Pops concerts get less attention – and respect – from critics than some of them deserve. One also suspects that they sometimes get less respect from their executants than they deserve. There’s a bit of a divide between pops and classical audiences, and rarely do the two meet. That’s probably unfortunate when a presenter like the NC Symphony is involved, because despite the rigors of life in the trenches, those long bus trips, those many, many educational concerts, etc., etc., one rarely hears a bad performance from this crowd of musicians. Most of ’em seem to recall why they went into music in the first place, and more than a few still feel the spark – or claim to. And much more often than not, the magic comes through, even in umpteenth repeats of X or Y or Z. It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it. And when there’s something new on the program, something the players haven’t already found to be an instant cure for insomnia, well, then the NCS can – and usually does – deliver.

This was most assuredly the case on Mothers Day afternoon (May 8), when in Meymandi Concert Hall, on a regular pops series concert, the offering was a substantial serving up of Sullivan’s Mikado (1885). Why Mikado, and why now? Was it in part due to some UK influence, real or imagined? Was it a sop to Japan on VE Day? Or was it merely a brilliant bit of programming that concurrently permitted the NCS debuts of some outstanding vocalists, many of whom are from ’round here? Who knows? And does it really matter, given the wonderful results?

The program began with the “Knightsbridge” March from the London Suite (1933) of Eric Coates, known as “The Father of British Light Music.” It was expansively played, and it reflected a bit of the afterglow of the Empire, but the afternoon’s conductor, William Henry Curry, revealed a more direct connection to the program when he told us that Knightsbridge was the setting of a major exhibition on Japan in 1885 that helped inform the nearly contemporaneous first performance of Mikado. We must recall that Japan had been “opened” only a scant 30 years before that, so the Western world was all abuzz with the then-new culture it had “discovered.”

Picking up on Asian themes, the orchestra then played a “greatest hits” medley of tunes from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – this was an updated and souped-up version of those “Opera Without Words” recordings from the early ’50s. Much more attractive were two grand excerpts – the Overture and “March of the Siamese Children” (not to be confused with Hilary Duff’s Siamese cat song) – from The King and I. (Curry told about his performance with the National Orchestra of Thailand some time ago, when the presenters had to get the King’s permission to play this music, which is banned there since some of the words poke fun at the monarch.) These selections were given radiant readings that got to the heart of the matter and surely touched the hearts of the large crowd in the hall, too. A medley from Les Misérables brought the short first half to a close. Its relationship to the rest of the program eluded this listener, but it, too, was handsomely realized.

The main event was The Mikado, and that’s what had been advertised from the first announcements of the current season. In retrospect, the advertising was somewhat misleading, because the presentation wasn’t complete; when shorn of all the dialogue, the music lasts only around an hour and a quarter, so it could have been presented in full, had some of the preliminary items been omitted. Of course it wasn’t staged, but the presentation was costumed and nicely enough lit, and there was narration – written by Curry and delivered by Richard Dideriksen, portraying W.S. Gilbert – to tie it all together. The Mikado was immensely popular in Britain and enjoyed comparable fame here, and it was one of several G&S staples in high schools and colleges, back when folks did that sort of thing. It requires several very good singers, but the chorus part is not hard and the other soloists can be people who can act some and sing somewhat less. It is helpful when things are better than that, but the work can succeed with a largely amateur cast. On this occasion, the singers were all outstanding artists, and the small chorus – 20 voices – came from the Durham Savoyards, Ltd., which has specialized in G&S for years and done all the operas in the canon at least twice. Add to that the luxury of a superior orchestra like the NCS – few standard G&S productions are so beautifully accompanied – and the skills of a versatile conductor like Curry, who knows how to marshall forces great and small and how to elicit superior performances from his charges – and the results were, in a word, magnificent.

The cast included young tenor Jason Karn, who has degrees from UNC and UNCG, as Nanki-Poo; Matthew Brown, a local theatre vet, as Pish-Tush, Michael LaRoche, currently teaching at ECU, as Pooh-Bah, Charles Stanton, who is working on his doctorate at UNCG, as Ko-Ko, and the distinguished Leonard Rowe, a product of the NCSA, as the Mikado. Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, and Peep-Bo were, respectively, Monique Argent, who has lots of local theatre credits, Tatiana Guy, whose stage work here has been mostly with NCT, and Risa Poniros, who teaches at Meredith and is pursing a doctorate at Columbia in her spare time. Cristy Lynn Brown, whose educational background includes study at the NCSA and Indiana, was a knockout as Katisha. (The day before the performance under review, both Karn and Poniros were heard at Broughton High School during that institution’s 75th anniversary celebrations.)

The cast and the chorus were amplified, so it wasn’t possible to gauge the full effectiveness or size of their voices. By and large the diction was good, and most of the words came across, but that wasn’t invariably the case, so it would have helped if there had been texts or supertitles, although moving the latter at the right speed would have been a nightmare, for the words are often jet-propelled. Matthew Brown and Stanton were, alas, the weakest links in the projection department, although their voices were impressive as musical devices. The three wards of Ko-Ko – sung by Argent, Guy, and Poniros – were particularly strong and well-matched; Argent’s solo work and her duets with Karn offered the afternoon’s greatest vocal pleasures, and Poniros exuded the charm and grace we have noted in previous coverage of her work hereabouts. Rowe was stunning, musically and dramatically, and Cristy Lynn Brown’s carryings-on – and her nine-inch (or whatever) nails – served as the icing on the cake. Curry was a master in all respects, obtaining vibrant playing from the orchestra, encouraging – and obtaining – precise and consistently effective singing from the chorus, and somehow managing to keep watchful eyes on the parade of singers to the left of him, to the right of him, and behind him, sometimes all at the same time. It was quite a show, and despite its somewhat dated sound and conceit – and its somewhat antiquated lyrics and sentiments – it worked as an effective piece of theatre.

One reason G&S is so delightful – and so funny – is that the music often parodies grand opera. There are several examples of this in Mikado, but none is more amusing than Katisha’s “vengeance” aria (“The hour of gladness”), with its frequent choral interruptions, at the end of Act I.

For the record, a few of the accompanied recitatives were done. The omissions included the original dialogue – some was summarized by the narrator – and a few dramatically inconsequential short bits – a girls’ chorus in Act I and, in Act II, a song with chorus, a madrigal, two short trios, a glee, and a song for Katisha just before the grand finale. One small cut – the chorus in the first part of the finale of Act I – was apparently made after the program insert was printed.

Does The Mikado depict Japan in any sort of accurate way? Of course not. Does it even sound Japanese? No. Are there stereotypes and even racial overtones? You bet. It’s hardly alone: one can easily take umbrage at Butterfly, by a great Italian master, for its ethnic stereotyping, not to mention its depictions of one of the ugliest Americans, ever! But in both cases, the music remains, it’s of a certain era that is now considerably removed from contemporary society and events, it matters to our culture and civilization, and it was particularly good to hear the G&S work done so well.

For a fine online site devoted to The Mikado, see http://web.stcloudstate.edu/scogdill/mikado/index.html. It was there that we uncovered an article by Sharon Cogdill that addresses some of the issues raised in the last paragraph of this review (http://web.stcloudstate.edu/scogdill/mikado/racism.html).

Finally, folks who are really into The Mikado may wish to know that the first complete recording of the score – without dialogue – was made on acoustic discs in 1917, just 32 years after the premiere. This recording has been reissued in MP3 format in a CD-ROM produced by Mike Richter as part of his ongoing Audio Encyclopedia series. For details of this volume’s contents and a link to the vendor, see http://www.mrichter.com/ae/firstset.htm [inactive 5/10].

Edited 5/10/05 to clarify comments on the work of the two singers named Brown….