Redeeming 'The Mikado'
What could have been a tense standoff became fertile ground for cooperation and learning.
Ben Brady as IL Ducato and Sonia Gariaeff as Catiscia in "The Mikado."
A funny thing happened on the way to The Mikado. Lamplighters Music Theatre does that comic opera every four years or so as it rotates its way through the Gilbert-and-Sullivan canon, just as it has done since the Bay Area company started in 1952. But after this year’s production of The Mikado was announced, the local Asian-American theater community objected to the usual practice of casting mostly white singers in a show in which all the characters are ostensibly Japanese.
Opera is often given a free pass for casting practices that would now be controversial in regular theater. White singers are routinely cast in the lead roles of operas such as Otello and Madama Butterfly, in makeup that could charitably be described as a slightly updated, more “realistic” form of blackface or yellowface.
In the case of The Mikado, the usual justifications about tradition and just casting the strongest singers are often accompanied by the argument that the story isn’t really about Japan at all; it’s a satire of English society with Japan used simply as metaphor. That’s true as far as it goes, but the metaphor takes the form of a mocking fantasia of Orientalist minstrelsy with character names like Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum. At the same time, this 1885 operetta is one of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan’s greatest works, with a delightfully funny story (for reasons unrelated to its setting) and some of the team’s most memorable songs. What’s a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe to do?
For many, many years, the answer was to do it the way it had always been done—although some alterations had in fact been made over the years, such as eliminating the n-word from a couple of songs. But in the last couple of years, Asian-American artists nationwide have begun to speak out against the practice of yellowface casting in the operetta.
Lamplighters’ original plan was to address the controversy by setting its latest production of The Mikado in a more historically accurate Japanese setting and contacted local theater companies such as Ferocious Lotus and Theatre of Yugen to try to find Asian-American performers for the show. But with a show requiring such a large ensemble, Lamplighters couldn’t promise to entirely eliminate white actors cast in Asian roles, a practice to which Ferocious Lotus is adamantly opposed, and the company put pressure on Lamplighters to reconsider.
And that’s exactly what happened. Publicly apologizing for past insensitivity to the issue, Lamplighters went back to the drawing board to radically re-envision The Mikado, eliminating all references to Japan, changing the character names, and setting the show in Renaissance Milan with a commedia dell’arte theme. What could have been a tense standoff became fertile ground for cooperation and learning—exactly what one would hope revivals of the classics would achieve.
The Mikado, Aug. 5-7, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, $25-$55, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, 925-943-7469, Lamplighters.org. Also: Aug. 19-21, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $20-$60, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco, 415-978-2787, Lamplighters.org.
This report appears in the August edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.