Satire is a signature of Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
"Even in the times that the pieces were written and performed, they were constantly changing the lyrics to certain songs to make them appropriate to things that were happening in politics and society at that time," said Mark Ferrell, the Kansas University associate professor of music who's serving as musical director for the upcoming KU production of the "Mikado." "It's become a tradition that we do that today as well."
An 11-member cast accompanied by a 17-voice chorus and five-piece chamber orchestra will stage the opera -- considered by many to be the most popular of the Gilbert and Sullivan productions -- complete with libretto changes that update the show.
Gilbert and Sullivan tended to poke fun at institutions and "the various quirky little things that pop up in society at large when things become faddish or bureaucratically complicated, needlessly so," Ferrell said.
Three of the songs in KU's version of "Mikado" will take gentle aim at the university, the city, the state, Republicans, Democrats and current events.
"Mikado," also known as "The Town of Titipu," is set in mythical Japan. The plot swirls around a seemingly doomed love triangle, tested by condemnation, power and deception.
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the piece in the mid-1880s, when Victorian Londoners were enthralled with Japanese culture. It has achieved wide popularity among performers and audiences because it is musically accessible, highly dramatic and wildly satirical. Most of the opera's most familiar songs also appeared in the hit movie "Topsy-Turvy," including "A More Humane Mikado" and "The Sun Whose Rays are all Ablaze."
Another highlight of the KU performance will be a collection of exquisite, custom-made costumes designed by Canadian artist Taras Korol. The lush, colorful kimonos were produced by the famous Harlequin Costume Company of Winnipeg, Canada.
John Stephens, a KU professor of voice and opera who himself is known nationally for performing in "Mikado," provides stage direction for the show.
Performances are on two successive weekends: Friday, Saturday and Jan. 26; and Jan. 31, Feb. 1 and 2. All shows are at 7:30 p.m. in Swarthout Recital Hall. The cast will alternate performances, so that one group of students sings on Friday, Jan. 26, and Feb. 1, while the other takes the stage Saturday, Jan. 31, and Feb. 2.
Admission to all performances is $10 for adults, $7 for students. To reserve tickets, call 864-3000.