Photo Credit: Harvey Levine

Evelyn Tsen (Yum-Yum) and Rishabh Bajekal (Nanki-Poo) in The Mikado

Hello, Operetta!

In the pursuit of a career in directing, Helen Aberger is “doing a little bit of everything.” The retired oboe player with a degree in music from the University of Miami works a day job…

In the pursuit of a career in directing, Helen Aberger is “doing a little bit of everything.” The retired oboe player with a degree in music from the University of Miami works a day job in fundraising at the Washington Performing Arts Society, but her most recent project is at the helm of “The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu,” the classic operetta by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan being staged by the Victorian Lyric Opera Company (VLOC) in Rockville.

Blair Eig as The Mikado
Blair Eig as The Mikado Photo Credit: Harvey Levine

“I think it’s more likely that people my age are fans of musical theater as opposed to opera,” said Aberger, who grew up in New Jersey exposed to the Philadelphia opera scene. She noted that “The Mikado” is a bit of a hybrid, blending elements of musical theater and classical opera in a way that appeals to modern theatergoers. “VLOC specializes in operetta,” she said. “It has more dialogue; it’s a more accessible form for smaller theaters—and Gilbert & Sullivan is a subset of operetta that has its own following.”

That following, she added, “tends to find each other—like Star Trek nerds. There are Gilbert & Sullivan societies all over the United States, and it’s VLOC’s bread and butter. We do at least one a year.”

This year, it’s “The Mikado,” the two-act comedy that follows the adventures of a wandering minstrel in disguise as he tries to unsnarl the complexities of love and politics in a ridiculously hierarchical state. It’s a show filled with fanciful twists, mistaken identities and lots and lots of music most people don’t even know they know.

“They’re such recognizable and peppy tunes, just enough for you to get an earworm,” said Aberger. “I think people who come to a show will be very surprised: ‘I know that “Pretty Little Maids From School,” I know that “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.’ They’ll recognize a lot of it.”

It’s one of the British writer-composer duo’s most beloved operettas and, with its xenophobic view of customs in imperial Japan and a history of performance in “yellowface,” one of the opera world’s most controversial.

Principals and chorus in the Act I Finale
Principals and chorus in the Act I Finale Photo Credit: Harvey Levine

For Aberger, the controversy stems not so much from the operetta itself, which was written in 1885 when Great Britain opened trade with Japan and British pop culture became obsessed with all things Eastern, but from additions made to it over the decades. As then-contemporary artists Gilbert & Sullivan decided to set their satire on the British monarchy in a fictional (and somewhat stereotypical) Japanese community. As a contemporary director, Aberger seeks to purge the piece of its cultural insensitivity while preserving its humor, satirical wisdom and sublime musicality.

“It’s hard to get out of a traditional mindset,” she admitted. “These shows have been done a certain way for so long that it’s hard to suddenly about-face. I’m coming up against far more people saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing it the traditional way? That’s the only way!’”

While she’s sympathetic to the super-fans who don’t want their Gilbert & Sullivan tampered with, Aberger decided to do the right thing and re-conceptualize the piece, using her own research as well as the approach of Jonathan Miller, who adapted “The Mikado” for the English National Opera’s 1986 production.

Amanda Jones (Pitti-Sing), Evelyn Tsen (Yum-Yum), Bob Gudauskas (Pooh-Bah) and Teal Thompson (Peep-Bo)
Amanda Jones (Pitti-Sing), Evelyn Tsen (Yum-Yum), Bob Gudauskas (Pooh-Bah) and Teal Thompson (Peep-Bo) Photo Credit: Harvey Levine

“I had to take my pre-conceived notions of the show away,” the director explained, noting that VLOC’s “Mikado” sets its scene in Jazz Age London, at a place called the Hotel Titipu Japan. “I can’t know the point of view of an Asian person, or a Japanese-American, experiences, so I need to be sensitive—especially in such wacky times. It’s so important to respect the ‘other.’”

She has done this in several ways. VLOC will host a pre-show discussion on the history of “The Mikado” and why this production has eschewed some traditional expressive forms that are unacceptable to modern audiences. She also has imbued her casting decisions with an eye toward diversity—although she insisted that talent and chemistry were the deciding factors when she chose Evelyn Tsen and Rishabh Bajekal to play leads Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo.

Tsen, a soprano who was born and raised in Malaysia and came to the D.C. area after graduating from the Boston Conservatory with a graduate performance certificate, originally studied music therapy—and she teaches piano when she’s not performing.

“In Malaysia, we’re not exposed to a lot of classical music or musical theater,” said Tsen, who emigrated with her family when she was 14. “I was completely confused about what opera and musical theater were.”

But it turned out she was good at it. This is her very first Gilbert & Sullivan performance, but she discovered “serious opera—bel canto” in college, and in graduate school, she played Lucia in “The Rape of Lucretia,” Papagena in “The Magic Flute” and Grasshopper in “Cunning Little Vixens.”

Evelyn Tsen (Yum-Yum), Jenete St. Clair (Katisha) and Rishabh Bajekal (Nanki-Poo)
Evelyn Tsen (Yum-Yum), Jenete St. Clair (Katisha) and Rishabh Bajekal (Nanki-Poo) Photo Credit: Harvey Levine

Her first VLOC outing, she said, is going well. “It’s been so wonderful; they’re very thoughtful, generous and kind—and willing to work with the artists,” she said. “There’s a lot of exploration done together; it’s not just, ‘show up and sing.’”

Part of that exploration, of course, centers on the history of “The Mikado,” and Tsen said she believes “there are two sides to the coin. I see how people can be offended by yellowface and by the appropriation of Asian culture,” she observed, “but I also believe that art is an expression of reality—it needs to be talked about.”

And laughed about—because at the end of the day the humor and the music are what make “The Mikado” shine.

“The really light opera, especially Gilbert & Sullivan, is still really relevant,” says Rishabh Bajekal, who plays Nanki Poo to Tsen’s Yum Yum. “It’s the type of comedy we still see today, the kind of comedy people will ‘get.’”

Bajekal, a “one semester music major” who ended up with a degree in business from University of Maryland after downgrading his passion for singing to a hobby, had sung a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan during classical voice training when he was younger. He works as an analyst for Capital One by day, and sings with the D.C. acapella group Euphonism. With VLOC, he can get back to his musical theater roots. Last autumn, he played Thaddeus in VLOC’s “The Bohemian Girl” and now he seems hooked.

Gary Sullivan knows the feeling. A theater major at Iowa State University with a master of fine arts degree in acting from the University of Nebraska who has made a career with Marriott International, he is playing Ko-Ko for the third time. Comic baritone is his specialty.

Three little maids from school: Evelyn Tsen (Yum-Yum), Amanda Jones (Pitti-Sing) and Teal Thompson (Peep-Bo)
Three little maids from school: Evelyn Tsen (Yum-Yum), Amanda Jones (Pitti-Sing) and Teal Thompson (Peep-Bo) Photo Credit: Harvey Levine

“I have a soft spot in my heart for Gilbert & Sullivan,” says Sullivan, who lives in Germantown. “‘The Mikado’ is this perfect marriage between the music, which I’ve always found completely charming and very accessible, and the comedy, which holds up very well.

“A lot of the satire Gilbert introduces, people can relate to today.”

Sullivan pointed out that while VLOC is technically community theater, many of its members are highly skilled, despite their status as hobbyists; some (like Tsen) are professional actors and singers at the beginning of their professional careers who are building their resumes.

“We have a really strong bench,” said Sullivan, who does a VLOC show a year as well as occasional shows at Montgomery Playhouse. “People bring different skills to the table.”

As for Aberger’s skillful adaption of “The Mikado,” Sullivan couldn’t be happier. Indeed, he thinks that by stripping away some of the trappings of Japan the operetta has gathered since its Victorian Era inception, the true colors of “The Mikado” shine through.

“If we focus on the plot and remove the distractions,’ he said, “it’s a tribute to the work itself that all that stuff isn’t really necessary.”

The Victorian Lyric Opera Company (VLOC) presents W.S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan’s “The Mikado” at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, Rockville Civic Center Park, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Performances start at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday June 9, 10, 16 and 17; and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 11 and 18, with a free pre-show roundtable and discussion of “’The Mikado’ in the 21st Century” at 7 p.m. June 10, in the theater’s Social Hall and a community outreach event for families on June 11 starting at 12:45pm that includes backstage tours and a post-show talk-back. Tickets are $28, $24 for seniors, and $20 for students with valid student ID. All preview performance tickets are $14. Call the Fitzgerald Theatre box office at 240-314-8690 or visit www.vloc.org to purchase tickets online. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.