Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado has been wildly popular since the night it debuted in London in 1885. H.L. Mencken claimed that by the end of that year “it was being played in Europe and America by fully 150 companies. One night in October in this country alone, there were no less than 127 performances.” The operetta also signaled a rapprochement for William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, whose 15-year partnership had been threatened by their diverging ambitions: Sullivan yearned to compose a serious opera, but librettist Gilbert had been nursing a pet project called the “lozenge plot,” in which characters could become other people by swallowing a magical lozenge. (Since the pair was still under contract Sullivan compromised, agreeing to do anything but that plot.) Gilbert found inspiration for The Mikado in the mania for all things Japanese then gripping London. In the Knightsbridge section of town a group of Japanese nationals had set up a mock village, and Gilbert recruited several of them to advise his costume designers and teach his cast proper Japanese deportment. The Eastern trappings, though, do little but put a new face on his perpetual subject–the follies of the Victorian class system. His vision of the Orient is a patronizing fantasy: the Mikado himself, extremely loosely based on the first emperor of Japan, is a despot who likes to chop off heads; Yum-Yum and her sisters are dainty, mincing creatures; and everyone speaks broken English. But Gilbert does give his characters emotions any audience can identify with, and instead of simply satirizing British customs, The Mikado also delves into the psychology beneath the plot. Though Light Opera Works has mounted The Mikado several times, this production, under the company’s new artistic leadership, promises to be traditional in both costuming and direction, with little of the over-the-top camp that’s marked past stagings. LOW veteran Ed Zelnis conducts; Ronn Toebass directs. Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday, December 26, 27, and 29, 2 PM, Thursday, December 30, through Saturday, January 1, 8 PM, and Sunday, January 2, 2 PM, Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University, 600 Emerson, Evanston; 847-869-6300. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rich Foreman.