Tag Archives: Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado

Yesterday National Public Radio did a story on the continued friction about the Seattle production of The Mikado.  Last night was the opening of The Mikado at EOH.  Here’s food for thought from Director Chris Bord in relation to the EOH production shared from his blog 7/24/14:

Members of the 2014 EOH cast of The Mikado at rehearsal.

Members of the 2014 EOH cast of The Mikado at rehearsal.

The published an article yesterday called “Opera’s Old-Fashioned Race Problem.” The impetus for the story was a critic’s reaction to a production of The Mikado, which starred “38 white amateur performers.” Sharon Pian Chan wrote in The Seattle Times: “It’s yellowface, in your face,” and also criticized the lack of Asian-American performers in the show. The Atlantic article suggested that operas like The Mikado must be updated to stay relevant to contemporary audiences (and presumably to not offend critics.)

The story caught my eye because I’m in the midst of a production of The Mikado, which will be presented at The Earlville Opera House in August. I picked the show as a Gilbert & Sullivan novice – I knew them by reputation but didn’t know their work firsthand. EOH asked me to direct a Gilbert & Sullivan opera, which narrowed the pieces I had to choose from. The Mikado has been called the most-performed piece of musical theater in history; I read that it is always being produced, somewhere in the world. Gilbert’s libretto is clever and very funny; Sullivan’s music feels both perfectly matched to the words and utterly familiar.

On a practical level, my production is open to the same criticism as the Seattle amateurs’. We have no Asian-American performers, simply because none came to audition. I’m not insensitive to the question of racial appropriateness – I’d never think of mounting a production of Dreamgirls, for example, with a predominantly white cast. But The Mikado is not “about” Japan – it is set in Japan as a vehicle for Gilbert to satirize his native England. Gwynn Guilford, the author of The Atlantic article, acknowledges this point, but suggests that using racial novelty simply as a theatrical device is perhaps more reprehensible than just telling a Japanese story with British actors.

Guilford doesn’t mention that The Mikado has frequently been set in non-Japanese environments, dating back to the 1920’s. There have been “Hot” Mikados (1920’s American gangsters), “Straight” Mikados (English settings), and Mikados set in boardrooms, army units, and various political organizations. Gilbert’s satire (dealing primarily with political structures and stupid laws and customs) is versatile and essentially universal. One story has the Queen of England demanding that productions of The Mikado be suspended during the Japanese ambassador’s visit, only to find that the ambassador had already seen it and found nothing applicable to Japan.

I didn’t immediately know how I’d set The Mikado, which is one of the primary directorial concerns. This was partly because our creative team was very late coming together. It took a long time to find a music director, and choreographer, set, costume, lighting people (etc.) were also scarce. A theatrical project is an immense collaboration where everybody contributes and the product reflects all contributions. The director hopefully shapes those into something that provides entertainment and value to the audience, or at the very least makes a cohesive artistic statement.

So… The stage is bare; even the upstage curtain is missing, and a lonely stagehand sweeps. A chalkboard at the front has a list of crossed-out (imaginary) names. The Mikado overture plays dimly through the sound system, remnant of a show that clearly won’t be happening. Following the overture, a small orchestra quickly takes their places and the opening notes of If You Want to Know Who We Are are played. Suddenly, six men stand from various seats around the theater and begin singing. They are certainly not actors – they have no costumes or makeup. Far upstage, dimly seen, masked, robed figures march out and observe. The house lights are still on. The men from the audience make their way to the stage and continue the song, and the house lights begin to fade. From nothing, and with none of the expected scenery, theater begins to happen out of thin air, as if called forth by a memory, or tradition.

Our setting evolved from necessity, and it comments on that. At the same time, each of the performers inhabits a character – we are not winking at the audience, as if to say, “Look how clever and meta we are.” I learned that re-setting The Mikado in a different place and time would require extensive re-writing of Gilbert’s words. While we did change two instances of the word “nigger,” everything else is as written. Again, this was partly from necessity – altering words means not only trying to match one of history’s great lyricists, but also distributing those changes to everyone and possibly asking them to re-memorize parts.

I haven’t seen the Seattle production which was so unfavorably mentioned in their newspaper, so I don’t know how much the “yellowface” was played up. Our production gets a lot of mileage from prop fans and parasols, but aside from actors being costumed in robes there is nothing explicitly “Japanese” about what we’re doing. We were interested to learn that some of the Japanese phrases in Gilbert’s lyrics are just nonsense – they were apparently chosen for a quality of sound instead of for authenticity. I think Chan’s “yellowface” reference was intended to suggest “blackface,” which strikes me as critical malpractice. The only way The Mikado is guilty of a blackface minstrel show-type offense would be if those had been performed in blackface to satirize white politics and customs. In other words, if blackface was a device to actually poke fun at whites.

There must be a better choice, when considering older material, than either updating or not presenting it at all. Contemporary audiences might be shocked at what comes across as anti-semitism in Shakespeare, or as racist (and sexist) in The Mikado. But that ignores something which can be gained by re-examining older works: the opportunity to reflect on changing societal attitudes over the passage of time. For example, I believe that more harm than good is done by “cleaning up” Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to more comfortably appeal to a modern audience. The story might remain, but the author’s intention to provoke a reaction is diminished. To be fair, Guilford’s article mentions some alternatives to traditional all-white casting in Western productions of various operas. These are mostly obvious – use performers from a variety of traditions and ethnicities to add depth and clarity to the original story. (Nice when such performers are available and interested.)

I am all for racial and ethnic sensitivity (I don’t like the term “politically correct,” which automatically demeans the effort.) At the same time, we live in a society that has figured out how to exploit such issues for various kinds of gain. We’ve seen Gary Oldman and Jonah Hill on the news lately for having uttered certain offensive phrases; both actors have subsequently transfixed the media with a talk-show tour of abject apology, seeming to emerge with reputations not only intact but enlarged and millions of new eyes trained on their next moves. A cynic might credit a savvy PR person for a subversively brilliant campaign.

The Mikado is both of its time and outside its time. By that I mean certain elements (the use of “nigger,” as well as gender and to a lesser extent cultural stereotypes) can be linked to how W.S. Gilbert and his crowd thought and talked. But at the same time, The Mikado is outside its time because of the brilliance of the words and music. It is worth revisiting because it is an archetype that has influenced so much else. A recent article in suggested while viewers of The Simpsons television program could appreciate episodes without ever comprehending the satirical references, the experience becomes far richer once those references are known and understood. I’ve seen this myself as we’ve delved into The Mikado. Once you rehearse and stage the number If You Want to Know Who We Are, the influence behind the Heigh-Ho number in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suddenly becomes clear. The original movie poster for The Little Shop of Horrors features the tagline “the flowers that kill in the Spring, TRA-LA,” which is much funnier once you’ve seen The Mikado. Not to mention various phrases in The Mikado which have become part of the English lexicon: “Pooh-Bah,” “a short, sharp shock,” “a little list,” and “let the punishment fit the crime,” among others.

Gilbert and Sullivan contributed to modern musical theater by thoroughly integrating words and music with the story being told. The approach has been reinforced and refined ever since, but it arguably originated its present form with G&S. The spoken lyrics are often continued in songs, and very few of the songs could simply be omitted without sacrificing the story. That’s a long-winded way to say it’s a masterpiece.

We dismiss masterpieces at our peril. John Lennon said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus and inspired church groups to burn Beatles records. No matter what you think about Lennon personally, the work remains. The same can be said for any number of examples. Let’s agree that appreciating a work of popular art does not necessarily endorse any of its author’s views, or perpetuate them. I’d go further and suggest that substantial changes to the original work might sacrifice something essential in the piece. The perspective provided by distance (which includes time and also cultural, experiential, etc.) is something we each bring to a work of art. It should be encouraged.

Thanks Chris!  More about the EOH Mikado ~ community theater supporting the arts in our community, a fundraiser for the Earlville Opera House!

Somebody said to me, "Gilbert and Sullivan has to be done by the book.

But what a collection of talent. Our music director John Krause brought in some people he’s used to working with, I brought in others, and we all mixed with a bunch that have been singing Gilbert & Sullivan at Earlville for years.

We’re about midway into The Mikado now, and I’ve gone through most of the stages of directing: optimism, exasperation, depression and exhaustion. These are not linear – sometimes all four come during the same day. (I’m still waiting for euphoria.) A director needs to be an organizer, cheerleader, sounding board, sometimes a tyrant.

Scheduling can be a nightmare, taking into account vacations, rehearsal locations, and which scenes need to be rehearsed on a given night. For The Mikado, we have singers coming from the Mohawk Valley region, Syracuse, and from Clarks Summit, PA. I almost lost it when somebody said, “Please let me know the exact time I will be used at each rehearsal. I don’t need to sit around for 45 minutes listening to other people when I could be home finishing my dinner.” A fair request, except the person had only been called for two rehearsals at that point. Another asked to be excused from Monday and Tuesday rehearsals: “I didn’t expect we’d be working so many weeknights.”

But what a collection of talent. Our music director John Krause brought in some people he’s used to working with, I brought in others, and we all mixed with a bunch that have been singing Gilbert & Sullivan at Earlville for years. Whenever we’ve had the big group together, it has been striking how well everyone seems to get along. There is none of the diva attitude – “I’m the best.” Instead, most of them bend over backward to insist somebody else puts them to shame.

Theater poster for The Mikado

Theater poster for The Mikado

I came to this production a Gilbert & Sullivan virgin. I knew them by reputation and by their influence on so many things I love, but I’d never seen a live show. Recordings rarely do them justice – the words muddle together and the chorus seems miles away. To hear G&S live, with singers invested in creating distinct characters, is a treat. The wordplay and the melodies in perfect synch, songs instantly recognizable because they’ve long been assimilated into popular culture.

Somebody said to me, “Gilbert and Sullivan has to be done by the book. Gilbert insisted that performers do things exactly his way. Who are you to change it?” True enough. W.S. Gilbert was a genius and a difficult man – he and Arthur Sullivan rarely got along. Gilbert loved to torment performers, even months after a show had opened. He was argumentative and litigious. One of Gilbert’s favorite refrains was, “I will refer this matter to my solicitor.” Sullivan was accommodating. He loved good food and drink, and regularly indulged in prostitutes. Gilbert would write the words and send them on to Sullivan, who had an uncanny knack for the perfect musical complement. (Although Sullivan was knighted long before Gilbert, critics regarded him as wasted potential – the light comedies he remains known for were equivalent to modern-day sitcoms.)

Ulmar next was hired to play Yum-Yum in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's first American production of The Mikado, at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York, from 1885 to 1886.

Geraldine Ulmar played Yum-Yum in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s first American production of The Mikado.

History: The Mikado happened when the Gilbert & Sullivan partnership seemed on the brink of ending. They were under contract to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which had been created to exclusively produce their works. Sales for Princess Ida (1884) were slowing, and Richard D’Oyly Carte requested a new piece, contractually required within six months of the notice. Gilbert had long been toying with a plot about a “magic lozenge,” which would make a good man bad, an honest man a liar, a virtuous woman a whore, etc. Sullivan hated the idea, and pronounced their partnership finished. Legend has it that while Gilbert sat in his study, a ceremonial Japanese sword fell from its mounting on the wall, and The Mikado burst into his mind fully formed. He sent the outline to Sullivan, who replied, “As I don’t see any mention of a magic lozenge, I’m your man.” It’s a good story. The Mikado is set in Japan but remains quintessentially English. The “exotic” setting allowed Gilbert to more effectively satirize the politics and customs of his native England. It has been noted that not a single plot point or joke really applies to Japan at all, but every one applies perfectly to England. The exotic setting is merely a disguise, although it often remains lost on the audience. (When she saw the original production, the Queen of England remarked, “It’s all a bit silly, isn’t it?”)

The piece quickly became Gilbert & Sullivan’s most popular operetta. Copyright law at the time was weak – although competing companies weren’t allowed to use the original printed scores, they were free to transcribe them from memory. At every performance, agent musicians would listen in the audience and later write down what they’d heard. Gilbert knew they had to get the jump on an American production, so he took extreme measures. First, he ordered the D’Oyly Carte company to buy all of the silk from all the suppliers they knew of, to prevent rival companies from making costumes. Second, he arranged a touring company and had the performers and musicians sign non-disclosure agreements; they got on a boat for New York at midnight and weren’t allowed to say goodbye to friends before they left. A Broadway theater was booked under a false name, and the “official” Gilbert & Sullivan Mikado managed to open weeks ahead of the knockoff competition. By some estimates, The Mikado has never not been in production, somewhere in the world. Art cries out to be reinterpreted.

This is what we bring to contemporary audiences – an outline that bears a fresh creative stamp. I told my performers (they are certainly “my” performers – let nobody criticize or attempt to bring them down) that they are responsible for creating a character. The formula is something like 30% script/60% actor/10% director. I will shape what they offer into a cohesive story. We’ve learned the music. Now we’re at the point where we’re building the story and scenario. I hoped you stay tuned, because it’s going to be good.

To find out more about the production and to get tickets:

The Earlville Opera House opens its 43rd season this Memorial Day weekend! Highlights of the season include Americana Blues legend David Bromberg, virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and folk legend John McCutcheon and country star Carlene Carter of Carter Family fame.

For Celtic music lovers, North Sea Gas on May 25th captures “The Fire and Passion of Scotland” garnering them last year’s Celtic Radio Music Award for Album of the Year. This September see one of America’s most influential Irish music bands, Solas. Later in the fall, Scots Trad Music Awards Hall of Famers, the Tannahill Weavers, deliver their fire-driven instrumentals and original ballads. Returning this December is one of Ireland’s leading traditional bands, Teada, with their holiday special Irish Christmas in America.

Don’t miss the fiery Cajun, Zydeco & Honky Tonk swing music of The Revelers who combine the two groups at the vanguard of the Louisiana cultural renaissance with founding members of the Red Stick Ramblers and The Pine Leaf Boys, whose powerful tonic of roots music could only come from Southwest Louisiana.

More blues to fight the blues! The Heritage Blues Quintet has been called a “one-band blues festival” with their beautiful blend of old traditional blues with some sensational modern musical talents. After last year’s 2013 Living Blues Critics Poll Award for Best New Recording/Debut Album, the band returns to the recording studio this spring and will be out on tour again in July for a show at EOH! In September, catch the Contemporary Blues Female Artist Of The Year, Janiva Magness, who sings with scorching intensity deliver her powerhouse Blues and R&B.

Exploring folk from around the world, the Jammin Divas rock while they blend stunning renditions of traditional and original folk music with elements of improvisation from each of their cultures. In July, explore the fundamentals of folk with the impressive singer songwriter, John McCutcheon, with over 30 albums and seven Grammy nominations to his name. In October spend an evening with two of Canada’s most compelling songwriters, Dave Gunning and James Keelaghan, each with multiple awards for their songwriting skill.

Bluegrass and Americana music lovers will delight in the “stomping, galloping country swing of an old-time string band,” Poor Old Shine, reminiscent of the strip-mined hollers of West Virginia! Two guitar vituosos Chris Eldridge of the Punch Brothers and prodigy Julian Lage meet up for a wild night of bluegrass and guitar. The opening act will be Tennessee’s break out band the Howlin’ Brothers with their distinctly bluegrass take on country blues. In December, EOH features the silky harmonies and the honky-tonk swing of the Sweetback Sisters’ “Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular.”
EOH continues its tradition of celebrating local talent! In June, local attorney, author and playwright, Hugh Humphreys will present The Music Room & The Other Stories. In August, Chris Bord will direct Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.

There is still more to come – including our Earlville Awesome House series! See the calendar listing below. The Earlville Opera House is a beautiful historic landmark and a living testament to local and New York State history. In addition to its performances, EOH features three art galleries as well as workshops. For more information, or call 315-691-3550.

Season postcard 2014 web

Earlville Opera House Main Stage Season 2014

Earlville Opera House Main Stage Season Calendar ~ all shows at 8 pm unless specified.  Links below are active until after the show has passed.
Sun, 5/25 North Sea Gas ~ Scottish Folk, Tremendous 3-Part Harmonies
Sat, 5/31 The Revelers ~ Cajun, Zydeco & Honky Tonk Swing
Sun, 6/8 5:30 pm EOH Member & Volunteer BBQ
Fri, 6/13 Poor Old Shine ~ Americana inspired by the Hollers of WV
Sat, 6/21 at 8 pm & Sun 6/22 at 3 pm
choose show Hugh Humphreys presents The Music Room & The Other Stories.
Thurs 6/26 7 pm Meet the Divas! Special Event: The Jammin’ Divas Meet and Greet (Free)
* (Barge Canal Coffee House, Lebanon St., Hamilton, NY 13346)
Fri, 6/27 Jammin Divas ~ Divine Harmonies & Folk from Ireland, Australia and the USA
Sun, 7/20 banjoJohn McCutcheon~ Folk Icon and Virtuoso Guitar & Hammer Dulcimer
Sat, 7/26 quintet from fbThe Heritage Blues Quintet  ~ One Band Blues Festival
Evening shows on Fri, 8/8 and Sat, 8/9 at 8 pm & Sun matinee on 8/10 at 3 pm
choose show fanGilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.
Sat, 8/16 lageandeldridge6Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers) & Julian Lage ~ Virtuoso Guitars /Bluegrass with the Howlin’ Brothers opening
Sat, 8/29 carlene_carter_preferredCarlene Carter  ~ Embraces Carter Family Legacy in New Release “Carter Girl”
Fri, 9/5 4946cover_epkJaniva Magness ~ Powerhouse Blues and R&B from Contemporary Blues Female Artist Of The Year
Fri, 9/19 wheelhouseSolas. ~ Premier Irish-American band
Sat, 9/27 david brombergDavid Bromberg Quintet ~ Americana Blues Legend
Sat, 10/4 k & g compositeDave Gunning and James Keelaghan– An eve with Two of Canada’s most powerful songwriters!
Fri, 10/10 10-10 Tannahill Scotland2010aTannahill Weavers ~ High Powered Scottish Traditional
More TBA in the fall Arts Café Series
Fri, 12/12 12-22 2010-ICA-1501 lrTeada’s Irish Christmas in America – EOH presenting at the Catherine Cummings Theater in Cazenovia confirmed!
Fri, 12/19 Sweetback Sisters 2 crSweetback Sisters’ Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular – EOH at the Oneida Community Mansion House Theater confirmed
Earlville Awesome House Calendar: Kids & Families!  All shows at 7 pm unless specified Links below are active until after the show has passed.
Thurs, 7/10 6:30 pm Instrument Petting Zoo! Meet the Instruments before Symphoria concert at 7:30 on the Village Green in Hamilton, NY.  Rain location:  Colgate Chapel
Sat, 7/12 Of Changes and Dreams by MagpieMagpie:  A MIGHTY HARD ROAD Celebrating The Music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger ~ Folk Concert & Intro to Songwriting Workshop** FREE EARLVILLE AWESOME HOUSE EVENT
Fri 7/25 7-6 dance workshop image  color for FB3Dancin’ In the Streets Show! Celebrating Music & Dance of the 50s and 60s part of a week long workshop for gr 5 to 12
Fri 8/1 circus crop 5128The Really Big EOH Circus Show! “Cirque de Shiny” part of a week long workshop for ages 6 to 13
Fri, 8/15 Bill and Dave BacklitQuiet Riot – Storytelling Concert/ Building Strong Communities Workshop** FREE EARLVILLE AWESOME HOUSE EVENT
 Sat, 10/18  03

Martha Redbone Band – Blues – EOH cosponsors at the Native American Festival at Colgate University – Free (Festival runs 9:30 am to 5 pm)

Sat, 10/25 The Haunted Opera House! Free
These performances with-workshops are funded, in part, with a grant from the NYS Office of Children and Family Services through the Madison County Youth Bureau and through our IPAD raffle sales!
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