Troubling pressures in New York’s Mikado cancellation

Slipped Disc editorial

A production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado has been withdrawn in New York after activists demanded it should be played and sung by Asian performers, rather than non-Asians pretending to be Japanese.

The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) appear to have caved in at the first hint of protest, fearing to provoke a substantial minority group.

Both sides, it seems, have lost the plot.

posterMikado

Mikado is pure parody. It is a send-up of the British ruling classes in the late 19th century and has much to say about their successors today. Its Japanese setting is a theatrical gimmick, no more racially defining than the Cornish village in the Pirates of Penzance. Victorian audiences, for whom it as written, understood that it was aimed at their system of governance and their own acquiescence to it.  No UK production that we have seen – most durably Jonathan Miller’s at ENO – raised a scintilla of suspicion that the absence of Asian actors was discriminatory or distortive.

Yet this is the mind-warping nonsense we read from those in New York who would forcibly recast it: White privilege is telling the stories of people of color and crowding out their actual, lived narratives. Even when those stories come from a place of prejudice, as with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, they can be told in ways that highlight the legacy of white supremacy and give voices to people of color.

There is no earthly reason for Mikado to be sung by ethnic Japanese any more than Cio-cio san, Suzuki and half the cast of Madam Butterfly should be restricted to singers of the same ethnicity. The New York cancellation of Mikado has nothing do to with the work itself. It is never a good sign when a company cancels a production under pressure. Both the outcry and the outcome reflect racial confusions in that city, at this time.

It may be that New York needs a new Mikado now more than ever before.

 

UPDATE: More reaction here.

 

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    • This has nothing to do with Obama and you know it very well.
      BTW, people who call Obama “marxist” show that they do not understand the most basic thing about politics and economy. Go to fox “news”. You’ll see plenty of like-minded.

      As for this cancellation, this shows the abysmal stupidity of political correctness. What’s next? Carmen cancelled due to smoking concerns? Ooopppssss!

      • Doug is right, this is a fine example of ObamaWorld, where the leader and his followers deconstruct everything in terms of race and gender and “white privilege”. Those three elements have been the key themes of the past six years in Obama’s Amerika.

        • Uh, no, not really. You can choose not to like President Obama, but protests about Mikado (silly as they are, in my opinion) predate his presidency. And really, these kinds of political snark are really kind of tiresome, don’t you think?

      • Doug is absolutely right, this is the toxin that is being pushed by the ‘president’ and the ‘media’ from day one. Enjoy the consequences.

          • Republicans are “moronic” because they disagree? Yep, that’s progressive democracy for you – that and shutting down discussion through PC!!

      • What the hell does this have to do with Obama? What a completely ignorant and brain washed reply. Actually FIRST you’d have to have a brain. I ran into this in a production of Anything Goes years ago. I had an ethnic Chinese young man in the lead, an East Indian girl as the Ingenue, and an ethnic African as the ship’s porter. But when I wanted to cast two white people as the “Chinese” gamblers, I had to get permission. What?!?!? What kind of idiocy is that? If this is true, there will be NO Black performers in hundreds of parts, or Chinese, or Hindu or any other ethnic group. This is preposterous and has NOTHING to do with Obama but with an overly rigid conservative look at ethnicity and a complete misunderstanding of art., including bias against him.

        • G.E. Henderson,

          Thank you!

          Thank you for calling these very ignorant biased people for their idiotic remarks! No doubt Doug and all the rest of these people are quivering in their “Depends” with righteous rage yet loving the opportunity to blame the Mikado SNAFU (and everything else on the 44th president). Only in the U.S. will you find such an amazing degree of absolute ignorance, stupidity, and political polarization.
          I doubt less than a handful of folks in the U.S. even are even vaguely aware of William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s operettas and their somewhat lighthearted pokes at the Victorian establishment. The only really very racist line from one Mr. W.S. Gilbert’s librettos I recall, is from Princess Ida. In all of my recordings of “Ida” (except for one), the line was changed.

          I really can’t see how anyone Asian could be offended by an operetta that has nothing to do with Japan!

  • Isn’t the whole point of the satire that these are not real Japanese characters at all? So why would they be played as such (or indeed look as such, costumes and make-up aside)? Doh!

    The humour comes from realising that it is the English
    system that is being sent up. Made more amusing by the fact that at the time of composition, English Society was going through a craze for all things Japanese. Gilbert is saying that you you can take the man out of England, but you cannot take England out of the man.

    Although Milka’s point about ‘nothing new’ is true here, Europe has not yet had anything to match this example of cultural topsy-turvy.

    Whether it is ever right to cast a white man as Otello is a regular one, with more (some) validity, but this example of stupidity goes way further, and shows that certain
    cultural caped crusaders are themselves well beyond satire. You could not make it up!

    • I’m no G&S groupie, but my sense with Mikado was that Gilbert set the play in Japan to make it one step removed from the England of his time, perhaps to allow Brits some ability to laugh at themselves as they saw themselves in proxy in some faraway land, thus allowing WSG to satirize away. That’s why I don’t see any attempt at ridiculing Japanese as we saw in, say, the way the minstrel shows laughed at and ridiculed black people.

      • Gilbert was scrupulous in NOT caricaturing the appearance and behavior and movements of his “Japanese” characters. This is well-depicted in Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy. All things Japanese were the rage in England at the time and Gilbert probably saw it as an opportunity to critique British society and politics in a way which he had not done since Iolanthe, about which there is evidence of displeasure in influential circles at the time. Gilbert didn’t return to direct satire and parody of contemporary British mores and politics again until Utopia, Ltd. And even that was considerably watered down from his original intentions mostly due to Sullivan who hobnobbed with the upper echelons.
        But now we live in an era in which English teachers in the States refuse to teach Shakespeare and get get away with it.

  • I’m trying to picture it: Asian-American activist actors (who from this exercise and the attached reports look like a rather humorless bunch) want to play English people-pretending-to-be-Japanese-in-order-to-poke-fun-at-Victorian-English-people for a 21st century American audience.

    Who’d want to miss that?

  • Then we will work to close-down every performance of Shakespeare in Japan, and have the Japanese films of Shakespeare (RAN etc) banned.

  • Parody is too complicated for Americans. It means they would have to concentrate and think!

    What do you expect.

    On a separate question, Why Norman, do I have to validate my comment with a question in French! This is an English website & I live in England.

    • The idea that Americans are stupid and naive, or more so than the British, is old and tired, and ought to have died with the Empire. I say this as a Canadian…get over yourself Mr. Walton…

    • Yes, I take exception to your comment, which has more than a bit of cultural prejudice of the sort we are talking about here. Ease off.

    • Gilbert & Sullivan are every bit as, possibly more popular, in the States than in Britain. It’s the Left that has lost all sense of proportion, irony and humor. It’s some kind of dour, weird reflorescence of Calvinism in Marxist clothing.

      • Lord. There are crazy fringe elements in both the “Left” and the “Right” trying to ban all sorts of things. I only wish it was particular to just one group. Part of being a mature, thoughtful individual is understanding that not everything within our “own” is perfect, and not everything in the “other” is bad. More Americans need to try this (I am American).

    • Oh c’mon Tim, your urge to defend G&S against this nonsense is admirable but the witless anti-US prejudice isn’t. The Pirates of Penzance was written for and premiered in the USA.

      (Sad to think that it will henceforth no longer be performable there unless by ethnically pure Kernowyon…)

      • No, Halldor: the Pirates of Penzance was not written for America. It was performed there only after its first scratch performance in Paignton, Devon (England), to establish copyright in the US as well as the UK.

        There had been a number of breaches of copyright when HMS Pinafore had been given (unauthorised) by quite a number of American groups.

        More a case of the Pirates of Pennsylvania, in fact.

  • One final thought. I can’t read into the minds of the company that changed to ‘Pirates’, but I’m thinking they were scared off by a similar contretemps that occurred — last year, I think — in Seattle when an Asian columnist weighed in against the company there. We needn’t go into that episode, but perhaps that was what was driving this cancellation. I do find it sad, and I would only additionally point out to Timothy Walton that this pressure probably didn’t come from the 99% who were totally ready to attend the Mikado production. Only a few, which doesn’t deserve the cultural put-down on American audiences.

  • Some of the comments here make it embarrassing to even participate in this discussion, but I guess I will give it a try. It’s interesting to put the Mikado issue in the context of how Asians fare in American society. California, for example, has 55% of America’s Asian population. They represent 12.5% of the state’s residents, but comprise 36% of the student body in the elite 10-campus UC system, and more than 40 percent at UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, and UC Irvine.

    The Vienna Philharmonic performed in California a few years ago, and is alone among the major orchestras of Western Europe and America in not having a single member who is fully Asian and has an Asian family name. Members of the orchestra have said that Asians do not belong in the ensemble because the way they make music is inherently different. I suppose one could say that for some of the members, it would be like Asians performing European music in white face. The view, of course, is inherently racist and a serious problem in the VPO still seeking a resolution.

    And yet when the VPO performed at UC Berkeley and gave master classes at the UC Santa Barbara a few years ago, there were no protests at all.

        • You really are a walking, talking example of letting ‘the best be the enemy of the good’.

          I would hate to live in your head. Every performance a slight on someone else, every conductor an oppressor, every high point of Western civilisation a cause for cultural cringe, and self-laceration. Not in our name.

        • The topic, Mr Osborne, is blatant, idiotic and/or disingenuous censorship hitting a Victorian musical farce. The play is making fun of its own society in an exotic costume. One of the oldest tricks in the business. It has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re talking about. But please, go on, since we cannot laugh at The Mikado, at least give as something to laugh about.

      • Thank you Mr. Lowe! Mr. Osborne makes many very good points in his many posts, but it is so wearisome to see him flip something like this G&S imbroglio as a very indirect way of jumping on his VPO ” hobby horse”.

    • I’m sure the number of African-Americans in the main American symphony orchestras has changed since the last time you complained about the Vienna Philharmonic (which must be last week), right, Mr. Osborne?
      Interestingly, the number of Asian in the VPO is comparable to the number of African-Americans in the Boston Symphony Orchestra or in the Cleveland Orchetra or…

    • How many European players do you believe there are in the Harbin Philharmonic Orchestra? How many do you believe there ‘ought’ to be, since you’re legislating for political correctness? Will you be getting on the next slow boat to China to picket the next concerts in Harbin with your American views? Or how about the disgusting exclusion of Peruvians from Japanese Noh theatre? Or do your chatterbox PC ideas only cut one way?

  • Well said, Norman. A Japanese American friend of mind loves Gilbert & Sullivan and loves the Mikado. He has always rightly figured the opera (and it is an opera) is about the behavior of silly ass Victorian Brits. And a parody of human nature (especially cupidity and self-preservation) in general. The opera is no more “about” Japan than “Nozze di Figaro” or “Fidelio” are about Spain.
    This business about “cultural misappropriation’ and marxist leftist jargon about “white privilege” is reaching fascistic proportions. The Seattle G&S Society also had to face this nonsense.

  • I had to endure a performance of CARMEN at Kennedy Center in Washington DC the other night, and there wasn’t a single Spanish (or Gypsy) person in it!

  • I just burned all my prized CD booklets with Callas, Scotto, Georghiu, and Tebaldi (a twice offender) as “Butterfly.” They were totally offensive to my now enlightened sensibilities.

    • Should have just cut out some pictures of Japanese ladies and paste them over Callas’ photo and sell it to the Americans. That they can accept,

  • The whole situation really calls for the Gilbert and Sullivan touch. There is really a comic operetta in gestation with all these stock characters.

  • I’m surprised these nitwits aren’t insisting it be sung in Japanese too. The PC twaddle now also demands that Otello not be depicted in dark make-up, which makes complete nonsense of the story. What’s next – breeches roles sung only by boys, the Grand Inquisitor can only be a Catholic, Aida made up exclusively of Egyptians and Ethiopians? Phooey!

  • Another case of political correctness – on steroids – contributing to the demise of traditional freedoms, and stifling honesty. If allowed to continue unchecked, the disease of political correctness will create a society lacking in the necessary communication skills for its own survival. People must be allowed to express their opinions, and arts, regardless of whether these actions offend an ignorant minority.

    • Attacks on “political correctness” are very often, in reality, attempts to legitimize and defend bigoted speech. Look for accusations of “political correctness” in the face of criticism and calling out of such bigotry.

      This bigoted speech often uses coded language to communicate with the intended bigoted audience(s).

      In the U.S., at least, bigoted speech is, in many contexts, protected (although the nature of those protections is often misunderstood and misstated).

      But just as one’s right to make bigoted speech is protected, so too is the right to call people out for the bigoted speech or the bigotry behind it.

  • Yes the work, created in 1885, was meant to satirize British culture but it is important to pull back to look at the bigger picture of what it means to launch a ‘yellowface’ production today within the context of contemporary North American society.

    I respectfully suggest that we undertake some further readings and educate ourselves on the Asian American experience. In particular, the racism, prejudice and stereotypes experienced by Asians living and working in North America today, of which many readers here do not appear to appreciate. It has nothing to do with political correctness, but rather that large groups of people can be hurt and offended. While we may love The Mikado, many groups of people could still at the same time find the stereotyped treatment of particular characters and culture to be offensive and hurtful.

    I find some of the rants here to be unfortunately self-indulgent and somewhat disappointing. I see this announcement from the New York troupe as a positive step towards change. As reported by the New York Times, the troupe’s executive director David Wannen stated (quote) : ““We will now look to the future, focusing on how we can affect a production that is imaginative, smart, loyal to Gilbert and Sullivan’s beautiful words, music, and story, and that eliminates elements of performance practice that are offensive,’’ http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/09/18/mikado-production-canceled-over-racial-concerns/?_r=0

    I, for one, welcome eliminating_outdated_ ‘elements of performance practice that are offensive’. This is progress of a kind that I, along with many Asians, will welcome.

    • With all due respect Karen, I would ask if have even listened to or seen a performance of the Mikado or for that matter any of Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan’s operettas. How one can imagine it has anything to do with real Japanese culture in an offensive way tasks credulity. On the other hand you are correct that Asian racism existed and still exists in the U.S. today as it does with many other ethnic groups. Yet the litany of discrimination in Japan e.g. is quite long. Not only with the Burakumin, but well into their aggression in China and southeast Asia where they perpetrated a vast genocide with little or no post war apologies. Japan is not a country immigrants go to So I would ask you to take some time to research some o historical the Asian experience with Japan between 1935 to 1945.Although it desperately needs “new blood” with it’s aging population, Japan is remains a country of “no immigrants”.

    • “I respectfully suggest that we undertake some further readings and educate ourselves on the Asian American experience. ”

      I respectfully ask you to explain to us what has The Mikado to do with the “Asian American experience”.

      Next thing they ask : Marco and Giuseppe Nur für Italiener, and the Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro – exclusively Spanish, of course.

  • Gonout: As I said, it has to do with launching a ‘yellowface’ production in the United States today within the context of contemporary North American society, and the racism, prejudice and stereotypes experienced by us Asians living and working in North America today.

    Whether it involves a Westerner’s notion of a “real” Japanese or not is wholly irrelevant. The stereotypes and outdated performance practices are what can be offensive to many.
    You are all entitled to your perspective as well.

    @Paul Sullivan : I am of Chinese descent and my own family experienced the atrocities and genocide committed by the Japanese against the Chinese people. I consider myself fairly well read in history, thank you.

    • It’s not “yellowface” or anything. It’s farcical, theatrical make-up, representing a fantasy land which has never pretended to “be” Japan or to portrait “Asians”, just as Angelica in Handel’s Orlando isn’t “Chinese”.

      But you can easily turn it into a litteral, and then actually racist portrayal of the Japanese people and society : it’s to cast all the parts of this farce with REAL Japanese singers. Or would “Asians” be enough?

      That’s how you murder an innocent, absurd joke. Are you absolutely sure the punishment – scandalous censorship under so-called “social pressure” – fits Gilbert’s crime?

      Because with this kind of argument you can censor just about anything. Begin with the Barbers’ Corporation and its feelings, deeply hurt by Sweeney Todd.

      We seem to live in a world where some people cannot wait to be offended, and some – to kneel and ask for forgiveness.

      • Bravo. And well said. By the argument that cancelled this show, Hamlet, although written by the most English of playwrights, should only be played by Danes (and a few Norwegians and perhaps a couple of Germans).

        It’s theatre, folks. Which is not a catch-all excuse for racism or bigotry or anything else — but you do have to be smart enough to get the original joke. And theatre is make-believe. Grow the *&^% up.

        • Anything can be offensive to someone. Especially when that someone decides to feel offended. Because it depends exclusively on that someone’s decision.

          Just think: how shaky someone’s self esteem must be, if that someone lets him/herself be offended by The Mikado, or by Mario del Monaco’s make-up.

    • Karen,

      I have doubt you may be aware aware of historical prejudices. As a matter of fact so do I. I am 64 years old and gay. My chosen career was in the merchant marine (merchant navy to you in the UK) starting in 1972. As I worked my way up from 3rd officer to captain I heard every hateful remark about “queers”, “fags”, etc., endlessly on the bridge, or officers mess. Has anyone said screamed to your face you should die and go to hell? I’ve dealt with that also. Has a gang of guys punched you out on the street for standing up to them? Been there. How well is homosexuality accepted in China?

    • It is important to take into account the sensitivities of people when creating and performing a work of art such as the Mikado, as in many other things in life.

      It’s also important to balance them against other factors.

      Wagner is eschewed in Israel. Blackface minstrelsy is now almost unheard of in the U.S. The Confederate flag is being recognized and acknowledged for the racist, white supremacist, seditious, and treasonous symbol that it is.

      OTOH, look at the uproar when the Met presented the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer. Much of the opprobrium was based on falsehoods and misinterpretations.

      I am trying to parse the elements of this production that you find offensive. Perhaps comparing and contrasting The Mikado with blackface minstrelsy will help.

      The yellow face is fairly obvious. What once may have been an attempt to portray white performers with a more authentic Asian hue is now understandably rejected, even though the reason for it is arguably less pernicious than the blackface in minstrelsy.

      OTOH, when we compare and contrast the raison d’être for the two, we see that black minstrelsy existed to mock black people, whereas The Mikado was created to mock the British and their politics, not the Japanese.

      So, eliminating the yellow face is an excellent idea. But was canceling the entire production necessary? Was it throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?

      • Do you consider then that, if a theatre cannot find a suitable, Chinese tenor to sing Sou-Chong in Das Land des Lächeln, it should abandon the project, rather than engage Richard Tauber and give him a theatrical make-up, art known and practiced for 25 hundred years?

          • Adjust how? To make him look less Chinese?

            Because it’s wrong to look Chinese?

            I’m just trying to understand.

          • Dear William – you told me they should “adjust the makeup”. I asked you – how? You didn’t answer and changed the subject. Why?

            What production? Mikado’s or Lehar’s?

            Mikado : the production is “inseparable” from the makeup, because the play IS about makeup. About the Victorian society disguised as imaginary Japan.

            As I wrote before: imaginary, theatrical Japan is not “about” Japan and the Japanese. It’s not offensive to the Japanese. But make it literally “Japanese”, as some of the protesters would, and it can become so.

            Lehar : the production is “inseparable” from the makeup, because the play is about a Chinese prince in love with an Austrian. It is about two very different people. They should look different. What’s wrong in making them look different on stage?

            Please, show me that a serious, respectful, rational discussion about this, or anything, is still possible.

          • “Please, show me that a serious, respectful, rational discussion about this, or anything, is still possible. ”

            Apparently – not.

  • For all of the conservative posters here who made absurd comments about PC and Obama, this operetta has had controversy since it’s inception. The lyrics were changed decades ago. Here are the original lyrics of two of the most popular arias, first the Mikado’s big aria.

    A more humane Mikado never
    Did in Japan exist,
    To nobody second,
    I’m certainly reckoned
    A true philanthropist.
    It is my very human endeavour
    To make, to some extent,
    Each evil liver
    A running river
    Of harmless merriment.

    My object all sublime
    I shall achieve in time —
    To let the punishment fit the crime,
    The punishment fit the crime;
    And make each pris’ner pent
    Unwillingly represent
    A source of innocent merriment,
    Of innocent merriment!

    All prosy dull society sinners,
    Who chatter and bleat and bore,
    Are sent to hear sermons
    From mystical Germans
    Who preach from ten till four.
    The amateur tenor, whose vocal villainies
    All desire to shirk,
    Shall, during off hours,
    Exhibit his powers
    To Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

    The lady who dyes a chemical yellow,
    Or stains her grey hair puce,
    Or pinches her figger,
    Is blacked like a nigger
    With permanent walnut juice.
    The idiot who, in railway carriages,
    Scribbles on window-panes,
    We only suffer
    To ride on a buffer
    In Parliament’ry trains.

    The original lyrics of the Mikado’s aria, “My Object all Sublime”.

    My object all sublime
    I shall achieve in time —
    To let the punishment fit the crime,
    The punishment fit the crime;
    And make each pris’ner pent
    Unwillingly represent
    A source of innocent merriment,
    Of innocent merriment!

    And from Koko’s aria, “I’ve Got a Little List”

    KO-KO

    As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
    I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
    Of society offenders who might well be underground,
    And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
    There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —
    All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs —
    All children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat —
    All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that —
    And all third persons who on spoiling tête-á-têtes insist —
    They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

    CHORUS

    He’s got ’em on the list — he’s got ’em on the list;
    And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed.

    KO-KO

    There’s the nigger serenader[1], and the others of his race,
    And the piano-organist — I’ve got him on the list!
    And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,
    They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
    Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
    All centuries but this, and every country but his own;
    And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy,
    And who “doesn’t think she dances, but would rather like to try”;
    And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist[2] —
    I don’t think she’d be missed — I’m sure she’d not be missed!

    CHORUS

    He’s got her on the list — he’s got her on the list;
    And I don’t think she’ll be missed — I’m sure she’ll not be missed!

    KO-KO

    And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife,
    The Judicial humorist — I’ve got him on the list!
    All funny fellows, comic men, and clowns of private life —
    They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed.
    And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind,
    Such as — What d’ye call him — Thing’em-bob, and likewise — Never-mind,
    And ‘St— ‘st— ‘st— and What’s-his-name, and also You-know-who —
    The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you.
    But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list,
    For they’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

    CHORUS

    You may put ’em on the list — you may put ’em on the list;
    And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed!

    • I am shocked! Aren’t you shocked? I mean really…

      Clue: the Mikado is not supposed to be the most sympathetic of characters. Rather the contrary.

      And Ko-Ko? A toady. A bureaucrat. A Vicar of Bray. Hence actually how suitable it is to keep adapting the list…

      But the point is, to those whose ears are deaf to irony, these characters are part of a satire, and they are being satirised…

      Must one go on? Dear me…

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