The women are dressed in kimonos and have donned black-bunned wigs, while the men have penciled on mustaches in preparation for a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” Yet something is a bit odd about the screwball comedy of love lost and found that was first performed in London in 1885 and recently at a Brooklyn temple. The operetta’s dialogue is mostly in English, the lyrics are in Yiddish and the working title is “Der Yiddisher Mikado.”
“We take liberties,” said Neil Powers, 77, a Belle Harbor resident who plays one of the main characters, the Lord High Executioner. “We put a Borscht Belt approach to it.”
Powers is part of the Gilbert & Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera Company, whose cast members range from their 20s to 80s. The Long Island nonprofit puts on eight to 10 shows a year, hired to perform in fundraisers for venues and organizations that range from synagogues to Catholic Charities events. The group charges about $500, and the organization hosting the event receives the rest of the ticket sales. The performance fee is used to keep up with expenses for wardrobe and scenery, as well as small stipends for the cast and crew to offset costs of traveling. The actors perform for free.
The Gilbert & Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera Company, born from the original Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island, was formed in the early 1980s and travels the country to perform the British duo’s iconic operettas in the Eastern European Jewish language of Yiddish. The nonprofit performs two other Gilbert and Sullivan operettas besides “The Mikado,” which is set in feudal Japan — “Di Yam Gazlonim,” also known as “The Pirates of Penzance,” and “Der Yiddisher Pinafore,” or “H.M.S. Pinafore.” They are adapted from the originals, with plenty of Yiddish humor thrown in.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s works have been translated into many languages, but these may be the only ones performed in Yiddish, said longtime producer and actor Marty Geller.
“Almost all of the dialogue is in English, and the singing is in Yiddish,” said Geller, 86, of Central Islip. “You have a narrator, so everyone knows what’s going on. It has become very popular.”
For Geller and others involved in the company’s productions, the British creators’ comic genius and the Yiddish sensibilities go hand-in-hand. In 1980, after a few of the performers in the original Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island were goofing around onstage and tossed off some of the lyrics in Yiddish, the idea took hold for Al Grand, a North Bellmore resident and performer. The self-professed fan of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas translated “The Pirates of Penzance.” Grand, 86, grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York section in the 1930s, which was at the time a nucleus of Eastern European immigrants who spoke Yiddish, including his parents.
“It’s sort of a labor of love,” said Grand. “Both my parents came from a little town in Russia. And I have a love for the language. I have a lifelong passion for Gilbert and Sullivan, and I combined both passions.”
About the same time, in the early to mid-’80s, Grand and other members became aware of a Florida woman who had translated songs from “The Mikado” and “H.M.S. Pinafore” into Yiddish. The company bought the rights and has been performing the translations by Miriam Walowit, with additional lyrical translations into Yiddish from Grand for more than 30 years.
Borough Park has one of the largest Hasidic populations in Brooklyn. The troupe’s recent operetta performance at the Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom in Borough Park drew an audience of about 70. In “The Mikado,” the son of Der Mikado, Nanki-Poo (Yanki-Poo) flees his father’s court after being told he must marry Katisha (Khane-Pesl), an older lady of the court. He falls in love with the maiden Yum-Yum (Tsipe-Tsviele), who is engaged to her guardian, Ko-Ko (Khay-Shpay), a tailor who was recently named Lord High Executioner. Hilarity ensues until the couples find their matches and all is well again in the kingdom.
Geller said the Gilbert & Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera Company stages performances mostly in the tri-state area, but has traveled to California, Florida and Canada, and also performed at the Savoy Theater in London. Though the cast sings in Yiddish, it’s an acquired skillfor some.
“Not everyone in our group is Jewish, by the way,” Geller said. “Many of them never spoke the language and learned it phonetically. Over the years, we offered young people the opportunity to be on stage and learn some theater, and sing in a foreign language.”
Mike Cesarano, an assistant professor at Queensborough Community College in Bayside, teaches theater arts and plays Nanki-Poo, disguised as a wandering musician. Cesarano, 49, lives in Westbury and is Catholic. He said he joined the troupe in 2008 when he was looking for a repertory company to help him maintain his acting chops. Though admittedly not conversant in Yiddish, Cesarano hasn’t let a little language barrier throw him on stage.
“I get to sing notes I can’t reach in a language I can’t speak,” he said jokingly.
Wendy Garfield of Merrick, a classically trained singer who plays the lead female role of Yum-Yum, said it’s no different for her than singing in Italian or any another classic opera.
For Carly Baron, 23, of Glen Cove, a trained vocalist who plays one of the maidens, it is a throwback to her childhood. She studied opera at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and once sang in Yiddish as a child in “Kids and Yiddish,” an Off-Broadway production at the Folksbiene, a Yiddish theater that is more than 100 years old.
“My grandmother spoke Yiddish,” Baron said.
Arlene Kane has been the director of the organization for more than 10 years, replacing longtime director Sally Buckstone. Her son, Gabriel Kane, 31, plays Mikado, so it’s all in the family, as she said.
“He was 2 months old when the group started,” said Kane, 67, who lives in Brooklyn. “I’ve played every single female role” in the three operettas put on by the company, added Kane, who plays the old maiden, Khane-Pesl.
The troupe rehearses at the Chatterton School in Merrick. Some of the cast members said they feel more comfortable with the Yiddish after so many performances. The audience at the 90-minute “Mikado” seems comfortable, too.
When Powers’ character, the Lord High Executioner is chagrined that the only way to save his own neck is to marry the old maiden, he asks the audience to join him in a chorus of “Oy Vey Zmir,” and they happily oblige.
“I loved it,” said Les Schenker, 88, a Sheepshead Bay resident and member of the temple. “I don’t understand Yiddish too well, but I still enjoyed it.”
So did Ellyn Rothstein, 67, also of Sheepshead Bay. She said she loves both Gilbert and Sullivan and Yiddish, and likened seeing the production to attending an Italian opera. It isn’t necessary to understand every word of the song for it to convey its meaning and emotion. The sense of delight spilled over from the stage to the audience.
“You can tell they are happy to be here,” said Linda Feller, 73, of Brooklyn, about the performers’ acting and enthusiasm, “which is what makes the performance so great.”
Kane said she and the other members of the Gilbert & Sullivan Yiddish Light Opera Company enjoy bringing the Yiddish theater to audiences, wherever they may be.
“We are now playing to audiences that are the children to the original audience,” she said. “We feel we are keeping the Yiddish theater alive.”