikado in the second act. Muto displayed a wonderful deadpan humor that was completely disarming.

Musically, the genre of operetta is what the Germans call a "Zwischending" ("in between"), which falls so squarely in the cracks between opera and musical theater that it cannot truly be claimed by either camp. In their original incarnations over a century ago, the G&S operettas were popular entertainment. Today they are loved by proponents of high culture who recognize that one can't be serious all the time.

For the casting director, this presents a dilemma. On the one hand the opera audience expects big, beautiful voices, and a large auditorium such as the Blaisdell Concert Hall demands them. On the other hand, the theater audience expects actors who can deliver the extensive spoken dialogue that is the hallmark of W.S. Gilbert's genius with naturalness and spontaneity. The HOT production featured a blend of singing actors and operatic voices that varied greatly in their ability to handle the demands of the production.

The most successful balance between the two performance styles was achieved by baritone Curt Olds in the role of Ko-Ko. His clear diction and comic timing made the dialogue lively and humorous, while he sacrificed nothing in the integrity of his singing. The role was originally written for the singing actor George Grossmith, and Olds has clearly studied the tradition of this brilliant actor as portrayed in the film "Topsy-Turvy."

Mezzo-soprano Marion Pratnicki was an over-the-top Katisha, with witch's hair and menacing nails. She sang the notoriously low role with power and clarity, and her dialogue was delivered with manic intensity.

Bass-baritone Michael Gallup brought a resonant voice and an appropriate pompousness to the role of Pooh-Bah. The self-importance inherent in the character, combined with the performer's inclination to milk each line for all it was worth, meant that his dialogue moved a bit slowly at times.

Pooh-Bah's sidekick, Pish-Tush, was sung by Kailua native Jordan Shanahan, whose voice has grown substantially since he left six years ago. He brought rich tone and ample power to his opening patter song, but had some difficulties keeping up with the brisk tempo.

Jamie J. Offenbach presented an unusual visual picture as a rail-thin Mikado, but his rich, resonant voice belied the appearance of his frame. Commentators have often pointed out the sadistic nature of many of Gilbert's jokes, and Offenbach brought out this aspect of the character with relish.

Tenor Kevin Anderson played the romantic lead, Nanki-Poo, with a broad emotional range. His acting was effective in the spoken dialogue, but his singing had an unfocused quality in the upper register.

Soprano Kathryn Krasovec in the role of Yum-Yum highlighted the casting dilemma posed by Gilbert and Sullivan. She had a darker, heavier voice than the wispy English soprano usually heard in this role. This is not a problem in itself, and in fact it seems entirely appropriate for an operatic production. In combination with Cathy Foy as Pitti-Sing and Mary Chesnut Hicks as Peep Bo, however, it was incongruous. The other two members of the trio of maids used the bright, glottally articulated sound of Broadway musicals, which did not blend smoothly with Krasovec's operatic tone quality.

The chorus was well prepared by Beebe Freitas and Nola Nahulu, singing their substantial ensemble numbers with enthusiasm. Akina chose to keep their staging static throughout most of the opera, giving the principal characters more focus but limiting the interest of crowd scenes.

Because the Honolulu Symphony is on summer break, the pit orchestra was smaller than is normally heard in HOT productions. This worked to the advantage of the singers, as it made the lyrics easier to understand and allowed them to sing without undue pushing. In the overture, the winds overbalanced the strings somewhat, but in general the reduced orchestra was an effective accompaniment to this operetta. Conductor Michael Ching's tempos seemed a bit sluggish in the first act, but the pace picked up considerably in the second act.

This production of "The Mikado" sets an encouraging precedent: a light and entertaining spectacle designed specifically for local tastes and conditions. Hopefully there will be more of the same in future summers.

Hawaii Opera Theater

E. Douglas Bomberger is a professor of music at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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