“People have always used the term 'topsy turvy' to describe Gilbert and Sullivan,” explains Alistair Donkin, long-time member of The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston, who this year has written a brand-new piece for the group’s summer show at the Hobby Center.
Donkin’s built on the duo's signature absurdity in his new work, A Topsy Turvy Mikado, which offers a based-on-reality, behind-the-scenes look at The Mikado.
The original production debuted in London in 1885, coinciding with a huge Japanese exhibition in the city. Such installations were common in the Victorian age, allowing Londoners and visitors the opportunity to get a glimpse of other cultures. Performances, art, and lectures would happen throughout a given time frame, like a mini, traveling version of a pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase.
Librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan—by then established impresarios in the world of light, comic opera—built on the popularity of the exhibition with The Mikado. It’s about Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado of Japan, who runs away to avoid marriage to Katisha. He falls hard for Yum-Yum, the ward of a tailor, who’s already betrothed to someone else.
It should come as no surprise that there might be some issues with cultural appropriation and stereotyping when The Mikado is viewed through modern eyes. But all of those problems don’t detract from the fun, frothy score. Donkin sought a way to tell the story without the baggage, and still give audiences what they want: the exquisite melodies and crazy camp that’s part and parcel of a G&S experience.
Donkin’s Topsy Turvy Mikado takes place during one of the final dress rehearsals before opening night of The Mikado. The play-within-a-play took him about three years to craft, working with original writings, biographies, and his own imagination. The result should be a show that offers a look at how opera gets made while preserving the crowd-pleasing feel of a Gilbert and Sullivan production.
Donkin has worked with The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Houston for the last 38 years. The all-volunteer company is made up of performers that include members of the Houston Grand Opera Chorus, amateur singers, and G&S enthusiasts. For years, they—like similar G&S societies around the globe—have kept the works of the duo alive for subsequent generations. Many of the performers in A Topsy Turvy Mikado have been part of the society for decades.
As The Mikado is one of the most-performed Gilbert and Sullivan works, those who’ve seen it may have a slight inside edge with this show. That may enhance their experience, Donkin says, but since the show is brand-new, it’s approachable for those who’ve never heard a single note of the opera.
“The way I’ve written it shows how these actors and singers interacted with each other and actually worked to make the show happen, and I think the audience will really feel like they’re getting something extra from this,” he says. “I’m excited and terrified, but I think it will be fun for people to see how these actors playing other actors step in and out of character.”
July 19–28. Tickets from $33. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. More info and tickets at gilbertandsullvian.org.