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[Opera] 'So adventurous a tale, Which may rank with most romances' – Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, comic opera's biggest and most controversial hit

CW: Racism, misogyny, violence
William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Seymour Sullivan are names that are inextricable from the history of musical theatre in the Anglophone world. Arguably, they are the only creators of English-language opera with any public recognition today. With Gilbert as librettist and Sullivan as composer, the duo wrote 14 shows between 1871 and 1896, 10 of them on a near-annual basis between 1877 and 1889. Historically, the most famous of these was, far and away, The Mikado, which ran for a nigh-unprecedented 672 performances from 14 March 1885 to 19 January 1887. This was the second-longest initial run of any opera in history up to that point, although it would soon be bumped down to third place thanks to the over 900-performance run of Alfred Cellier and B.C. Stephenson’s Dorothy, which opened in 1886. It is testament to the sheer cultural cachet of Gilbert and Sullivan, however, that even their weakest shows such as The Grand Duke are probably better remembered than Dorothy is. But The Mikado is not without its controversies. Indeed, it is likely uncontroversial to call it Gilbert and Sullivan’s most controversial piece, a reputation that grows with every passing year. I am not about to trace every year of that history, but there have been a number of interesting episodes related to various productions over the years as well as an intense modern debate. What this post will be, then, is somewhat of an anthology of sub-histories, beginning with that of how The Mikado came to be.

Tracing One's Ancestry to a Protoplasmal Atomic Globule: Gilbert and Sullivan before The Mikado

The partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan very nearly never happened. The duo had been united by chance in 1871 when they penned a Christmas piece, Thespis, for the Gaiety Theatre, which only ran for the Christmas season. Neither felt the pressing need to collaborate again, and each continued his own separate involvement with the theatre: Gilbert had been the librettist for several of the shows in Thomas German Reed’s Gallery of Illustration and continued in this role, while Sullivan wrote incidental scores for Shakespeare plays.
In 1875, however, fate brought the two together again. Richard D’Oyly Carte, manager of the Royalty Theatre, needed an after-piece for Jacques Offenbach’s La Périchole, and suggested that Sullivan write the score for Trial by Jury, a libretto satirising the British legal system which Gilbert had been floating since two years earlier. Unexpectedly, Trial managed to outlast La Périchole on the stage of the Royalty, going on for 131 performances. This suggested to D’Oyly Carte that he had found a winning formula, and led to him establishing the Comedy Opera Company in 1877 with the specific aim of producing works by the duo. The Sorcerer, in which a rural community is turned upside-down by the distribution of a love potion at the village fête, was a hit by contemporary standards, lasting 178 performances, but their next show, H.M.S. Pinafore, which poked fun at the class system and the Royal Navy, was an absolute knockout success, with its 571-performance run being the second-longest for an opera in history at that point.
1879’s The Pirates of Penzance, one of their less satirical works, was a more modest success, running for a year at the Opera Comique. This was followed by Patience, a satire of aesthetic movements, in 1881, which ran for 578 performances, dethroning Pinafore as the second-longest-running opera. 1882’s Iolanthe, which pivots rather dramatically from a story about fairies in the countryside to a biting satire of the House of Lords and the British political process, ran for 398 shows, and showcased some of the finest of Sullivan’s composition.
But then there started to be trouble. 1884’s Princess Ida, an unusual three-act show which was about, er, women’s education and the theory of evolution, was their least successful since The Sorcerer. Its principal obstacle was not so much its content as a spot of bad weather, with its run being cut short in October thanks to a heatwave that had slashed viewership over the summer, limiting the show to 246 performances – a number that would have marked an unthinkable success when they first started, but a flop by the standards they had now set. And, for the first time since Trial, there was no show to replace it. The company returned to the old classics, reviving The Sorcerer and Trial by Jury as well as holding children's matinée performances of Pirates, waiting with bated breath for the next show, that would hopefully revive the company's fortunes.
But this would take time, as Gilbert and Sullivan had been falling out over content: Gilbert wanted to write a plot involving a magic lozenge causing people to fall in love against their will, but Sullivan, who had been trying to establish his reputation as a serious composer, categorically refused to set it to music, demanding a story of ‘human interest and probability’. The traditional narrative, dramatised in Mike Leigh’s film Topsy-Turvy, has it that Gilbert had travelled to Knightsbridge, where a travelling Japanese exhibition had set up long-term, and was inspired to write The Mikado when a souvenir sword fell off his mantlepiece one evening. This is, however, untrue. Gilbert had, after some seven months of work, just about finished Act I when the Knightsbridge exhibition opened, although Gilbert would visit and even take some photographs in the run-up to the show’s opening. No specific incident led to the show's genesis, beyond a general air of Japanophilia in Britain at the time.

Virtue is Triumphant Only in Theatrical Performances: A Synopsis

The Mikado was written at an interesting time in Japan’s history. In the wake of Japan’s forcible opening to foreign trade in 1854, a variety of dissident movements emerged which, over the course of the 1860s, eventually coalesced into a movement to oust the Tokugawa Shogunate and restore the authority of the emperor – known to Europeans as the Mikado – that culminated in a civil war in 1868-9. But a number of Japan’s samurai – many of whom had sided with the restorationists in 1868 – opposed what seemed to be an increasing erosion of their societal privileges, and launched a series of uprisings in the 1870s that culminated in the extremely bloody Satsuma Rebellion of 1877-8. Japan in 1885 was a country in a state of profound transition, struggling over how much of itself to preserve, and how far it was to remodel itself in the image of the leading powers of the day.
Yet despite the context, the title, and the ostensible setting, The Mikado is not really about Japan as such. Its characters are, if anything, exaggerated versions of decidedly British archetypes, and the exotic setting is very much delivered with a sort of wink and nod to the audience. The entire show is suffused with an exaggerated Englishness: death and executions are often treated as unfortunate inconveniences, and characters act like members of London high society who pay, at most, lip service to the notional setting.
Set in the town of Titipu, the protagonist of Act I is a young wandering minstrel, Nanki-Poo, who has returned after an earlier visit seeking the hand of Yum-Yum, a local girl who has just graduated school. Nanki-Poo is informed by a nobleman, Pish-Tush, about local politics: flirting had been made a capital crime by the Mikado, but the townspeople came up with a plan – the first person on death row was given the job of Lord High Executioner, and since he’d have to cut off his own head first, all executions would cease! Another nobleman, Pooh-Bah, then delivers Nanki-Poo the news that Yum-Yum has already been engaged to her ward, Ko-Ko, who is, by unfortunate coincidence, the Lord High Executioner in question. Nanki-Poo does manage to briefly meet Yum-Yum, in whom he confides his secret: he is in fact the Mikado’s son and heir apparent, and disguised himself to flee an arranged marriage with the elderly Katisha. Nevertheless, Yum-Yum regrets that she cannot break off her engagement to Ko-Ko, and Nanki-Poo leaves, dejected. Meanwhile, although initially elated in his new position, Ko-Ko is soon confronted with the unfortunate news that unless he does actually execute someone – or indeed himself – within a month, the post of Lord High Executioner will be abolished and the town demoted to a village. Neither Pooh-Bah nor Pish-Tush volunteer for the dubious honour, and Ko-Ko himself would rather like to avoid cutting off his own head. His lucky break comes, however, when Nanki-Poo passes by and prepares to hang himself because he cannot marry Yum-Yum. After being stopped by Ko-Ko, Nanki-Poo proposes that he be allowed to marry Yum-Yum immediately, and in exchange he will allow himself to be executed for flirting on the eve of the one-month deadline such that Ko-Ko can marry her afterward, to which he reluctantly agrees. The engagement celebration is gatecrashed by Katisha, who is driven off, but not before threatening to return with the Mikado in retribution. So ends Act I.
Act II begins with the preparation for Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum’s wedding, which is interrupted by Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah, bearing the unexpected and unwelcome revelation that if a married man is beheaded for flirting, his wife must be buried alive. Too timid to actually carry out the deed, Ko-Ko tells the pair to flee abroad, while he and the others will lie to the Mikado about the execution if and when he comes. This turns out to be straight away, and Ko-Ko spins his tale, only to be informed that the Mikado is not here for news of the execution, but rather, thanks to Katisha’s tip-off, is in search of his son… whom Ko-Ko has just claimed to have executed. With Ko-Ko back on the chopping block, he stops Nanki-Poo before he leaves to try to convince him to reveal himself, but Nanki-Poo proposes an alternative plan: Ko-Ko must convince Katisha to marry him instead, thus giving up her claim on Nanki-Poo. Despite his reservations, Ko-Ko pulls it off, and with Katisha thus duped, Nanki-Poo reconciles with his father, and the show ends with everyone some shade of happy.
The Mikado is arguably the best work in the G&S canon: its libretto is perhaps the tightest, and the score is one of Sullivan’s finest, with highlights such as the layered trio ‘I am so proud’, the iconic aria ‘The sun whose rays are all ablaze’, and the country madrigal ‘Brightly dawns our wedding day’. It has also had a not inconsiderable influence on popular culture more generally: ‘Pooh-Bah’ entered the lexicon as a term for a person with inflated sense of importance, and the phrases ‘short, sharp shock’ and ‘let the punishment fit the crime’ were popularised – though not coined – by Gilbert’s libretto. The ‘little list’ song in which Ko-Ko lists off the people he might like to execute has also served as a means for keeping the show up to date, as it is just about the only song in the canon where rewriting for a modern audience is not only tolerated but expected in order to keep references topical.

Life's Eventime Comes Much Too Soon: Gilbert and Sullivan after The Mikado

The Mikado’s enormous contemporary success was not a particular surprise, and the working relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan was reinvigorated for the next few years. Granted, their next show, Ruddigore, a parody of melodramas, was only a modest success at 288 performances, and remains a divisive part of the canon among modern performers. But Yeomen of the Guard, the darkest of the Savoy Operas and taking place in the Tower of London in a vaguely 16th/17th century setting, proved considerably more successful at 423 showings following its 1888 premiere. 1889’s The Gondoliers, a tale of Venetian republicans who find themselves in possession of a kingdom, is a very close contender with The Mikado in terms of quality, and fell just shy of Pinafore’s success with 554 performances.
However, an unexpected event would bring a sudden end to the partnership. In 1890, the so-called ‘Carpet Quarrel’ saw Gilbert attempt to sue Carte for charging some of the Savoy Theatre’s expenses – including at least £500 for a new carpet and £1000 in electricity bills – to himself and Sullivan rather than to his company, and he broke off his partnerships with both men after Sullivan sided with Carte. Why Sullivan chose Carte over Gilbert once differences became irreconcilable is an unanswered question, but a reasonably strong suggestion is because the two had become entangled through the production of a grand opera adaptation of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which ran for a (by grand opera standards) impressive 139 performances after it opened in 1891.
Carte had hoped Ivanhoe would kick off a British grand opera tradition the way that Pinafore had done for comic opera, but Ivanhoe’s success would not be replicated. However, Carte did at least manage to sustain the British comic opera scene past The Gondoliers. Until 1910, the D’Oyly Carte Company produced new shows at the Savoy with a host of other librettists and composers such as Sydney Grundy, Basil Hood, and Edward German, and occasionally brought in the odd big name, including – as if to bring things back full circle – Jacques Offenbach. Sullivan would write a few more scores, and Gilbert a few libretti after a certain degree of reconciliation; the two would reunite on occasion, but not to enormous contemporary success: Utopia, Limited, a satire on joint stock companies and British imperialism, ran for 245 performances after premiering in 1893, but it has been reassessed in later decades as a strong, but not quite stand-out piece in the canon. The largely-reviled The Grand Duke ran for a mere 123 nights in 1896, their worst performance since Thespis, and indeed their final one. Nevertheless, the two would be recognised in their own lifetimes for their artistic merit: Sullivan was knighted in 1883 for his contributions to music, while Gilbert would, in 1907, be the first playwright to be knighted specifically for his dramatic work.
Sullivan died of heart failure after a bout of bronchitis in 1900, while Gilbert, who had taken to giving swimming lessons to young women in his retirement, died of a heart attack in 1911 trying to save one of his students from drowning. Richard D’Oyly Carte died in 1901, also of heart disease, but his family and descendants continued to run the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. After the copyright on Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas expired in 1961, the company downsized and went defunct in 1982, although Bridget D’Oyly Carte’s legacy has been used to revive the name on occasion since 1988. Today, the Gilbert and Sullivan canon is kept alive by both amateur and professional troupes the world over, and is a regular fixture of community theatres, university student groups, and major companies like Opera Australia and the English National Opera.

Here's a How-De-Do: A Troubled Production

The original production of The Mikado in 1885 was far from sunshine and roses behind the scenes. Aside from creative tensions between Gilbert and Sullivan and the creative accounting by Carte, the actors, too, went through a number of issues. The 1999 film Topsy-Turvy by Mike Leigh is mostly faithful on this count, with virtually all of the cast having some of their less fortunate sides shown. With forewarning that these are almost all quite heavy in parts:
Leonora Braham, the soprano who played Yum-Yum, struggled with alcoholism throughout her life, and was a single mother at the time of The Mikado’s production, having had a son with her first husband, who had taken his own life in 1880. She was later effectively fired from the D’Oyly Carte company during Ruddigore’s run, after she secretly married one of the other actors and became pregnant with her second child.
George Grossmith, the Savoy’s principal ‘funny man’ from HMS Pinafore to Yeomen, is alleged to have developed some form of drug addiction to deal with his stage fright, which may have reached an acute stage by the time of The Mikado’s run. Topsy-Turvy depicts this as being morphine, though Grossmith’s biographers never specified what substance he may have taken. On 29 January 1887, ten days after the last performance of The Mikado and a week into Ruddigore’s run, Grossmith became seriously ill with some form of inflammation, though it is very unclear if this was connected with his substance abuse. Ironically, unlike Sullivan Grossmith seems to have had friction with Gilbert because the latter was too serious, and unwilling to indulge his more slapstick sensibilities. While he took on the role of the jester Jack Point in Yeomen, he chose not to get involved for The Gondoliers or Utopia, and had departed the company outright by the time The Grand Duke began production in 1896.
Then there was the mezzo-soprano Jessie Bond, Gilbert’s long-term protégée. Her first marriage, which concluded in 1874, was to an abuser, and her first and only child died at six weeks old. Leigh’s film has it that Bond had contracted syphilis from him, which, although not definitively confirmed, is tragically quite probable: syphilis was listed as her son’s cause of death, and her divorce petition was filed on the grounds of having been knowingly infected with an unspecified disease by her husband. During The Mikado’s production, she met Lewis Ransome, whom she married in 1897, but her professional life also became more difficult thanks to the opera. Bond pushed hard for fame and recognition, convincing the costumier to give her costume an extra-large bow in order to stand out from the other two sisters; she also pushed hard for higher pay, which she consistently got, but this eventually, as many things did, brought her into tension with Gilbert. By the time of The Gondoliers, in which she played the co-leading role of Tessa, Gilbert barely acknowledged her existence during rehearsals, except for occasionally calling her the ‘High-Salaried Artiste’. Bond arguably got the last laugh though, as, when Queen Victoria herself called for a performance of The Gondoliers at Windsor Castle, the only encore was for Bond’s number, ‘When a Merry Maiden Marries’. While she remained with the D’Oyly Carte in a limited capacity for revivals of earlier G&S shows, she would not appear in either Utopia or The Grand Duke.
But the near-drama that was most directly connected with The Mikado’s production involved the titular Mikado himself, or rather his actor, Richard Temple. While Topsy-Turvy sees him portrayed by Timothy Spall as an actor specialising in buffoonish supporting roles, including the dimwitted knight Arac in Princess Ida, Temple’s acting range was quite considerable. He was the comported Sir Marmaduke in The Sorcerer, the villainous Dick Deadeye in HMS Pinafore, the flamboyant Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, and the romantic lead Strephon in Iolanthe. Temple had thus been a fixture of the D’Oyly Carte cast since its inception, which made it all the more galling when Gilbert and Sullivan decided to cut his only solo song, ‘A More Humane Mikado’, after the first dress rehearsal. Gilbert’s recollection of the events was that he and Sullivan were never fully satisfied with the song, which they thought was too reminiscent of Ko-Ko’s ‘little list’ song in Act I, and that the quality of Temple’s performance inadvertently drew attention to the flaws in the song. Temple himself was apparently happy to concede, but members of the press who were in attendance begged for it to be reinstated. When the two agreed, cheers rang out from the cast’s dressing rooms. Like Grossmith, Temple remained for the next two shows, playing Sir Roderic Murgatroyd in Ruddigore and Sergeant Meryll in Yeomen, but declined the role of secondary romantic lead Luiz in The Gondoliers, nor appeared in Utopia; dissatisfied with the general state of the D’Oyly Carte company, he joined Grossmith in departing the company altogether by the time The Grand Duke began rehearsing.

Let the Performance Fit The Times: The Problem of Staging

Okay so let’s be real here, The Mikado absolutely has a yellowface problem. Its characters’ names are literally based on baby-talk, for one. And the setting is entirely incidental – ‘Japanese’ can consistently be read for ‘high-society British’. Its origins in a time when Japanese tradition was a curiosity to be gawped at by the Global North gives the whole thing a certain air of iffiness. While the original Savoy production hired on the Knightsbridge performers as consultants to ensure that their portrayal was as accurate as possible for the time, that also meant full on yellowface makeup, squinty eyes and all. For decades, modern performers have had cause to try to work with or around the problem; I would categorise these into a few broad approaches:

1: Ignore/Dismiss

While The Mikado sometimes gets lumped in with Puccini’s Turandot or Madame Butterfly in the archetypal ‘yellowface operas’, it arguably differs in one key respect: the notion that it depicts actual Japanese people is entirely tongue-in-cheek. Whereas Turandot depicts problematic stereotypes of effeminate Chinese men, The Mikado presents caricatures of stereotypical British people, who happen to wear Japanese costumes to highlight the absurdity through distance. Moreover, the show’s tone, in which the characters refuse to acknowledge the situation’s fundamental absurdity, lends itself to this kind of disconnected-from-reality portrayal. For some, this is sufficient to justify performing the show as originally staged, with full Japanese aesthetics played straight. How far you play it straight, though, can be open to question. Many productions historically have leaned on full-throated yellowface makeup, such as the 1966 D’Oyly Carte filmed version, and to a considerable extent the 1982 Stratford Festival production; this 2007 New Zealand production seems to be limited solely by budget in terms of how far its cast adopt ‘authentic’ Japanese guise, with slanted eyebrows still on display. Needless to say, this particular approach has fallen largely out of vogue except among comparatively more conservative companies (either in the aesthetic or the political sense, or both).
That said, some productions have attempted to retain the costuming while toning down or even excising the makeup, and at least from a visual perspective that may be sufficient for some. Take for instance he 1939 D’Oyly Carte film with Martyn Green as Ko-Ko, (although that said, it messes with the songs a little including the rather bizarre decision to give Yum-Yum’s Act II aria to Nanki-Poo). Quite possibly it’s mainly down to the less exaggerated hairstyles, the more naturalistic makeup work, and the at least reasonably sincere attempt at some flavour of authentic set design. The 1973 BBC production is similar in this regard. But if even retaining the setting crosses the line, then there’s very little that can be done while still playing the setting straight.

2: Restage

If The Mikado isn’t actually set in Japan, then it doesn’t strictly need to be set in Japan. Why grapple with troublesome racial insensitivity when you can simply transpose the piece to a European or American setting? After all, it’s ultimately Victorian high society being critiqued, and so chronological distance can make up for geographical distance, as we are no longer required to couch the critique in wryly suggesting a Japanese setting for this ultimately British story.
Arguably the most well-known modern production of The Mikado is that of the English National Opera (ENO), first performed in 1987 with Eric Idle as Ko-Ko and Lesley Garrett as Yum-Yum, and revived relatively regularly. The ENO version of The Mikado moves the setting from an ageless Japan to a seaside resort in interwar Britain, with the chorus being guests and staff, the various well-to-do Japanese aristocrats becoming, well, well-to-do British aristocrats, and the titular Mikado portrayed as a sort of mob boss. Unfortunately, the 1987 version still thinks squinty eyes is a funny joke, but later revivals have thankfully omitted this particular sight-gag, and have retained the tradition of rewriting the list song for the modern day, as in this 2015 revival. This 2016 production in California reworked the libretto to set the opera in Milan rather than Japan, while this 2020 production in New York opts for what I can only term a Victorian fever dream. All of these are pretty valid approaches that get around the potential iffiness around the staging side, although it can still be asked whether the underlying text may remain too problematic to be salvageable for some.

3: Synthesise

What if there were a way to strike a balance? Can The Mikado’s proxy critique of British society be brought more to the fore, while retaining its notional setting? In essence, can you set it both in Japan and in Victorian Britain, at the same time?
There have been some pretty convincing attempts, in my view, and indeed possibly my favourite production, staging-wise, is one that does this exact thing: the 1987 Opera Australia production features a fascinating hybrid of Edo and Victorian aesthetics: to just discuss the men’s chorus, they wear bowler hats with tweed-patterned kimonos, sport ludicrously Victorian moustaches over kabuki-esque white makeup, and their fans double as copies of The Times. It’s an aesthetic fever dream, but in all the best ways. The 1992 D’Oyly Carte Buxton production is a somewhat lower-values attempt at a similar half-and-half approach.

4: Experiment

Sometimes, you have to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. The Pacific Opera Project opts for a bit of an aesthetic mélange that is half-Edo/Meiji Japan, half… anything at all, from top hats and epaulettes to Prince t-shirts to anime hair. Every once in a while an anime-inspired production crops up, though rarely seems to be recorded; on occasion one also sees the show simply staged in modern Japan, though not without controversy, as will be noted below.

A Fascination Frantic in a Ruin That's Romantic: Reckoning With and Reclaiming The Mikado in America

All of the above approaches are premised on the notion that the text can and should be rescued from the production: that The Mikado is a piece of theatre that deserves to be performed, despite its origins and its performance history. But what if you don’t make that case? Because there is an argument to be made either that the text itself is simply too offensive for portrayal, and/or that the show’s history inherently taints any subsequent performance.
Take, for instance, this 2015 article criticising a played-straight production in New York, which was actually cancelled outright, or this critique of a 2014 show in Seattle. Nor is there criticism solely in the US: this article and this one discuss a problematic production in New Zealand in 2017. Literary scholar Josephine Lee, in her 2010 book The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, is generally critical of both text and performance, and makes a not-undeserved comparison to minstrel shows, arguing that the show commodifies a comic exaggeration of racial imagery. A perhaps more digestible version can be found in this blog post by The Fairy Princess Diaries.
That is not to say that there have not been attempts at diaspora reclaiming of the work. For instance, Lee cites the case of David Furumoto in 2003, who directed a university production in Wisconsin that sought to target what he saw as the principal issue, that being a certain Sino-Japanese ethnic confusion. The set and costume design and choreography was thus intentionally focussed on to only employ Japanese influences, with especial focus on Kabuki motifs. Henry Akina in 2004 directed a relatively ‘played-straight’ production in 2004 for a Japanese-Hawaiian audience that deliberately overplayed the show’s Japaneseness to highlight its incongruities, but also had a certain local character as well in poking at Hawaiian political issues. These productions take somewhat different approaches to the issue: Furumoto’s tries to keep The Mikado accessible to a general audience while rooting it more firmly in an authentic Japanese setting and stripping out inauthentic influences; Akina’s involves specifically reorienting the show to a local context and highlighting the inauthenticities as a point of humour, through which the audience can laugh with the show rather than at it.
One of the most controversial recent performances of the show, already alluded to earlier, was a planned 2015 production by NYGASP (the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players) which was cancelled after protest. The show would open the next year, having been reworked with significant input from Asian-Americans, including appointing an Asian-American actor as co-director. The 2016 NYGASP production inserts a prologue with Gilbert and Sullivan viewing a Japanese painting, in order to emphasise the idea that The Mikado is the product of a Victorian imagining, and replacing a few lines. You can read a bit more detail in this New Yorker piece.
Lee’s book does not, however, cite Furumoto’s and Akina’s productions as wholly successful, unproblematic attempts at reclaiming, and we could apply similar critiques to the 2016 NYGASP performance. One suggestion she makes is that there is a fundamental Catch-22 to a Furumoto or NYGASP situation involving a mostly non-Asian production. A production that does not allow creative agency to Asian voices is problematic in itself, but when Asian voices are involved, their involvement becomes instrumentalised to justify the production, and a huge amount of onus is also dumped on them in regards to the show’s authenticity and sensitivity. The Akina case is different in that this was a more or less exclusively Japanese-American production team principally targeting a Japanese-American audience, but she argues this is a relatively unique case given the much more secure position of Japanese-Hawaiians within society in Hawaii, and that the show still ends up perpetuating what she considers a commodification of racial imagery, and simply changes the consumer.
A limitation of the above critiques, however, are that they originate almost exclusively either from white people or from Asian-Americans. Why exactly there aren’t more visible critiques coming from people of East Asian descent in other parts of the Anglosphere is a question to which there seems to be no clear answer, but probably boils down to a combination of four factors:
  1. The context of race relations in America is quite different in general: subtler, more implicit forms of racism are much more overtly discussed compared to most other parts of the Western world.
  2. The historical Asian-American experience has been especially traumatic and compounds the above: while anti-Asian discrimination is not unique to the US, arguably nowhere else has it been so prevalent as to be institutionalised in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Acts and Japanese-American internment camps. That kind of context likely creates a heightened sensitivity among members of the community.
  3. The Asian-American community is much more coherent as an overarching group transcending boundaries of national origin compared to what tend to be much more mono-national communities in other countries, and so more issues affect it on the one hand, and on the other hand it is more active in advocating its interests.
  4. Gilbert and Sullivan’s oeuvre occupies a different cultural niche in the US versus the Commonwealth: in America it is an import consumed largely by an Anglophilic, white-skewing segment of the middle class, whereas it is much more intimately tied in with the cultural landscape of the former British Empire.
But it is also notable that there is very little critique emerging from Japan itself, and so we ought, as a coda, to consider the history of The Mikado in relation to non-diasporic audiences.

If Patriotic Sentiment is Wanted, I've Patriotic Ballads Cut and Dry: The Mikado in Japan

There can be a somewhat self-congratulatory narrative among G&S aficionados that The Mikado has always been warmly received by Japanese audiences. This is… a rather romantic view, to say the least.
The stories generally told are of two imperial princes who visited Britain – Komatsu Akihito, who attended one of the original run of performances in 1886, and Fushimi Sadanaru, whose visit in 1907 occasioned a six-week ban on The Mikado within the British isles to avoid causing offence. As the story goes, Komatsu found the show inoffensive when he saw it, while Fushimi was in fact disappointed and had hoped to see the show while he was there. The latter seems to be sourced only to hearsay reported in a contemporary New York Times article; the former seems to have no corroboration at all. So, did imperial princes like, or at least not dislike, the show? Maybe? I guess?
But The Mikado would not enter Japan itself until after the Second World War. The first performance was essentially an exercise in cultural hegemony: in 1946, a three-performance run was put on with American-British-Canadian leads and a Japanese chorus, with costumes hired from the imperial house’s coronation tailors, attended almost entirely by G.I.s (although some reported that a Japanese audience attended one of the previews). 1948 saw a production by the Nagato Miho company at the Tokyo Theatre with an all-Japanese cast and a more mixed audience. These performances were, however, also specifically spurred on by an American policy of theatre censorship aimed at suppressing what were asserted to be anti-democratic, militarist values inherent in traditional performing arts like Kabuki. Reception of The Mikado was, frankly, mixed. Contemporary American newspaper reports give conflicting reports on public opinion over the opera’s believability and entertainment value, with especial focus being placed on its portrayal of a buffoonish emperor.
But a frosty initial reception gradually turned into a bit of a cult following, as local production companies began to stage it more actively, finding ways of using the show to situate Japan within the modern international community. By the 1970s, the Nagato Miho company had staged over 1000 performances, including a televised production over NHK. Fujiwara Opera attempted a US tour of The Mikado in 1956, but unfortunately reviews were mixed thanks to perceived linguistic problems. The audiences were largely sympathetic, it seems, but there was a sense from the reviews that clarity had been impeded. There was also some disagreement over the cutting of the ‘little list’ song and a few lyrical changes and updates, although the latter is generally much more tolerated these days, especially since the end of the D’Oyly Carte company’s effective monopoly on the canon.
This culminated over the course of the 1990s and 2000s with the rise of more overtly ‘reclaimed’ versions of The Mikado. One such example examined in Josephine Lee’s book is that of the Super Ichiza production in 1992, a production which blended Super Ichiza’s own style of ‘rock Kabuki’ with the stylings of Asakusa Opera, Japan’s highly flamboyant operetta scene of the 1910s-20s. The libretto and music were preserved (albeit rearranged for a more rock-heavy instrumentation), and the show was deliberately presented as being a comical, entertaining experience and an alternative to stuffy grand operas.
But perhaps the most famous Japanese production is from 2001, when a production company in the city of Chichibu staged a Japanese translation of the show. Its origins are… interesting, to say the least. A local radio host, Ei Rokusuke, had become convinced that ‘Titipu’ was in fact Chichibu (which makes a little more sense when you consider Japanese orthography: ち sounds like chi but is Romanised as ti in some systems, as it is grouped in with the other t- syllables; ぶ bu and ぷ pu are distinguished only by a diacritic.) According to Ei in a 1991 broadcast, Gilbert had set The Mikado in the town of ‘Titipu’ because he had been made aware of protests against tax policy that were suppressed by force in 1884. This has no real corroboration, but it led to a move by listeners to form a group to stage the show in 2001 to mark the 50-year anniversary of Chichibu’s incorporation in 1951.
Drawing in volunteers from all over the city, the production became a vehicle for civic pride, and its promotion received global attention, especially as alternative views of how Gilbert allegedly came to hear of Chichibu (particularly the idea that he may have come across Chichibu silk at Knightsbridge) also started to circulate. The show would be revived in Tokyo in 2003, and would be the highlight of the 2006 International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, where it received the rare distinction of a standing ovation (after all, Buxton attendees would have lived and breathed G&S, and most would have seen dozens of productions over the years).
It’s hard not to write about the Mikado’s performance history without repeatedly falling back on Josephine Lee’s book, but if I may be permitted one last paraphrase, there is no one Japanese response to The Mikado, and the show’s meaning morphs with each performance – sometimes symbolic of postwar realignment, sometimes a callback to Japan’s earlier flirtations with operetta, and – for one particular city – a unique point of local pride.

There's Yet a Month of Afternoon: Conclusions

So what have we all learned today? In the simplest terms, The Mikado is a show with a text that is at least mildly problematic and whose performance history is most certainly more so, but it has also managed an enduring legacy. There is, no doubt, a case for relegating it to the dustbin of theatre history, but its continued staging, especially by both Japanese and Asian-American companies and groups, suggests that many still recognise something in the text that is worth keeping alive. Perhaps some day it comes to be seen that the contradictions are too much to bear, but to quote Pooh-Bah in the Act I finale, ‘This toast with three times three we’ll give, "Long life to you – till then!”’
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