John Savournin, artistic director of Charles Court Opera (CCO) and professional opera singer, met me at Rosemary Branch Theatre in the middle of rehearsals (on a chilly Saturday) to discuss CCO’s new and fresh production of The Mikado, which opens this week at the King’s Head Theatre. John talked to me about Gilbert & Sullivan’s inspiration behind the comic work and his optimistic outlook of the opera landscape for Off-West End companies and productions.
This version of the Q & A was amended Thursday 22 March 4.26pm on the request of the interviewee.
How are the rehearsals going?
We are in the last few days of rehearsals before we go to the theatre [the King’s Head] on Tuesday. Today, we are working through the show and have a final run through tomorrow morning.
Are the members of the cast people you’ve collaborated with before?
Some of the cast are new to us and some are old favourites we’ve worked with for many years at Charles Court Opera.
Is The Mikado new for some cast members?
The Mikado and Gilbert and Sullivan, in general, is new to some members of the cast, though not all. Everyone is relishing discovering/rediscovering the material, and playing with it as we strive to create a new and fresh version.
It’s interesting that you’ve said ‘fresh’. What makes this production new and refreshing from any other regular production of The Mikado?
We’ve adapted the setting to be a fictional British Consulate in the (also fictional) town of Titipu, in a post-WWII Japan which is part of the British empire. It’s an environment which allows English persons to populate positions of authority in a foreign country, bringing the piece’s English social commentary to the forefront. I also hope we are offering a tasteful solution for those who feel that performing this opera in a 21st-century world is tricky, due to the growing sensitivity around non-Asian performers playing Asian characters (however English the characters’ personalities are, in this case). Whatever your own view, I think it’s healthy to acknowledge the discussion. Japan is no longer alien to us in the way that it was at the time that the opera was written; Indeed, Gilbert was inspired to embrace and celebrate that novelty following a Japanese exhibition in London. But it’s a different world now, and I hope this production will appeal to a modern audience, which embraces a period which is very much enjoyed at the moment, thanks to programmes such as The Crown and films such as Darkest Hour.
Can you give a little flavour of who and what is on the lord high executioner’s list this time?
The safest thing to say is it will feel topical and up to date!
Do you think Gilbert & Sullivan wanted future productions of their operas to be produced in the way they had written it during their time, instilling the same British cultural and political sentiments, or do you think this was a sentiment they felt about the British generally?
There is no denying that a lot of their opera plots have a timeless quality to them. For example, in Iolanthe, the story includes a tongue-in-cheek lambasting of MPs and The House of Peers. I think the timeless topical quality is one of the reasons why these pieces have survived and been performed so often since – not to mention the memorable music and fantastic situation comedy on offer which, when treated well, can be delicious.
What about your own personal interest in Gilbert & Sullivan? Where did it come from?
I grew up with Gilbert & Sullivan; my parents were performers themselves, in an amateur context, so I spent many years as a child either performing in a chorus or taking a role in youth productions during the summer at the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival. What I enjoy most about working on these pieces now is nurturing my objective eye; what is the text actually offering, free of any clouding conventions? It’s too easy for the words to become nursery rhyme-like, not questioned or thought about. That rediscovery, and finding ways to directly communicate the text afresh, is quite addictive.
Do you come across any challenges as artistic director or member of the cast for The Mikado?
I’m not performing in this production, (except for a handful of performances as Ko-Ko), so my role is clear here. In terms of being an artistic director of a company and having a freelance career as a director and performer, it’s just a balancing act. I enjoy the variation that my career affords me and it’s not something I would change for the world.
Do you have a preference over one?
No — My passion is theatre-and-music-making, and I prefer to keep the goalposts that wide. I think that pigeonholing oneself is not sustainable in today’s ever changing arts industry, and it’s a good thing to have a few different hats you can switch between. Not least because it keeps thing interesting!
You’ve seen a lot of change in the opera landscape as artistic director of Charles Court Opera and as a trained performer. Can you pinpoint any dramatic changes you’ve experienced, say within the last five years?
When I was at music college, 15 years ago now, I performed in a small scale opera (an Off-West End production) here at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. Opera on a small-scale and in an Off-West End context has been around for many years, but it feels like it hasn’t necessarily been at the forefront of the Off-West End repertoire in the way that it is today. Companies like ourselves [Charles Court Opera], OperaUpClose, the King’s Head, Hampstead Garden Opera, and so on, have made big steps in bringing more focus to small scale opera – at least that is what we all hope we are doing – and it feels important. The gap between leaving university, or music college, or design college, and working for mid and larger scale companies is often hard to bridge – for performers and creatives alike. The chance for emerging artists to hone their skills and gain experience in exposed roles is what is afforded by Off-West-End opportunities. I can’t see that it is a part of the arts industry that will fade away. If anything it will only grow and grow.
Why do you think Gilbert & Sullivan operas are go-to operas for newbies?
They are comic operas for a start! The stories themselves feel light-footed, and very funny, which I think is really helpful for a new operagoer – plus there is a lot of spoken word too. The music is very accessible and tuneful; you might leave humming one or several of the melodies that you’ve heard and I think that anything that is immediately accessible in that way is going to appeal to someone who is trying something for the first time. There’s a safety in it.
My last question… Do you have advice for aspiring Off-West End and fringe opera companies?
Don’t be afraid of having the tenacity to make something happen. I think that the free spirit of Off-West End work is made possible by the fact that there are no hard and fast rules. It’s the place to try something new and brave, whatever that may be. So if you believe that you have something to say, however out there, don’t be afraid of letting your creativity take hold — and go and make it happen!
Charles Court Opera’s new production of G & S’s The Mikado is showing at the King’s Head Theatre from 22nd March to 21st April 2018. Purchase your tickets on the King’s Head Theatre website, here.
For more information about John Savournin, please go to his website here.
For more information about Charles Court Opera, go here.