Director’s Notebook: On the Enduring Influence of The Mikado

The Mikado - Earlville Opera House

The published an article yesterday called “Opera’s Old-Fashioned Race Problem.” The impetus for the story was a critic’s reaction to a production of The Mikado, which starred “38 white amateur performers.” Sharon Pian Chan wrote in The Seattle Times: “It’s yellowface, in your face,” and also criticized the lack of Asian-American performers in the show. The Atlantic article suggested that operas like The Mikado must be updated to stay relevant to contemporary audiences (and presumably to not offend critics.)

The story caught my eye because I’m in the midst of a production of The Mikado, which will be presented at The Earlville Opera House in August. I picked the show as a Gilbert & Sullivan novice – I knew them by reputation but didn’t know their work firsthand. EOH asked me to direct a Gilbert & Sullivan opera, which narrowed the pieces I had to choose from. The Mikado has been called the most-performed piece of musical theater in history; I read that it is always being produced, somewhere in the world. Gilbert’s libretto is clever and very funny; Sullivan’s music feels both perfectly matched to the words and utterly familiar.

On a practical level, my production is open to the same criticism as the Seattle amateurs’. We have no Asian-American performers, simply because none came to audition. I’m not insensitive to the question of racial appropriateness – I’d never think of mounting a production of Dreamgirls, for example, with a predominantly white cast. But The Mikado is not “about” Japan – it is set in Japan as a vehicle for Gilbert to satirize his native England. Gwynn Guilford, the author of The Atlantic article, acknowledges this point, but suggests that using racial novelty simply as a theatrical device is perhaps more reprehensible than just telling a Japanese story with British actors.

Guilford doesn’t mention that The Mikado has frequently been set in non-Japanese environments, dating back to the 1920’s. There have been “Hot” Mikados (1920’s American gangsters), “Straight” Mikados (English settings), and Mikados set in boardrooms, army units, and various political organizations. Gilbert’s satire (dealing primarily with political structures and stupid laws and customs) is versatile and essentially universal. One story has the Queen of England demanding that productions of The Mikado be suspended during the Japanese ambassador’s visit, only to find that the ambassador had already seen it and found nothing applicable to Japan.

I didn’t immediately know how I’d set The Mikado, which is one of the primary directorial concerns. This was partly because our creative team was very late coming together. It took a long time to find a music director, and choreographer, set, costume, lighting people (etc.) were also scarce. A theatrical project is an immense collaboration where everybody contributes and the product reflects all contributions. The director hopefully shapes those into something that provides entertainment and value to the audience, or at the very least makes a cohesive artistic statement.

So… The stage is bare; even the upstage curtain is missing, and a lonely stagehand sweeps. A chalkboard at the front has a list of crossed-out (imaginary) names. The Mikado overture plays dimly through the sound system, remnant of a show that clearly won’t be happening. Following the overture, a small orchestra quickly takes their places and the opening notes of If You Want to Know Who We Are are played. Suddenly, six men stand from various seats around the theater and begin singing. They are certainly not actors – they have no costumes or makeup. Far upstage, dimly seen, masked, robed figures march out and observe. The house lights are still on. The men from the audience make their way to the stage and continue the song, and the house lights begin to fade. From nothing, and with none of the expected scenery, theater begins to happen out of thin air, as if called forth by a memory, or tradition.

Our setting evolved from necessity, and it comments on that. At the same time, each of the performers inhabits a character – we are not winking at the audience, as if to say, “Look how clever and meta we are.” I learned that re-setting The Mikado in a different place and time would require extensive re-writing of Gilbert’s words. While we did change two instances of the word “nigger,” everything else is as written. Again, this was partly from necessity – altering words means not only trying to match one of history’s great lyricists, but also distributing those changes to everyone and possibly asking them to re-memorize parts.

I haven’t seen the Seattle production which was so unfavorably mentioned in their newspaper, so I don’t know how much the “yellowface” was played up. Our production gets a lot of mileage from prop fans and parasols, but aside from actors being costumed in robes there is nothing explicitly “Japanese” about what we’re doing. We were interested to learn that some of the Japanese phrases in Gilbert’s lyrics are just nonsense – they were apparently chosen for a quality of sound instead of for authenticity. I think Chan’s “yellowface” reference was intended to suggest “blackface,” which strikes me as critical malpractice. The only way The Mikado is guilty of a blackface minstrel show-type offense would be if those had been performed in blackface to satirize white politics and customs. In other words, if blackface was a device to actually poke fun at whites.

There must be a better choice, when considering older material, than either updating or not presenting it at all. Contemporary audiences might be shocked at what comes across as anti-semitism in Shakespeare, or as racist (and sexist) in The Mikado. But that ignores something which can be gained by re-examining older works: the opportunity to reflect on changing societal attitudes over the passage of time. For example, I believe that more harm than good is done by “cleaning up” Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to more comfortably appeal to a modern audience. The story might remain, but the author’s intention to provoke a reaction is diminished. To be fair, Guilford’s article mentions some alternatives to traditional all-white casting in Western productions of various operas. These are mostly obvious – use performers from a variety of traditions and ethnicities to add depth and clarity to the original story. (Nice when such performers are available and interested.)

I am all for racial and ethnic sensitivity (I don’t like the term “politically correct,” which automatically demeans the effort.) At the same time, we live in a society that has figured out how to exploit such issues for various kinds of gain. We’ve seen Gary Oldman and Jonah Hill on the news lately for having uttered certain offensive phrases; both actors have subsequently transfixed the media with talk-show tours of abject apology, seeming to emerge with reputations not only intact but enlarged and millions of new eyes trained on their next moves. A cynic might credit a savvy PR person for subversively brilliant campaigns.

The Mikado is both of its time and outside its time. By that I mean certain elements (the use of “nigger,” as well as gender and to a lesser extent cultural stereotypes) can be linked to how W.S. Gilbert and his crowd thought and talked. But at the same time, The Mikado is outside its time because of the brilliance of the words and music. It is worth revisiting because it is an archetype that has influenced so much else. A recent article in suggested while viewers of The Simpsons television program could appreciate episodes without ever comprehending the satirical references, the experience becomes far richer once those references are known and understood. I’ve seen this myself as we’ve delved into The Mikado. Once you rehearse and stage the number If You Want to Know Who We Are, the influence behind the Heigh-Ho number in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suddenly becomes clear. The original movie poster for The Little Shop of Horrors features the tagline “the flowers that kill in the Spring, TRA-LA,” which is much funnier once you’ve seen The Mikado. Not to mention various phrases in The Mikado which have become part of the English lexicon: “Pooh-Bah,” “a short, sharp shock,” “a little list,” and “let the punishment fit the crime,” among others.

Gilbert and Sullivan contributed to modern musical theater by thoroughly integrating words and music with the story being told. The approach has been reinforced and refined ever since, but it arguably originated its present form with G&S. The spoken lyrics are often continued in songs, and very few of the songs could simply be omitted without sacrificing the story. The Mikado is the apotheosis of Gilbert and Sullivan. That’s a fancy way to say it’s a masterpiece.

We dismiss masterpieces at our peril. John Lennon said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus and inspired church groups to burn Beatles records. No matter what you think about Lennon personally, the work remains. The same can be said for any number of examples. Let’s agree that appreciating a work of popular art does not necessarily endorse any of its author’s views, or perpetuate them. I’d go further and suggest that substantial changes to the original work might sacrifice something essential in the piece. The perspective gained by distance (which includes time and also cultural, experiential, etc.) is something we each bring to a work of art. It should be encouraged.