English National Opera's celebrated production of The Mikado has toured America three times – once with Dudley Moore as the Lord High Executioner – but this year saw its first foray into New York. All went swimmingly in the run-up, but then, the day before the dress-rehearsal, a tragic adjustment was made to the city's skyline. The rehearsal was duly put back a day, but, with other shows closing all round, still took place.
"It was terrifying. The emotional temperature was sky-high," recalls revival-director David Ritch. "Practically everyone in our American cast and orchestra had close connections with the disaster, and it had taken them hours to struggle in to work. I went to the dressing-rooms and spoke to everyone. I said banal things like, 'You taught us that the show must go on', and, 'Leave your worries at the stage door', and that's exactly what they did."
First night came two days later, on schedule, with a full-house of people who had obeyed Mayor Giuliani's order to go out and defiantly enjoy themselves. "We took the curtain up in absolute silence," says Ritch. "And assembled on stage was the entire cast and chorus, plus stage hands and management. Then the company's MD announced that we would sing the American national anthem, and would the audience please join in. It was a very emotional thing. The audience gave a huge round of applause, then we applauded them – because at that time, people were really frightened to come into Manhattan – and the rest of the evening was a triumph." As was, indeed, the remainder of the sell-out run.
But this operetta is shot through with humour of the blackest kind: did they have to make any changes to it? Amazingly, only one line in the libretto had to be altered – Ko-Ko's discovery that if a married man is beheaded, his wife must be buried alive. "That week in New York, that line was absolutely impossible for the performers to say. So we changed it to being beheaded as well, which worked fine."
On the other hand, Ko-Ko's Little List (of those Who Won't Be Missed) – which is traditionally topicalised – posed more of a problem. As prepared during the run-up by its current owner, the baritone Richard Suart, its first verse kicked off with Bush's rejection of Kyoto – "The world's pollutionist – I've got him on my list" – followed by a joke about Bush's daughters' penchant for alcohol, then a reference to dimpled chads, then a joke about Senator Condit and his missing intern, and finally a retrospective swipe: "In the Oval Office kissed, that blue dress won't be missed."
Ho hum: all hopelessly off-key after 11 September (and who now remembers Mr Condit?). "Well, I'm always expecting to have to rewrite that list," says Suart. "This time I simply had to steer clear of the horrors." So in came jokes about insistent coughers, unruly mobiles, chat-show hosts (who were themselves all in a panicky spin at the time), plus some well-received jibes at the swanky Metropolitan Opera next door, and a dig at Charlotte Church. "That one was much appreciated by the gentlemen choristers, who are always my sternest critics. At that moment in the opera, you are judged by your peers, who make their views very clear."
This is by no means the first time Suart has had to take emergency action with his list. "The last time I did the show in London, Princess Diana had just died, so the whole Royal section had to go. At that time also, Labour had just come in and were squeaky-clean – and politicians are normally my other great standby. This time round, it's going to be a bit easier." This is said with a wicked glint in the eye: Lock'em-up Blunkett and Bomber Blair – with his difficulties in spelling "tomorrow" – can look forward to a turn on the spit. As can – unless she goes quietly this week – a certain Miss Moore.
At times, Suart's list seems to operate like Private Eye's Curse of Gnome. Maxwell and Al Fayed were early victims; Jeffrey Archer got it, and so did David Mellor, who had ironically just been appointed to the ENO board. "The ENO press office gently asked if I might change that last reference, but I said, 'No, I'm sorry'." On one celebrated occasion, when ENO had announced their intention of quitting the Coliseum, Suart put the entire board on his list – to the delight of the audience – "and Dennis Marks [who had conceived the plan] resigned three days later." The directors of ENO's recent calamitous Mozart productions should also beware.
Watching next week's cast go through their paces in their Kilburn rehearsal room, I am reminded how intensely physical this particular production – Jonathan Miller's best – is. While the headless and bloodied waiter-figures lurk on the sidelines, Suart and his fellow-thesps are blocked and drilled down to the tiniest details. When Ko-Ko begs for his life and kisses the Mikado's feet, he makes great play of licking not merely the uppers but also the soles. The ballet-boy waiter prances on again and again with his tray of champagne. Everything is exaggerated to an extreme – which is exactly what this work demands.
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On the other hand, as befits one of the most perfect comic operettas ever written, the music is at every moment paramount. Suart – who has a parallel life as a singer in avant-garde opera, and who was invited by Ligeti himself to star in Le Grand Macabre – is scathing about the current fashion for putting mere actors into Gilbert & Sullivan, and into the role of Ko-Ko in particular. "If you have a singer doing the part, all the trios and quartets are balanced, and the music can survive. I've never seen a performance that's been enhanced by having an actor in it – you're always thinking, 'Yeah, he's doing quite well, for an actor' – but conversely, you'd never say the same of a singer in a play." However, Suart still admires the way Eric Idle – around whose talents Miller built the role, and for whom Suart originally covered – lit up the stage each night.
But even with singers, it's horses for courses. "I hear they're getting a leading Wagnerian mezzo to sing Ruth in a Berlin version of The Pirates of Penzance – it's going to be horrendous. That's as absurd as getting me to sing Verdi." And he goes back to work, which means getting his head rammed repeatedly into Katisha's mountainous bosom.
'The Mikado' opens for four performances at the Coliseum (0207 632 8300) on 10 December, and continues on 22 January
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