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Updated 'Mikado' promises to be as rousing as ever

Government officials are eternally pompous and corrupt, love is constantly thwarted -- or triumphant -- and everybody is a sucker for a good tune.

That, in a nutshell, is why Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operetta "The Mikado" has been in constant production for the past 125 years, from the day it debuted on the London stage in March, 1885, to a Chicago vaudeville that ripped it off a few months later, to tonight, when a new, lavish production opens at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Since I'm bringing 100 lucky readers to this evening's performance (thank you, Lyric and Sun-Times marketing departments), I thought I'd touch upon some highlights.

But first, we must smile at that first 1885 Chicago production, since it burnishes the city's reputation for -- shall we say -- a distinctive brawny disregard for the niceties of law.

While New York producers haggled with Richard D'Oyly Carte over which would have the honor -- and profit -- of staging the first American production, a certain Bijou Opera, based in a Chicago dime museum and sharing quarters with a two-headed cow and a Mexican dwarf, bypassed such formalities as contracts and royalties and just stole the show, literally, slapping together an unauthorized production with a cast who, the New York Times noted, "could neither sing nor act."

"The Mikado" survived such an inauspicious debut here because it combines two qualities rarely joined in a creative work -- the music's great and it's really funny.

Plots seldom matter in opera -- young people are in love, old people are frustrating them -- so I'll skip the usual rendition of the plot's idiocies. It's set in Japan, but that was just to capitalize on a craze for Japanese fashion, and "The Mikado" relates to the actual Asian nation in the same way that "Hamlet" is a Danish travelogue.

Setting it in Japan also let Gilbert & Sullivan lampoon British officialdom more stridently than they'd otherwise dare. And our own society, too -- while not exactly ripped from the headlines, certain parts do resonate with our current mayoral petition scandal.

"Choose your fiction and I'll endorse it," coos one official.

To the operetta's inherent humor and tunefulness -- really, you'll be whistling this stuff for the rest of your life -- the new Lyric production brings two additional treats to the party.

First a lush set, starting before the enamel red triple curtain pulls apart, and, shifting the story to 1920s Japan, scrapping the tired geisha outfits for art deco fantasy fashion, with the ladies in rich flapper silks and the men sporting derbies, top hats and brocaded robes.

Second, Stephanie Blythe. The entire cast is first rate; I'll leave singing their individual praises to the reviewer. But the mezzo-soprano playing the scorned crone Katisha, the Mikado's "daughter-in-law elect," soars above first-rate. "The Mikado" unspools enjoyably for the first 70 minutes, and then Blythe explodes onto stage -- draped in a gold, black and silver deco gown, topped with a crown-like headdress, an enormous woman with enormous talent, a big, powerful voice and an elastic comic face -- the afterburners light up and the show rockets off into the empyrean.

Don't be afraid . . .

Since a number of readers expressed anxiety over attending opera for the first time, a few pointers: 1) wear whatever you like. Most men wear sport coats and ties, most women dress smartly, but there's always a few goofs in jeans and t-shirts, and nobody is rude to them, directly. If that's how your parents raised you, go for it. 2) Get there on time; if you're late, they don't let you in until the first scene change. Better yet, arrive an hour early; there's a free lecture at 6:30. Use the time to hit the restroom beforehand -- they're packed at intermissions, and you'll be standing in line in the cramped basement when you should be wandering the soaring lobby, sipping champagne. 3) Some operas demand quiet, and usually I'd be the first to lecture you about not jabbering about your sister-in-law's sciatica just as they're sealing the lovers in the tomb. But "The Mikado" is such rollicking good fun, particularly after Blythe takes over, you could stand up in the middle of an act, scream "brava!" rip your seat cushion out and hurl it at the stage and I believe your neighbors would understand. 4) Yes, opera patrons are punctilious about their Italian -- "bravo" is for a man, "brava" for a woman, "bravi" for the cast -- if that's too much to keep straight, just whistle. 5) Stay and applaud. At every performance, the moment the final note rings out, if not before, a few patrons always leap up and bolt for the exits as if the place were on fire. Do not imitate them. Pity them. These are the animate corpses of souls in Hell, maximizing their advantage by racing to the front of the cab line (unless you were born in the 1920s, never get in line for a cab at the Lyric -- walk one block and hail a cab. The city's full of them). Music is supposed to sooth your soul, not provide a three-hour respite to your mad, selfish scramble to get nowhere. Let yourself be soothed; linger and clap until your hands sting for the people who have just sung their hearts out for you.

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