It’s just gone eight on a Tuesday night and Stephen McNealy, star of the Savoy Opera Company’s The Mikado, is making a rather convincing case for the similarities between opera and thrash metal. “The underlying energy is the same,” he explains. “That strength, that power… the method might be different but essentially they [opera and metal music] come from the same core.”

His co-star Jamie Moffat, who plays the titular Mikado, agrees: “Opera is something very primal,” the actor, who once worked for Dame Joan Sutherland’s husband, says. “It’s something which will always endure. There is really no comparable thrill to having a voice enthrall an audience like that.”

“Rock operas have come and gone really,” McNealy adds. This is his nineteenth or twentieth production with the Savoy Opera Company in ten years. “There’s no rock opera out there at present which has the same power and endurance as a Gilbert and Sullivan piece.”

The connection between the 1885 mannered satire of The Mikado and the depraved world of thrash metal might not seem obvious, but perhaps it goes some way to explaining the enduring appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works, and their relevance for a modern audience. As Moffat explains, “[The Mikado] is full of allusions to class society, it’s a love story … it’s endlessly relevant.”

Rodney Hunter who plays the part of Koko

The Mikado, which is directed by longtime Savoy collaborator Stee Dixon, is essentially a satire of Victorian society, set in Japan because, as Moffat succinctly puts it, “If they’d set it in England during that time, they would have been killed.” The rather convoluted, yet “threadbare” (in Moffat’s words) plot follows the story of Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado (or Emperor of Japan), as he tries to win the hand of the fair maiden Yum-Yum, and not be executed into the bargain. Meanwhile, the wily tailor Ko-Ko, to whom Yum-Yum is betrothed, has been elevated to the ranks of Lord High everything, and now holds every official position in Government – and collects every salary – including that of Lord High Executioner. Like most Gilbert and Sullivan shows, the story contains many twists, turns, misunderstandings and farcical situations, culminating in a happy ending and a wedding. But far from being a straightforward, optimistic story, the original play was intended to mock the inner workings of high English society.

“It’s full of allusions to Japan as a joke,” Moffat says. “There’s lots of nods and winks to the audience. Japan was very fashionable in London in the 1880s and the audience would not have missed the jokes. For example, there’s an important scene with a handkerchief – and the audience would have known that they didn’t have handkerchiefs in Japan. It would have been obvious that it was intended as a parody of British society.”

Anne Reaney-Ludowyck, who is a member of the board of the Savoy Opera Company and has been involved with shows for the company for almost thirty years, says that The Mikado is one of the most popular and enduring of Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourteen productions. “There is no Gilbert and Sullivan show with more famous music,” she says. “The songs are classics: ‘Gentlemen of Japan’, ‘Tit Willow’, ‘Three Little Maids From School’… and we’re trying something different with this show. We’re performing at two different venues to bring the show to a wider audience.”

Those two venues include the Savoy’s usual venue, the Alexander Theatre at Monash University, and the Karralyka Centre in Ringwood East. The Savoy Opera Company have been producing Gilbert and Sullivan operas for almost sixty years, and they have used the dramatic and visually arresting Highfield Road Uniting Church in Canterbury as a rehearsal space for some years now.

Tonight, the orchestra is rehearsing in the church itself, led by Robert Dora, the Musical Director, who is making his Savoy debut with The Mikado. The cavernous hall fills to the rafters with the familiar harmonies and McNealy’s strong tenor. In another part of the church, the male ensemble are lined up in front of a long mirror, studiously making themselves up to resemble traditional Japanese men. It is their first run-through with make-up, and some of the less experienced cast members are struggling.

“It’s not my usual style,” one of the thirty-strong ensemble says. “But I’ll learn…”

The orchestra

The attention to detail put into every aspect of the show is astonishing. The kimonos, gowns and obis to be worn have been adapted from the Savoy Company’s long history of performances of The Mikado, and feature hand painting and painstaking embroidery. The set, also used in previous performances, has been built on and features designs from a number of respected set designers. Everything is meticulously organized and there is a palpable sense of excitement.

“I suppose ours is a rather classical interpretation,” Moffat says. “But there is the occasional modern quirk too. We’ve been pushing the line for years. I think we’re now such an indelible part of Melbourne’s cultural scene that people know that when they come to see our shows, they’re in for a real treat. It’s always of a really high standard.”

“We do have quite a loyal audience,” McNealy says. “Many of them are older people, who grew up with Gilbert and Sullivan as part of their musical education.”

“Younger people do come too, but I think it is something you grow into,” Moffat adds. “I mean, really, Gilbert and Sullivan has such wide appeal – the shows are so clever and unique. I actually think Gilbert and Sullivan is the missing link between opera and musical comedy.”

Before we can discuss which of those two is the Neanderthal and which is Homo Erectus, the stars dissolve into laughter. And this is what we can expect from The Mikado: irreverent laughter, biting satire, and a quirky, modern take on a classic favourite. Just don’t expect thrash metal.

The Mikado is on at Karralyka Centre, Mines Road, Ringwood East on Saturday 22nd October 2011 at 2.00pm and 8.00pm. Ph: 9879 2933

And Alexander Theatre, Monash University, Wellington Road, Clayton on Saturday 5 November 2011 at 2.00pm and 8.00pm. Ph: 9905 1111 and book online at www.Monash.edu.au/monart/whatson  

Tickets are: Adult: $35, Concession: $28, Child/Full-time Student $20, Group of 10 or more: $28

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