What do you do when protesters want to ban your opera as a racist
By Mort Levine
Since 1884 The Mikado has been one of the
most performed and lauded musical theatre
masterworks. But in the past couple of years,
as heightened sensitivity about ethnic stereotypes
has teamed up with social media, the witty, melodic Gilbert and Sullivan operetta
has come under withering fire. It’s been called “yellow face in your face” and a “historical
relic that needs to be retired.”
Protesters effectively cancelled performances
in New York and brought out Asian-American
protesters in Seattle. When the highly
regarded bay area Lamplighters Musical Theatre
announced its current season, those same
rumbles came flowing forth on the internet.
The very traditional performing group, now
in its 64th season grew alarmed when one
of their four regional venues held up their
rental lease agreement. Their shows go forth
in sequence at the Mountain view CPA, the
Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, at
the Yerba Buena theatre in San Francisco and
the Bankhead Theatre in Livermore.
Heeding the alarm bells, Lamplighters
sought a solution rather than a confrontation.
They found it in the way opera producers
have done throughout the centuries. Verdi
moved his tale of regicide at a royal Swedish
Masked Ball to colonial Boston. There were
dozens of other ways to dodge censors of the
past and the new kinds of politically correctness
This Mikado is now dubbed The New Mikado.
It is set in the early Renaissance in Northern
Italy. The Mikado now becomes Il Ducato,
a duke of Milan who likes to sing and apply
punishments to the deserving, as much as
his Japanese counterpart. Yes, and he has “A
Little List,” whose lyrics have always been updated topically as they have since Gilbert first
The shift westward of some 8,000 miles
didn’t require very much in the way of change
to the full libretto. In fact, a word count of
the changes show that only 1.7% of the text is
different. The Mikado was written as a satire
on upper class British society and its foibles.
However, its universality has permitted it to
be performed worldwide in many languages.
Over its 132-year life, Mikado has occasionally
brought out protests. At least twice Japan’s
ambassadors to Great Britain lodged objections
citing the divinity of the emperor. And
its has been done with a re-set staging. There
are periodic revivals of The Hot Mikado with
its all African-American cast.
The essence of the work is the combination
of the rich, melodic genius of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s
tuneful score and th comic inventiveness
by his collaborator.
Now, with Lamplighters’ re-do, we get to enjoy
this work through a new, but still exotic,
lens.They won’t be wearing obi and kimono.
There will be richly colorful robes as well as
tights and codpieces.
You can judge for yourself if all this works
when the curtain goes up in Mountain View
for three performances Saturday, August 13 at
2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 14 at
2 p.m. If you miss that, drop in at the Yerba
Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco or
the Livermore Bankhead Theatre later in the
(SJOG Newsletter August 2016)
To top of page
Read past "Travelers" in the Archives