Mikado - Vanessa Woodward as Katisha and Mike Woodward as KoKo

Opera Anywhere is still hitting the right notes after 20 years

Opera Anywhere is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a revival of one of its most popular productions, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. 

The new-look production will launch at St Mary’s Church, Long Wittenham, on September 19, before heading off to Brighton, Penzance, Liskeard and Stansted Park in Hampshire.

“we’ve got scope for performing in some unusual venues and covering new ground, and hopefully that’s what we excel at”

“It’s eight years since we started it, because that was for the Diamond Jubilee, so it had a red, white and blue theme,” says Vanessa Woodward, who co-founded the company in Sunningwell, Abingdon with husband Mike in the summer of 2000. “It’s always popular, and we keep getting bookings for it.

“Paula Chitty originally directed The Mikado for us and did a lot of the designs, but it needed refreshing, so she has designed some new pop-up backdrops, we’ve invested in new costumes, and we’ve got a new director, Ella Marchment, who’s been directing at Wexford Festival Opera recently. She’s an up-and-coming director and she’s going to put us through our paces,” Vanessa adds.

The Mikado

Ever since its premiere at the Savoy Theatre in 1885, The Mikado has been the most enduring of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, the picturesque Japanese setting undoubtedly being an enormous part of its appeal.

Add in a complicated love story, plus some of the duo’s most delightful songs – including I’ve Got a Little List, Three Little Maids, The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring – and you have a winning formula.

Productions in recent years have become increasingly adventurous – Jonathan Miller’s adaption for English National Opera being a famous example – but Mike and Vanessa have opted for a fairly traditional approach.

“There are still plenty of companies doing different versions,” says Mike. “Although we want it to be fresh and have new energy, we’re still thinking along traditional lines. Because we’re performing it mostly in rural areas, I think people expect a traditional approach.”

Vanessa agrees: “We’re getting a lot of bookings in rural communities and parish churches, and audiences are fairly traditional. But we’ve got scope for doing it in unusual venues and covering new ground in that way, and hopefully that’s what we excel at.

“The pace is usually really fast, it’s well sung, and because of the proximity to the audience they feel they’re part of it. 

A largely new cast for this year, including several young singers, has also helped to inject fresh life into the production. Some of the singers have recently graduated from music college, while others are a little more established. 

The Mikado

Soprano Alexandra Hazzard, who plays Yum-Yum, has sung in several seasons with the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company and in productions of HMS Pinafore and The Mikado with Raymond Gubbay Productions.

Tristan Stocks, who sings Nanki-Poo, is an award-winning tenor who has sung with Glyndebourne, Grange Park Opera, The Merry Opera Company, Opera della Luna and many more. 

Meanwhile, Mike and Vanessa are back in their familiar roles of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, and the hapless Katisha, who is in love with Nanki-Poo.

“We’re having far too much fun!” chuckles Vanessa. “We’re playing age-appropriate roles!”

It’s not all about The Mikado this year, though. As always, Mike and Vanessa have a busy touring schedule, pandemic permitting, that includes their productions of other G&S favourites Patience, HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance, as well as Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Puccini’s Heroines

They have also been invited to give a series of concerts at Gilbert’s former home, Grim’s Dyke – now a hotel – and there will hopefully be more of their popular Opera on Punts at the Cherwell Boathouse.

A special event to celebrate the 20th anniversary is still at the planning stage, but is likely to involve putting together a programme featuring all of their productions over the last two decades.

Plans for the future include another addition to their G&S repertory, Iolanthe, and Mike is keen to put on Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring at some point.

Meanwhile, though, the company continues to do what it does best – living up to its name by taking opera to places other opera companies don’t reach, and being received enthusiastically wherever it goes.

Not bad for a company that started “by accident”, as Mike says, when he and Vanessa were invited to put on the first Proms on the Pond in Sunningwell back in the summer of 2000.

“We outgrew the Proms in the end,” he adds. “Now we’re busier than ever touring. The last twenty years has really gone past very quickly!”

For details of Opera Anywhere’s upcoming events, visit https://operaanywhere.com.

NICOLA LISLE

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