Imagine if you will a bedridden girl, dying of tuberculosis. Her short breathy phrases are continually interrupted by fits of coughing. She is small, frail, and a two-hundred pound soprano. The orchestra surges, and she launches into a five-minute aria, seemingly unaware of the fact that her lungs ought to be filled with dust by now.
This is the sort of thing we take for granted in opera, and when your primary mode of storytelling is singing your lungs out in a foreign language, there's a lot you have to take for granted. The moment you step into an opera house, have to suspend your disbelief just enough to believe that a whole village of people can sing the same thing at the same time, that they can all launch into spontaneous dance, that they all share the exact same opinion about the leading players, that the leading players can waste ten minutes soliloquizing in song while the chorus just stands there and listens, and on and on and on and on and on. Our fifty-year old Pavarotti is a sixteen-year old Manrico. Our five-foot-ten mezzo-soprano is a twelve-year-old boy. Our incredibly diverse chorus members are a homogeneous line of Japanese villagers, all of whom have the same thoughts and sing them all together.
You can probably see where this is going.
NYGASP recently announced that after some backlash, they have cancelled their production of The Mikado this holiday season. This on the heels of the Metropolitan Opera getting a lot of flak for their promotional pictures of Aleksandrs Antonenko playing a "bronzed up" Otello and then getting even more flak from announcing that Mr. Antonenko, to use their phrasing, would not be wearing any dark makeup in the production.
I wanted to talk more about suspension of disbelief, but racism in opera is the hot topic right now, so I'll come back to suspension of disbelief later.
Regarding The Mikado directly, it is important to separate the two types of accusations it's getting. One, that the operetta itself is offensive and should not be performed. Two, that the operetta itself may not be inherently racist, but it should not be performed in "yellowface," and ideally only performed by Japanese actors. I will tackle the first of these accusations first, because it feels more open-and-shut. The second accusation will take us into more discussion about suspension of disbelief. Don't believe me? Keep reading. I'll keep you in suspense a little while longer.
Let's open up the libretto to The Mikado, and using the wonder that is modern technology, let us Ctrl-F Japan. There are sixteen instances of that five character string in the whole libretto. Let's go through them.
The first instance is in the Dramatis Personae, simply listing off as a character "The Mikado of Japan". Completely innocent. The second instance is similarly innocent, as it is a stage direction explaining that the chorus is of "Japanese nobles".
The next two direct references to Japan occur in the opening number. And it is these two instances I could potentially see people taking exception to. The song is an introduction to the setting, and much like how the sailors on the H.M.S. Pinafore describe how they are sober men and true, and attentive to their duty, so do the Japanese nobles describe how they are depicted on many a vase and jar and many a screen and fan. Their attitudes are described as "queer and quaint", and while nothing particularly bad seems to be said, I can understand how this might raise some eyebrows. At the same time, this is no more pronounced than the extremely blunt introduction of the "dainty little fairies" in Iolanthe. It is an opening chorus, and Gilbert's opening choruses tend to be extremely blunt statements of the setting, and perhaps a little bit of premise.
What follows is Nanki-Poo enters, and he sings a song in three sections. A ballad, a march, and a sea shanty. All extremely British in tone, and if not for the fact that five minutes ago the chorus just announced that they are "gentlemen of Japan", you would never guess that this operetta did not take place in the default England. Similarly, when Pish-Tush explains how the Mikado has declared flirting a capital crime, this is absurd, but not at the expense of the Japanese setting. The Mikado could just as easily be Grand Duke Rudolph -- who does in fact pass similar laws restricting flirting in his own operetta, though his aim is economical. And the next character introduced, Pooh-Bah, may just as well be Lord Mountararat or Don Alhambra or any other of Gilbert's pompous noblemen. They are all written rather the same. Couldn't the three little maids from school be Melissa, Sacharissa, and Chloe, home from college at Castle Adamant?
In fact, the Japanese setting is not referred to again until Ko-ko requests that Pooh-bah greet his wards with an "abject grovel in the characteristic Japanese attitude". This is incidental. It matters not if the grovel is Japanese or Italian or Utopian. The joke is at the expense of Pooh-bah, trying oh so very hard to subdue his immense pride. The next mention is similarly incidental. Yum-yum mentions that in Japan, girls do not come of age until fifty. This is clearly ridiculous, but the exchange is similar to one Gilbert had previously written in Iolanthe, and I imagine he didn't want to repeat Phyllis' exact rebuttal. Again, it makes no difference whether the opera is in Japan or Italy or Utopia. Gilbert would have made the same joke, because, let's face it, he's Gilbert.
The operetta proceeds in the regular Gilbertian fashion. The tenor and the soprano can't be together, the comic baritone has to kill somebody, he and two of the basses pass the ticking bomb around in a delightful trio, all normal fare. Japan is not mentioned again until near the end of Act I. Nanki-poo suggests that he might distance himself from Yum-yum and leave Japan. Again, totally incidental. He could be leaving England or Germany or Mount Olympus.
The eighth reference to Japan in the libretto (there are sixteen total -- just about halfway through!) occurs in the Act I finale. The chorus cheers with "the Japanese equivalent of hear hear hear!" Which I think is an incredibly clever line, and also draws attention to the most particular point of the show, which I will come back to. But in the meantime, slipping into other languages, and referring to himself doing so, is something Gilbert indulges in often, perhaps most remarkably in Iolanthe, where in a single verse he states and draws attention to "a Latin word, a Greek remark, and one that's French". More confusingly, earlier in The Mikado, Yum-yum has a beast of a verse in "But as I'm engaged to Ko-ko / To embrace you thus, con fuoco / Would distinctly be no gioco / And for yam I should get toko!" Nothing Japanese here. I just get really impressed with Gilbert's linguistic playfulness.
The last reference to Japan in Act I is another stage direction. It states that the chorus shouts "Japanese words" to drown out Katisha. And it is here that I feel it necessary to point out that the Japanese words are authentic, even if no one in the audience can make them out. Similarly, the chorus Miya Sama in Act II is a legitimate Japanese march. Gilbert inserted it in the libretto and Sullivan merely orchestrated it. That, just as Gilbert insisted the sets and costumes be, is authentically Japanese. (There is some debate as to whether "O ni! Bikkuri shakkuri to!" actually translates to anything meaningful. It would seem to me that the general consensus is "yes, but loosely." It is probably not good Japanese, but it is Japanese.)
Come to Act II, Yum-yum talks of how she sits in her "artless Japanese way". Again, for "Japanese" read "Utopian" or "German" or anything else you please, and nothing changes. So it is also with how Yum-yum is "the happiest girl in Japan" and how the Mikado is "the emperor of Japan" and how he "in Japan exists" and how he is the father to the "heir of the throne of Japan" and how Ko-ko has apparently slain the "heir to the throne of Japan" and that breezes us through all but the very last mention of Japan in the libretto.
The last mention is a line in which Ko-ko mentions that Nanki-poo's name "might have been written on his pocket handkerchief, but Japanese don't use pocket handkerchiefs!" This along with the "Japanese equivalent of hear hear hear" and a few other incongruities with the Japanese setting (my favorite being the recurring joke of the second trombone -- thankfully the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas only feature two trombones in the pit or The Mikado would have been banned long ago) draw attention to the fact that The Mikado does not, in fact, take place in Japan. It rather takes place in what is basically the Knightsbridge Japanese village. This being the source of one of the most pointed, and missed, jokes in the whole libretto:
Ko-ko: (Referring to Nanki-poo) In point of fact, he's gone abroad!
Mikado: Gone abroad! His address?
Right on the heels of the Meiji Restoration (depicted in Sondheim's musical Pacific Overtures, which does take place in Japan, though to less objection, probably due to an all-Japanese cast and just general obscurity), there was a huge surge of interest in England of "all one sees that's Japanese," as Gilbert puts it in Patience. In Patience, Gilbert parodies the sort of a character who would pretend to like Japanese culture to appear intellectual. In The Mikado, he turns it up to eleven. He was parodying the English craze with all things Japanese as today one might poke fun at western obsession with anime. (In fact, "anime nerds" might make a good addition to Ko-ko's list... "The followers of pop stars -- teenage lovesick maidens they / Whose screaming wont desist / I've got them on the list / And fellows who obsess with comic books and anime / They'd none of them be missed / They'd none of them be missed / And people on their blogs who won't stop shoving in your face / Any issues The Mikado may or may not have with race / But of all these sins I'm listing, far the greatest of these wrongs / Is making up some different words to Mr. Gilbert's songs / So this impulsive urge to rhyme I will try hard now to resist / For I know I'd not be missed / I'm sure I'd not be missed.")
(Best way to protect yourself from criticism: Criticize yourself first. Best way to avoid being called out for dodging criticism: Call yourself out for it first.)
But the point is this. The Mikado is not set in Japan any more than The Gondoliers is set in Italy, or The Grand Duke is set in Germany. And let's face it. Is Yum-yum really that much more silly a name than the Baroness von Krakenfeldt? One need only hear "Knightsbridge!" or "A Wesleyan Methodist!" or any of Julia Jellicoe's lines to know that none of these operettas take place where the costumes suggest. They are all England with trimmings.
Those trimmings, specifically, are costumes, sets, and makeups, and this brings us to the second accusation against The Mikado. I have laid out the script. It's up to you to decide which references to Japan you find offensive, but I really only see one or two raising eyebrows on their own. The question now is whether it is acceptable to dress up non-Japanese actors in costumes and makeup that make them appear Japanese.
Right off the bat I think we can agree that any sort of garish yellowface makeup should not be used. But tasteful stage makeup and Japanese costumes? I don't see why not. In the original production, Gilbert tried his hardest to ensure that all the staging was as authentically Japanese as possible, and most good major G&S troupes attempt to do the same. It is incredibly difficult to collect an all-anything cast, especially in Gilbert and Sullivan where I imagine the audition pools are somewhat limited. In opera as a whole, really. As the demands made on the singers are very great, and it is often difficult to find someone even capable of singing a certain role, it is simply most reasonable to cast whoever is best qualified for the part, and count on the fact that it is literally the job of an actor to pretend to be something he is not. A human can play a fairy or a dragon. An office worker can play a king. Heck, a man can play a woman and vice versa! We're not going to demand castrati be brought back just to make Cherubino authentic, are we? So why draw the line at race? Especially when such lines are so uneven. Leontyne Price can play Sieglinde in Die Walkure, and I don't think I need to say what Wagner might have thought of that. Even more in Wagner's face, a Jew could play Parsifal! I don't know that any have, but I can't possibly see anyone objecting in this day and age. But while it's generally accepted, as it should be, that minority actors should be able to play typically white roles, could Leontyne Price play Cio-Cio San? Or Turandot? And can the Korean-american Kathleen Kim play the African Dido? The Metropolitan opera chorus has singers of all sorts of backgrounds, but they all need to be Scottish for Lucia Di Lammermoor and French for La Boheme and Japanese for Madama Butterfly. If a white Renata Tebaldi can play a highly acclaimed Japanese Cio-Cio San, why can't a white John Reed have the same liberty to play Ko-ko? And Madama Butterfly derives more from Japanese stereotypes than The Mikado. I don't want to cry "reverse racism" or anything like that, but there is definite inconsistency with how this whole race thing is handled, and while it would be nice to see it resolved if only for consistency, I don't think that's about to happen. Nor do I think it should need to.
Going back (in classic Da Capo fashion) to Aleksandrs Antonenko in Otello, there are a few arguments being raised, both in favor and against the Met's decision to leave him Latvian. On the one hand, dark makeup or blackface, even for a character in an opera, can be seen as offensive -- and is also almost universally bad makeup, drawing attention to the makeup and away from the story making it hard to take seriously. On the other hand, it is a character thing, and might playing Otello without makeup lead to audience confusion? On the other hand, the race of Verdi's Otello is not as big a plot point as it is in the Shakespeare play. And poetic language, as the librettos to operas usually are (and Verdi's Otello is no exception) can often make things feel ambiguous. On the other hand, is this making Otello white? And if so, is that "stealing" a role that ought to be played by a black actor? And I don't think so. When you step into an opera house, you have to make certain allowances and be prepared to accept certain things. You must accept that that adult woman is a teenage boy, and that that poison is waiting to act until the soprano is done singing. You must accept that the entire chorus is all the same, and that some of them are pretending to be something they're not. Most of the actors are certainly pretending to be something they're not, whether that's a man, a woman, a lord, a farmer, a courtesan, a British soldier, a Japanese emperor, an African princess, anything at all. To quote Anna Russel, "That's the beauty of grand opera; you can do anything, as long as you sing it!"
I'd like to say that I'm really happy with how this blog post mapped out. The Mikado derailed me from the intended topic of suspension of disbelief at the beginning, but it has now brought me smoothly back. I hope I didn't leave you in suspense long?