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SJOG Travelers

What do you do when protesters want to ban your opera as a racist
“cultural appropriation”
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 of today.

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 penned it.

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 month.

(SJOG Newsletter August 2016)

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