For most of the past 133 years, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Mikado” has been widely enjoyed for its extraordinarily tuneful score and its droll satire of British government and society, thinly disguised by use of a fictional Japanese setting. Today, this 1885 work comes with what might be considered an asterisk attached — a warning that it can cause offense.
Complaints about the depiction of Asian culture and characters in “The Mikado” dogged a Seattle production in 2014 and led to the cancellation of another in New York the next year. In 2016, responding to objections from the local Asian-American community, a San Francisco company extensively altered its planned “Mikado,” moving the action from late-19th-century Japan to Renaissance Italy.
There wasn’t a peep of protest four years ago when Baltimore’s Young Victorian Theatre Company last presented “Mikado,” staged in a conventional manner. But the troupe, which has championed Gilbert and Sullivan for nearly half a century, is mindful of those controversies elsewhere as it prepares to open its 48th season this week with another “Mikado.”
“I got some pushback from my board this time,” says company general manager Brian Goodman. “Some felt we shouldn’t do it at all. I was very dismissive of the issue at first, but we thought long and hard about it. We also had discussions with the Asian American Center in Frederick, and they didn’t seem to have any concerns. We decided to go ahead.”
So audiences at Roland Park Country School will once again experience an operetta about the made-up Japanese town of Titipu, where wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo (really the son of the Emperor, aka Mikado) seeks to woo Yum-Yum while staying a step ahead of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner.
But, even amid the usual Japan-evoking scenery onstage, there will be some visual differences between this Young Vic “Mikado” and the last one. Previously, for example, such devices as taping the corners of eyes were used to make Young Vic cast members look Asian.
“We won’t do that now,” Goodman says. “We want to be sensitive. We are taking out other things that could be considered offensive. We will not have people shuffling on the stage — I didn’t know that could be seen as insensitive, but I learned that. And there will be no Kabuki makeup, no crazy wigs.”
Such measures have been noted and welcomed by Sunghee Flores, one of a couple of Asian-Americans in Young Vic’s “Mikado” chorus.
“Personally, I don’t find the piece offensive,” Flores says. “I might not represent the majority opinion of the Asian population, but I think as long as a production is not exaggerating about how Asians should look, it’s OK. The leadership for our production tried very hard to be sensitive to Asian culture and minimize anything that might cause concern.”
Advertisements for a “Mikado” production depicting white actors in Japanese makeup sparked the protest in Seattle, where people questioned how a 21st-century Gilbert and Sullivan company could still use yellowface — the equivalent of the old, much-condemned practice of blackface makeup. In cities where “Mikado” has been protested, questions were also raised about not casting Asians.
The wider theater world frequently grapples with this casting issue. Last week, for example, “Slav,” a show premiered at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, was canceled after two performances due to complaints that white actors were portraying black slaves.
As for the matter of a predominantly white cast performing “Mikado,” Goodman objects to the objections.
“To me, that’s kind of ridiculous,” he says. “That would be like saying you can’t do [the musical] ‘Hamilton’ with African-American actors because the founding fathers weren’t African-American.”
There have, however, been “Mikado” productions with all- or mostly-Asian casts, including one in Japan 15 years ago. The New York Times reported that it was a success, though longtime aversion to the piece still lingered in that country. “Now we can make fun of ourselves,” an audience member told The Times. “The Japanese people have grown up.”
Controversy with “Mikado” is not new. In the late 1940s, the “n” word contained in the original lyrics of two songs was removed after objections were raised in the United States to performances by London’s famed D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, then the holder of the copyrights to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
But, as critics of “Mikado” point out, elements in the work that can cause offense to Asians — even the characters’ childish names (Pish-Tush, Peep-Bo, etc.) — largely remain untouched. Changes to the plot or costuming won’t necessarily negate the fundamental element of a work that sees Japanese culture through Western eyes.
“‘The Mikado’ is a product of its time, but also timeless,” Goodman says. “I fear what I see happening today as political correctness run amok. I can’t express enough that this is a satire of the British — and, in our production, of Americans, too.”
(Young Vic always inserts references to contemporary politics or culture, local and national, in their stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.)
There is no missing the British-ness in “The Mikado.” Despite the opening line — “If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan” — within a few minutes, references pop up to such thoroughly English job titles as First Lord of the Treasury, Master of the Buckhounds, and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Many other things in the text or situations in the plot would have registered instantly with the show’s first London audiences, setting off knowing laughs.
“The premise of all Gilbert and Sullivan [operettas] is meant to be absurd,” says Albert Bergeret, founding artistic director of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. “The whole absurdity in ‘Mikado’ is English people pretending to be Japanese, just like the absurdity in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ of the pirates turning out to be tender-hearted orphans.”
When the New York company canceled its traditional “Mikado” because of protests and set about crafting a revision aimed at avoiding controversy, Bergeret found himself at odds with his own company.
“It kind of pulled me apart,” he says. “Why change the work? Because someone says that they’re offended by it? If it’s dismissed as a racist piece of trash, I can’t buy that. Sullivan wrote music evocative of a particular culture, but I don’t think he or Gilbert had any attempt to mock or put down anybody."
One year after the 2015 cancellation of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ “Mikado” — a year of meetings with the Asian-American community and the formation of an advisory panel — the company unveiled a new version. (The old set has been rented by Young Vic for its “Mikado.”)
A prologue was added depicting Gilbert, Sullivan and producer Richard D’Oyly Carte getting inspiration for a new work from an exhibition of Japanese culture in London (that exhibition is factual). After a little accident, Gilbert begins to dream, which turns into “The Mikado.”
“The production is a lot less radical than anyone might think,” says David Wannen, the company’s executive director. “Japan is kept in the text and the storytelling. No names are changed. No music is changed. There are a few cuts in the dialogue. It’s very clear we’re seeing an English Victorian company imagining themselves in Japan.”
Reaching consensus on a new “Mikado” wasn’t easy.
“Our board was split down the middle,” Wannen says. “It was a tough and challenging task, but it was absolutely worth doing. Mimicry of another culture does not have to be part of this work’s performance practice. You don’t need that to have the same joy, fun and musical beauty.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by principals in Young Vic’s production.
“We don’t want to put down anyone, and Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t want to put down anybody,” says tenor John Kaneklides, who sings the role of Nanki-Poo. “We are not bowing to each other in the Japanese manner, but more like the British would. And we’re all using British accents.”
Soprano Alissa Roca, who performs the role of Yum-Yum, notes that “The Mikado” seems to have sparked more debate than another work set in Japan, Puccini’s tragic opera “Madama Butterfly.”
“You have to wonder if the controversy is because ‘Mikado’ is a comedy,” Roca says. “If it’s a very serious piece, everything about it is treated with utmost respect. I can imagine some people see this comedy and might think, ‘They must be making fun of this culture.’ But that’s not what’s happening. At the end of the day, we’re telling a story.”
Adds Kaneklides: “If people think they’re seeing us play Asian people as caricatures, we’ve done a terrible disservice.”
Chances are, “The Mikado” will continue to be the subject of scrutiny and debate, will continue to undergo modifications reflecting contemporary values. In one form or another, it is likely to endure, if only for its irresistible music.
“It would be a tragedy for this piece not to be performed,” Goodman says.
That sentiment was shared by a royal visitor to London a century ago — Prince Fushimi, cousin to the emperor of Japan. Concerned about possibly offending the guest, the government banned performances of “The Mikado” for several weeks while he was in town.
According to a New York Times dispatch in 1907, Fushimi “is reported to have remarked that he would like to hear the opera himself, as he had always understood that it was delightful and harmless.”