The much anticipated wholesale renovation of Aycock Auditorium has made "wand'ring minstrels" of University of North Carolina Greensboro's Opera Theater. Last spring found them at Greensboro College and last fall in the Odeon Theatre adjacent to the Coliseum. The auditorium of Grimsley High School proved to be a fine venue for the Mikado, libretto by W.S. Gilbert and music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Besides conducting the cast and a small orchestra in the pit, David Holley wore four other "hats," Producer, Stage Director, Choreographer, and Scene Designer. Experienced, mature singers in the leading roles helped deliver hilarious, satisfying performances.
Many of the character's names are English "baby-talk" or simply dismissive exclamations. The beautiful heroine is named Yum-Yum, the hero, Nanki-Poo, baby-talk for "handkerchief," and the pompous officials are Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush. To escape marriage to the elderly Katisha, Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado, has fled the court disguised as a wandering minstrel. He has fallen in love with Yum-Yum who is engaged to her guardian, Ko-Ko. Ko-Ko had been condemned to death for flirting but this has been delayed by his appointment as the Lord High Executioner. A series of complications, pressure on Ko-Ko to execute someone and Nanki-Poo's desire to commit suicide were followed by a planned short-term marriage between Yum-yum and Nanki-Poo set to end in his execution. Ko-Ko's inability to kill anyone leads to a false affidavit of Nanki-Poo's execution, witnessed by Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else. Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti-Sing (who had caught the eye of the "deceased") appear doomed to boiling oil when the harridan Katisha shows up with the Mikado. All ends more or less happily though Ko-Ko's lot isn't a happy one!
Holley fielded an unusually strong cast made up of more faculty members than usual along with advanced students. Tenor Marshall Rollings, a junior in Vocal Performance from Sherrills Ford, NC, made a fine Nanki-Poh. His diction was clear and his timbre was pleasing and he portrayed the dumb lover perfectly. His love's ideal, Christina Friedmann as Yum-Yum, one of the "three little maids from school," was a good match. Her bright soprano voice was even with secure highs and every word was crystal clear. The native of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, is in her second year pursuing her Masters in Music in Vocal Performance, and recently made her debut as Annina in Capital Opera Raleigh's production of La Traviata.
Robert Wells was superb in the comic baritone role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. His timing was marvelous as was his countless range of facial expressions. Clear diction was combined with a solidly supported voice. Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann was equally over-the-top as that master of multi-tasking, Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else. Each of his many offices needed to be individually "insulted" meaning bribed. His powerful and clearly projected voice was welded to clear enunciation of the text and to a perfect sense of comic timing. As the "more humane" Mikado, Philip van Lidth de Jeude brought plenty of stage presence derived from a singing career that has spanned more than thirty years. He began as a baritone with Lyric Opera of Chicago before making the transition to tenor and singing in European opera houses in roles that included Otello and Radamés. He is pursuing his DMA, studying voice with Robert Bracey and Opera Production with David Holley. His voice has returned to a darker and heavier quality. His comic timing was excellent too, and his words were easily understood no matter how fast the pace. His delivery of the song "A more humane Mikado never / Did in Japan exist," with its refrain "to let the punishment fit the crime" was priceless.
Hillsborough native Kate Farrar is a junior majoring in Vocal Performance and French. She has appeared in numerous productions of the Opera Company of North Carolina and the Long Leaf Opera. This experience helped the mezzo-soprano hold her own as Katisha in her scenes with Ko-Ko and the Mikado. Her delivery of the line "…I think I am sufficiently decayed" was priceless as was her tough-love duet with Ko-Ko, "There is beauty in the bellow of the blast." Baritone Cory Alexander is a DMA student in Choral Conducting and was effective as Pish-Tush, a Noble Lord. The extensive role of Pitti-Sing was solidly portrayed by mezzo-soprano Sidney Glasgow Dixon while the role of Peep-Bo was taken by soprano Diana Thompson, a first-year Master of Music student.
Holley's stage set was simple but effective. A painted drop cloth pictured Mt. Fuji and cherry blossom trees. An easily rotatable riser, with stairs on three sides, provided for quick scene changes and for an ideal space for formal and informal arrangements of the chorus or leading singers. Erin Stevie's lighting design made the most of the minimalist set. The men and women of the chorus, prepared by Pamela McDermott, sang robustly with fine pronunciation of the words no matter how complicated the choreography. The small pit orchestra used a reduced orchestration by Edmond Rickett from G. Schirmer©, Inc. David Holley kept tight control of co-ordination between stage and orchestra.
The presence of both a main character and a major advertiser named Yum Yum led to some shameless and well-deserved promotion during the madrigal ensemble "Brightly dawns our wedding day." Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, Nank-Poo, and Pish-Tush donned paper hats and mimed eating ice cream from a Greensboro Institution, Yum Yum Better Ice Cream, located across from campus on Spring Garden Street.