There is something thrilling about the sound of an orchestra tuning. It’s a sound that announces the beginning of something magical. It draws me in, somehow simultaneously settling my mind and making my heart race.
I have yet to find anyone who agrees with me on this, but I stand by it. The ritual of dimmed lights, applause for the conductor, and then the sound of first the strings finding their A, then the other instruments joining in – it’s beautiful and intoxicating.
On Saturday, I went to the Lamplighters Musical Theatre’s performance of their reworked “Mikado,” titled “The NEW Mikado,” at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. This production makes a valiant and largely successful attempt at retaining the musical and narrative structure of the original operetta while addressing the racial and ethnic aspects of the original that are uncomfortable and distasteful to a modern audience. Their solution? Remove the entire story from the setting of the fictional and highly stylized setting of the Japanese town of Titipu, and place it instead in a fictional and highly stylized town called Tirmisu in the fifteenth-century duchy of Milan.
And you know what? It works. It really, really works. I loved it.
But as I sat in the darkened theater, listening to the orchestra tune and then play the familiar melodies of the late Victorian operetta, my mind couldn’t stop wandering to my own past.
“The Mikado” is incredibly important to me. Every time I have seen it or been involved with a production of it in any way, it leaves ripples of impact in my life.
In 1997 or 1998, my mother took me to see a production of “The Mikado” put on at Stanford University by their Gilbert and Sullivan Society, The Stanford Savoyards. I remember sitting enthralled through it, and still have snapshot memories of the two act finales. After that, we went to several of the Savoyards’ productions until in early 2002, I decided to audition to join the chorus myself. I was fifteen at the time, and the production staff made it clear that I was an exception to their usual rules about the age of participants. But that audition, and then being in the production, introduced me to a new part of myself. It was the most daring thing I had ever done, I felt, and took me to a world of magic and camaraderie that opened my eyes.
I won’t deny that I enjoyed being the petted youngest member of the company. It’s always nice to feel special. But more than that, I was treated as an equal member of the effort to bring the show to the stage. And really, I was only two or three years younger than some of the others, who were freshmen at Stanford.
It’s hard for me to explain the impact of those few months of rehearsal and performance. Desperate for approval and encouragement in my singing attempts, longing to feel like a valued member of a community engaged in a shared endeavor, I really think that joining the Savoyards in 2002 was a pivotal moment for me. The weeks I spent in rehearsal, performance, and social interaction with the Stanford students in the company proved to me that even without a 4.0 GPA, I could keep up with these students I viewed with some awe.
Being in “Mikado” in 2002 (and “The Sorcerer” that fall, and “The Gondoliers” in the spring of 2003) gave me the courage to apply to Stanford.
As I listened to the familiar music on Saturday, my mind kept going back to May of 2002, as I’d wait backstage for the entrance of the women’s chorus. We’d all bustle about, putting finishing touches to wigs, makeup, and costumes, and occasionally pausing to listen intently to the faint strains of music and dialogue coming through the backstage PA system, praying that the tenor and the trumpet were both having good nights as they approached the high notes.
I remember the movements backstage as a sort of dance, as we knew exactly when to step aside for Ed’s manic sprint offstage at one side and re-entrance on the other side for the next verse, or to make our way to the exact spots for our entrance. At times I remember some people quietly dancing in the wings, compelled to move by music and adrenaline.
In 1997, “Mikado” planted a spark of interest in trying the stage for myself. In 2002, it showed me that I could, in fact, belong at Stanford and find a community there. In 2005, it woke me up to the fact that I was no longer enjoying the theater experience.
And now, in 2016? I have only rarely gone near Gilbert & Sullivan in the past eleven years. The memory of the overwhelming and frightening rage and loss I felt as I saw my time with the Savoyards ending has to some extent tainted the memories of the magic and passionate love I had for the experience. I’ve even flinched away from the music itself.
Perhaps it’s been long enough now that I can start reclaiming that music. I feel no desire to get back onstage, and the only thing I regret about my decision to leave the Savoyards is how long it took me to accept the end of the era for me. It was a life lesson in “leave before you hate it.”
Except for those moments when I hear an orchestra tune. During those moments, as the lights dim and the familiar combination of instruments all seek harmony on their A, I find myself briefly in the velvet darkness of the wings, or the yellow light of the cramped, crowded dressing rooms in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. And for a moment, I miss it. But just for a moment. Then I let myself float away into the magic of theater.