Over the past century, opera and musical theater companies in America and Europe have followed generally divergent paths: The former exploring the middle region between classical music and theater; the latter playing in the margin between theater and popular culture.
But follow both of those paths backward through time, and you'll find yourself at a crossroads on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, in the Japanese town of Titipu, a fictional place now known around the world as the setting for Gilbert and Sullivan's masterpiece, "The Mikado."
"If you look at today's musical theater, ‘The Mikado' is really the grandfather to that whole tradition," says Curt Olds, a University of Montana graduate who recently returned to his old college haunts to direct a production of the classic operetta at MCT Community Theatre. "This is the musical that really set the format, where the book is just as important as the music. It really seeded all those things to come together in the golden age of musical theater, and it's still just as popular and fresh as the day it premiered."
Olds would know. Over the course of the past dozen years, he has starred in the role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of Titipu, in more than a dozen productions of "The Mikado" across North America. It's a role that fits the handsome baritone and skilled actor to a tee, earning him rave reviews from New Hampshire to Arizona.
"‘Mikado' has probably paid for a good seven or eight years of my life at this point," says Olds.
This time around, Olds finds himself in the director's chair for a production that includes plenty of Missoula's own stars, including Don Mogstad in the role of Ko-Ko and Alicia Bullock-Muth in the role of Katisha.
Premiered in 1885 at the legendary Savoy Theatre, "The Mikado" traces a convoluted tale of political and amorous entanglement involving a soft-hearted executioner, a bloodthirsty emperor and a bunch of people trying not to get caught between them.
Olds says the appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular comic opera comes from its clever combination of familiar themes, exotic setting, and absurd plot twists.
"At its heart, it's really a situation comedy that deals in situations we still find ourselves in," he says. "There's really very little about it that's Japanese; it's a very British musical, they're just dressed Japanese."
Despite all the fun, "The Mikado" is hardly an easy bit of entertainment to pull off, demanding both comic acting chops and acrobatic singing from its ensemble cast of nine named characters and chorus of townspeople.
Olds says the cast of the Missoula production made his job easy.
"I try to deal with theater projects like a Boy Scout goes camping: leave it better than I found it," he says. "With this cast, it's not been hard, because we really have stunning voices in all the roles and people who are just genuinely funny.
"What I love about coming back to MCT Community Theatre is that great cross-section of the community that get involved in these shows - from students who are just starting their professional theater lives, to seasoned stage people, to people who are new to the stage. That creates a lot of excitement and freshness in the production."
While he won't be stepping into the limelight himself, Olds said he's as excited about this production as any he's done.
"It's a show I know upside down and backward at this point, so it's great to get an opportunity to bring that experience and enjoyment of it back to this place that I love," says Olds. "I try to come back to MCT anytime I can, because it's what keeps me remembering why I did this career in the first place."