First performed in London in 1885, The Mikado is the most popular of the 14 collaborations between librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, and perhaps the most popular operetta by anyone ever.

Three years after a student production at UTSA and four years after filmmaker Mike Leigh made it the centerpiece of Topsy Turvy, his giddy account of the combustible convergence of Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado is being presented by the Lyric Opera of San Antonio. Performances of the two-act work are scheduled for January 17 through 19 in McAllister Auditorium at San Antonio College.

Since its founding, as the San Antonio Pocket Opera, in 1997, the Lyric Opera of San Antonio has grown enormously - in resources, audiences, and ambitions. The budget for this season, which includes last August's La Boheme and a Rigoletto slated for June, is more than double the $367,000 of last year. Audiences were perched on the edge of all 1,000 seats at the McAllister Auditorium for Giacomo Puccini's melodrama of tubercular passion in Paris, and Mark Richter, the company's founder and general director, is counting on The Mikado to fill the hall again. He recalls the success that the Lyric Opera achieved two years ago with Johann Strauss's comic romp Die Fledermaus, and expects The Mikado to draw a crossover audience of people fond of musical theater but wary of solemn productions in which the fat lady does not finish singing - in Czech - until everyone else has gone to sleep.

The Mikado is sung in English, and many of its songs, including "Three Little Maids from School Are We," "Behold the Lord High Executioner," "A Wand'ring Minstrel," and "The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring," are likely to leave the theater on the lips of the audience. Written at the time of Britain's global ascendancy and the opening of Japan to the outside world, it spoofs imperialism and imperiousness. It is the preposterously convoluted tale of how Nanki-Poo, son of the Emperor (Mikado), disguises himself as a wandering minstrel in order to win the heart of Yum Yum, who is engaged to be married to Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Ko-Ko is in danger of getting the ax himself for failing to meet his quota of executions, until Nanki-Poo intercedes to offer his own head, in exchange for a one-month loan of Yum Yum's hand. Meanwhile, an older woman, Katisha, pursues her unrequited love for Nanki-Poo.

The melodious nonsense of The Mikado makes it hard to forget that Gilbert and Sullivan were contemporaries of Edward Lear and Oscar Wilde. Though the work contains trenchant social satire and sophisticated lyrics that reward repeated study, Richter offers it to San Antonio as flippant entertainment. "People want to go somewhere where they can escape from the anxieties of the world," he contends, and for a couple of hours The Mikado offers escape into an Asian nation reinvented as cloud-cuckoo-land.

The general manager of LOSA has considerable expertise in the anxieties of the world. Last September, faced with bouncing checks and unpaid bills, the company's board of directors relieved Richter of most of his financial responsibility and authority, reassigning them to Erica Holton, the production manager, and Wayne Wyman, the artistic director.

Richter, an outstanding tenor who has been struggling almost singlehandedly to grow local opera culture by stretching shoestrings into plowshares, professes satisfaction with the redistribution of duties at LOSA. "This is a good thing that had to happen," he insists.

Committed to financial discipline, the board of directors is taking a more active role in administration of the company. Although freed from the practical tasks of signing contracts and writing checks, Richter must, more than ever, while aiming for the heavens, not neglect the bottom line. With an orchestra of about 30 musicians and an accomplished cast that includes Matthew DiBattista as Nanki-Poo, Jennifer Davison as Yum Yum, Curt Olds as Ko-Ko, and Ellen Rabiner as Katisha, The Mikado, staged and conducted by Wyman, looks to be light opera without being opera-lite. Yet it is a short work involving a single, inexpensive set - a proven favorite not likely to drown a fledgling operation in red ink.

Like the San Antonio Symphony, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and other traditional and expensive cultural presenters, the Lyric Opera cannot safely rely on a few individual benefactors to retrieve it from the brink of bankruptcy year after year. It must expand its base of support in a large city where the population of arts enthusiasts is relatively small and arts education is meager. The Mikado was not awarded city funding because, permitted to apply to San Antonio for only one project per year, the company sought support instead to produce a Spanish zarzuela, a request that was rejected. The fact that most San Antonians have lacked the opportunity and the inclination to attend a performance of any opera, light or heavy, makes the survival of LOSA that much more crucial, and endangered.

According to Richter, the most important question confronting his organization is: "How do we attract Hispanics?" One answer was to begin planning a production of Fernand Cortez, a 19th-century work in French by Italian composer Gaspare Spontini that recounts the Spanish conquest of Aztec Mexico. However, it is an opera that requires a chorus of 120 voices and, since it is relatively unknown, an elaborate campaign of marketing. Because of LOSA's current troubles, the attempt to conquer San Antonio's Latino demographic through the story of a famous conquistador has been put on hold.

But you don't have to be British to giggle over Gilbert and Sullivan. The most memorable performance of one of their operas, Trial by Jury, that I ever attended took place in Brazil. The way to attract Hispanics is also the way to attract non-Hispanics - by making the works of Mozart, Verdi, Moussorgsky, Debussy, and Glass so compelling that the phrase "grand opera" will seem a redundancy. They could also mount a production of El Mercado.

7:30pm Friday, January 17 & Saturday, January 18
3pm Sunday, January 19
McAllister Auditorium
San Antonio College
1300 San Pedro
(Lyric Opera)

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