The Lamplighter’s 2016 joyous performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado is its 22nd version of this late 19th century musical satire of England’s elitist social structure. Its persisting popularity in the company’s 63-year history and in the repertoire of the British team’s series of light operas suggests that there is something universal and enduring in this masterpiece.
However, this Mikado is different from all previous editions; not in verve; performance skill and enthusiasm but in location. All previous Lamplighter versions took place in Japan, as did the 1885 original. Gilbert and Sullivan’s reason for the Japanese setting for the obviously British social structure and manners satirized in the Mikado, such as the conflict of interest arising from holding multiple simultaneous public positions in a close-knit elite, were modestly distanced from contemporary viewers. Re-location to a mythical Japanese Kingdom allowed contemporaries to acknowledge the patent absurdity of their social organization.
The Lamplighter’s New Mikado reduces the distance between performance and audience, bringing the Mikado “closer to us” by changing the venue from a mythical early Japan. Costume designer Miriam Lewis is the heroine of the New Mikado, as vibrant brightly striped colors supersede the subtle Japanese palette. Japan has become Renaissance Italy: Yum Yum; Amiam, the Emperor of Japan; the Emperor of Milan and so on. Escalating protests to the performance of the Mikado in Seattle and New York were followed by failure to come to terms with protesters in San Francisco. Rather than withdraw the work from its repertoire in response to threat of loss of its San Francisco Yerba Buena performance site, Lamplighters abandoned their idea to update the Japanese setting to Meiji Japan in favor of Renaissance Italy.
Perhaps ironically, in an earlier era, the British government banned London performances of the Mikado in 1907, fearing it would offend the sensibilities of high level Japanese visitors. Prince Sadanaru, however, expressed interest in seeing the show and was disappointed that it was not available. A Japanese journalist, covering the visit, who viewed a clandestine performance found it in good fun, entirely inoffensive to national sensibilities. Indeed, Prince Akihito who saw a performance in 1886 was not offended. Perhaps, they were being overly polite or really didn’t care? In any event, contemporary concern appears to be US based, deriving from a legitimate reaction against demeaning stereotyping of minorities, such as “blackface” vaudeville performances that persisted well into the television era.
Woody Allen’s recent film, Magic in the Moonlight, set in 1920’s Europe, opens with an orchestral flourish, showing an extravagantly costumed magician in Chinese garb. Taking off makeup, hairpiece and robes after the show, the performer is revealed as a European. The performer’s over the top “Chinoiserie” costume, referencing China, but hardly authentic, signals that what is taking place on stage as a magic show, outside of the audience’s usual frame of reference, warrants a suspension of disbelief, allowing the acceptance of the unlikely and improbable as normal and believable. The “otherness” of the exotic costumed ethnicity in contrast to the effect of a western-garbed tuxedoed performer enhances the effect. The greater the difference, up to a point of diminishing returns: the greater the suspension of disbelief.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s late 19th century satire of British class distinctions was set in Japan to separate while maintaining verisimilitude. Targets were made fun of at a discrete distance from their foibles allowing them to recognize themselves without derogation. Japan is a society with a hereditary monarch and strong class distinctions, not entirely dissimilar from England. At the time of the show’s creation, Japan was a mirror of Victorian England; both were rapidly modernizing and industrializing societies, competitively seeking global geopolitical influence.
Fast forward to the early 21st century Bay area and the prospect of performing a light opera that may be taken as caricaturing Japanese, and by implication, other Asians. What to do? Japan/Milan. Mikado/Ducato: but what is the tension between Renaissance Italy and 21st century Bay area? Both regions are the epitome of creativity in their respective eras. While it may be politically and economically necessary, does it make aesthetic sense to transpose the Mikado to Renaissance Italy? There is a long tradition of shifting the scene of theatrical works from their original location to a new venue, either as a deliberate choice to freshen a work or spurred by chance literary allusions, Thus Carmen, the Andalusian temptress became Car Man in Matthew Bourne's reimagined version of Bizet’s opera, a mash up between Carmen and Cain’s The Postman always Rings Twice, reset in an LA auto repair shop and diner.
Since there is no longer a need to distance the British from their society in order to see its foibles, why not reset the Mikado in the contemporary UK? (Or contemporary Silicon Valley, for that matter where escalating inequality threatens to harden and replicate in hereditary divisions.) The recent Brexit vote revealed that class distinctions that were expected to have lessened are as strong as ever. A supposedly “middle class country” was revealed to be as class divided in the early twenty-first century as in the late 19th. In the intervening era; class differences were expected to have been elided by changes in industrial structure, universal social welfare institutions like the National Health Service and increasingly widespread university education. Nevertheless, Brexit revealed the persistence of a divide between the old industrial regions of the North and a more prosperous South, led by London’s financial industry. Referenced in updated Mikado’s “never will be missed” dialogue, Brexit may reduce some of that inequality by reducing the South’s prosperity as an unintended consequence of departing the European Union.
Shinagawa Yajirō held a high military post in the war of the Imperial Court against the feudal Shoguns. Yajirō later studied military strategy and tactics in France and served as a diplomat in Germany. Earlier in his career he had participated in an attack on the British legation in Japan. Sullivan used a version of the song "Ton-yare Bushi" by Ômura Masujiro in The Mikado aka Miyasan, Miyasan, “Hey my Prince” with lyrics written by Yajirō to rally the troops. The Mikado has been kidnapped to Italy but Japan is still in the Mikado. A paradox, a most ingenious paradox! By all means, see the New Mikado. Decide for yourself! To pursue further, see also Mike Leigh’s 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, depicting the gestation of the Mikado that captures the essence of saving a fraught collaboration.