Turning Japanese

A more insane ‘Mikado’ never did in Cowtown exist as John de los Santos puts a satiric edge to the Gilbert & Sullivan classic for Fort Worth Opera

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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GRAND POOBAH | John de los Santos puts a contemporary spin on Gilbert & Sullivan’s 19th century satire ‘The Mikado.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

John de los Santos will be the first person to tell you: Opera has a bad rep. It sucks, even.
Not all, opera, of course — just, you know, the sucky ones.

This may be surprising coming from a man who has made his living working in the opera field since 2003. But it’s not the music that he objects to; it’s the traditional, stodgy presentations — singers plant their feet and sing out to the balcony. Bo-ring.

Which is why, when he gets a chance to direct, he likes to mix it up.

De los Santos kicks off the Fort Worth Opera’s 2011 festival this weekend directing and choreographing Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado. Though you might not immediately recognize it from the look — or, for that matter, some of the dialogue and lyrics.

“Traditionalists will hate it,” he says. “We have Segways and iPads and dancers who pop-and-lock. And a lot of the lyrics have been changed. A lot.”
But really, that’s just keeping in tone with the Fort Worth Opera’s experimental and very audience-friendly approach to opera.

This production of The Mikado has its roots in a version workshopped at the Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York in 2008,where de los Santos works every summer.

“They asked me if I wanted to do it in kimonos or modern,” he says. “I’d done traditional so we rethought a lot about it and built a completely new set. [FWO general director] Darren Woods saw it and two years later he called and said, ‘I want to do your version of The Mikado.’”

The assignment was a minor coup for de los Santos who has worked with FWO since 2003 and the Dallas Opera since 2007 as a choreographer, assistant director and performer, but had only single-handedly directed one show: 2008’s Carmen. It gave him the chance to promote his vision of what opera should — and can — be.

“It’s a really young, talented cast,” he says. “Everybody is 35 or under. And so many young people in the newer school [of opera] know it’s not just about singing, but about drama and movement. It is sung beautifully but we’re not afraid to break out of that [stand-and-sing] shell. A lot of people will think it’s weird, but it’s a lot of fun, too.”

Updating the show only made sense to de los Santos, who praises the entire FWO season for pushing the envelope (see sidebar).

“Of all the Gilbert & Sullivan shows, The Mikado is the only one that really works as an update,” he says. Although set in Japan, “it’s not about Japan at all but a very contemporary satire of power and the stupidity of the day.” So de los Santos and company added a lot of contemporary references — including jokes about Donald Trump and Japanese schoolgirls and men in business suits dancing hip-hop. In fact, there’s a lot of dancing.

Mikado doesn’t need dancing but in this partiucular instance it makes it very fun,” he says.

De los Santos is best known to Dallas theater audiences for his dancing — he was the special guest last weekend at Uptown Players’ fundraising show Broadway Our Way: Divas Rising and will play a “sexy hooker” in the company’s upcoming production of Victor/Victoria — but as he hopes to show with The Mikado and then writing the book for a musical he’s developing with Adam C. Wright and Jeff Kinman, he’s more than just a pretty face. Though, ya know, there’s no harm in that, either.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas