If You Want to Know Who We Are
Last Saturday, my daughter and I went to see The Mikado, which, as Wikipedia reminds us, is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It’s set in far-off, exotic Japan for much the same reason that Gulliver’s Travels is set in fictional places like Lilliput; when the characters act in ridiculous ways, the audience can appreciate and enjoy them, realizing only later how close to home the satire cuts.
I’s seen in the promos that this performance moved the setting to Renaissance Italy. That sort of thing is unusual for G&S, though we’re of course quite used to seeing, say, Shakespeare moved to New York, Africa, or even Japan. I was curious how far that would go. For instance, what would happen with the very first lines, which go 1:
If you want to know who we are,
We are gentlemen of Japan.
The play started with the well-known overture, with its Asian-sounding cadence and chords. Then the curtain opened to show the chorus of nobles, who instead of the usual stereotypical Asian garb and facial hair, were dressed in stereotypical Renaissance clothing: floppy hats, doublets, and hose. Who began to sing:
If you want to know who we are,
We are gentlemen of Milan.
Which drew an appreciative laugh from the audience. Thereafter, the main changes were proper names: the hero Nanki-Poo became Niccolu and the heroine Yum-yum became Amian. 2 The setting was changed from the town of Titipu to the town of Tiramisu, and its ruler changed from Mikado to Ducato. All of this is quite clever, and it would take a worse pedant even than me to quibble that “Ducato” is Italian for Duchy, not Duke. There was one more, entirely separate set of changes, in which the Lord High Executioner’s
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed – who never would be missed!
was modernized to include such reprobates as the guest who informs you just before the beef Wellington is served that he’s a Vegan, and a certain xenophobic billionaire. All in all the show was first-rate, and the actor who played Coco 3 was particularly funny.
Then, after the curtain calls and ovations, the erstwhile Coco came out to thank us for attending, and hoped that we’d all appreciated a Mikado that could be enjoyed by the entire community, and it dawned upon me that moving the play to Milan wasn’t just creativity: the traditional version of the play had become controversial.
A bit of Googling revealed the controversy to be widespread. Here’s a good example of the sorts of arguments that are made, notably that
- All-white casts dressing up in stereotypical Asian grab (and sometimes makeup) offends many people. Among them, of course, are Asian actors.
- The usual argument against (which I offered support for above) is there’s nothing authentically Japanese about the Mikado. It’s a satire of British society, and could as easily be set in a fictional country or on Mars. There’s no racism, because none of what’s being ridiculed is at all Japanese.
- One answer to this is “Fine, then, set it somewhere else.”
Which, as I saw last weekend, works fine. Had I known in advance what was behind the change in staging, I’d have been pretty annoyed about SFWs seeing racism where there was none. Fortunately, without that preconception, I was able to sit back and enjoy the show.
Image by Internet Archive Book Images