‘Asian Blackface’ in The Mikado Stirs Controversy in Seattle

Monday, July 21, 2014 - 11:00 AM

Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society's 'The Mikado' Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society's 'The Mikado'

A Seattle theater troupe is defending Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado over charges that the operetta perpetuates racial caricatures and that its own production fails to include any Asian-American performers.

The production, by the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society – an amateur troupe marking its 60th anniversary – has come under fire because white actors play all 40 of its Japanese characters and use garish makeup and costumes to appear Asian.

"It’s yellowface, in your face," wrote Seattle Times columnist Sharon Pian Chan in a July 13 article about the production.The Mikado is the same shtick, different race. A black wig and white face powder stand in for shoeshine. Bowing and shuffling replaces tap dancing. Fans flutter where banjos would be strummed.”

The 1885 operetta was intended as a satire of English politics and institutions, but set in a distant, exotically visualized Japan. It revolves around simplistic characters like the wandering minstrel Nanki Pooh and the beautiful young maiden Yum Yum, and is told in a frothy brand of Japanese-inflected sing-song English. It is the most performed of Gilbert and Sullivan's 14 comic musicals. (Below: an excerpt of a 2011 production from Opera Australia.)

Responding to Chan's critique, Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society manager Pamela Kelley Elend published an 1,800-word column strongly defending the opera. She argues that The Mikado should be seen as a send-up of Victorian England’s perception of Japan. “It is a poke at that august sector of Society,” she wrote, “who had little to no understanding of Japanese society and culture, but held a superior belief that they did understand Japanese society and culture, and could not be bothered to learn otherwise.”

Elend added that her company's audition process was geared solely towards identifying musical talent and not a particular race. “I am saddened that this cast can be dismissed as irrelevant because they are white,” wrote Elend. “Every person on that stage won the right to be there.”

Chan’s column drew support from other Asian-American pundits and from the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights organization, which released a statement saying that it “objects to the use of yellowface and stereotypes in the comic opera The Mikado and condemns the decision to stage a play with such offensive rhetoric to all Asian Americans.”

The League added that "the racist portrayal of Japanese people in this play is extremely disrespectful and misleading to those who are not familiar with Japanese culture."

The debate echoes similar questions about Richard Wagner’s operas, particularly allegedly anti-Semitic caricatures like Alberich in the Ring Cycle or Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. But The Mikado, as an operetta, has received less mainstream attention. Still, NBCNews.com reports that several performances in the past decade have drawn criticism and protests, including in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Denver.

Josephine Lee, author of The Japan Of Pure Invention: The Racial History Of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, believes that people wrongly excuse The Mikado by saying it's about England and has nothing to do with Japan. In an e-mail to WQXR, she wrote that it's incumbent on directors to give it new meaning, "rather than just assuming that audiences want the same old thing."

Lee cites a Mu Performing Arts/Skylark Opera production in Minneapolis. "References to Japan were eliminated, and at the same time many of the leads were played by Asian American actors," she said. "This put a new twist on the opera, since now Asian American actors were playing 'white' British characters; it acknowledged the racial history of the original version, but made the audience rethink rather than just reproduce the opera."

Another example of a Mikado reboot was Jonathan Miller’s 1986 production for the English National Opera, which came to City Opera in 2001, and removed every trace of Japanalia.

In her column, Chan proposed that the Seattle G&S Society partner with an Asian-American theater group in order to give the operetta a more modern spin. But, noting Seattle’s large Asian population, she added, "This is the wrong show—wrong for Seattle, wrong for this country and wrong for this century."

Weigh in: Should The Mikado continue to be performed? Leave your comments below.


More in:

Comments [55]


So when do we start banning productions of Noh and Kabuki theater? The most offensive Japanese caricatures imaginable. Perpetrated by the Japanese themselves. Their TV reality shows are possibly worse, though.

And much as I admire them as a people, let's be honest--the most egregious racism against Asian people like the Koreans and Chinese was perpetrated by the Japanese, in the 1930's and 40's.

This isn't about racism. It's about power, and it's about people who are assimilating into our society wanting to flex their muscles a bit, and prove they're just as discriminated against as blacks (which they're not, when's the last time an Asian American kid got shot down by a cop for acting a bit rowdy?). It's happened many times in the past, it's nothing new.

We attack the symbols of racism, or perceived racism, and ignore the realities, because they're too hard.

How long before we do finally get that fully expurgated edition of Huckleberry Finn?

How long before laughter itself becomes seen as politically incorrect?

I'm all in favor of offensive stereotypes being attacked, but the only stereotyping in Mikado is directed at W.S. Gilbert's own people. And it's deadly accurate.

And why do I just KNOW that if I spent some time in Asia, I'd see plenty of cultural examples of stereotyping against caucasians?

Only never having been disadvantaged because of ethnic stereotypes, I'd probably laugh.

I get it. But I don't agree with it. We have to set the bar very high for this kind of thing, or we end up stripping our shared culture of everything of value, in a pointless and impossible quest to offend absolutely no one.

What happens when Mormons demand a certain Broadway show be permanently closed? And that musical is roughly a thousandth as good as Mikado.

Sep. 23 2015 07:33 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

To Ninadragonsense: Yes, Opera is a rather wonderful white supremacist cultural enclave. Get over it. Blacks excel in jazz and other music, blues, etc. Spanish excel in gypsy music, same for Russians, South Americans for tangoes. etc. etc. Neapolitans wrote gorgeous songs, not so much now.

Aug. 13 2014 03:33 PM
consuela sollazin from Brooklyn

The snotty nine year olds mentioned child brides. How about the child brides in the muslim world today. This is happening today for real and without the consent of the child brides.

Aug. 13 2014 03:23 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I forgot Austrians, my bad

Aug. 13 2014 01:24 PM
Concetta nardone from Nassau

Rip Rense: Your comments are so correct and better than I can ever make.
National Putrid Radio. I donate to QXR in the hope that none of this goes to NPR. I have to donate or it would be poor form.
Have noticed that there are no Italian names working on air for QXR. This might be some of the leftie mind set. Ironic. Without Italians, Germans and Russians there would be less music for them to broadcast. Perhaps I am too sensitive.

Aug. 13 2014 09:06 AM
Rip Rense

Was listening to National Putrid Radio. I never learn. A couple of women who sounded more like snotty nine-year-olds were denouncing alleged racism and racial stereotypes in opera and operetta. They started with poor old "Mikado," a jolly farce with lots of jolly, farcical oriental-sounding names such as "Nanki-poo." This, in the view of the snotty nine-year-olds, had something to do with creating the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Really. I kid not. An "editor" at the Seattle Times (Asian-American woman, natch) actually said this. (No wonder newspapers are nearly dead.) Of course, no mention was made that "The Mikado" is a fantasy, a comedy, and is constructed around a thing called "music." Rather wonderful music, at that. No mention was made that "The Mikado" was intended to be something called "fun," generating a phenomenon called "pleasure." Then one of the snotty nine-year-olds---I mean they really sounded like this---denounced Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" for portraying the principal (Japanese) character as a "subservient woman" and "child bride." Well, darn my white malenesss (something the nine-year-olds repeatedly and oh-so-politically correctly took shots at, of course), but, well, Japanese women used to be taught to be. . .very subservient to men, and being a child bride was common practice. Right about the time "Butterfly" was written, in fact. But never mind history, the snotty nine-year-olds said---let's make these works of art "relevant." Yes, "relevant," that old tired bit of verbal propaganda meaning, "let's change everything in some way so other politically correct, reactionary adult nine-year-olds with no understanding of history or context cannot be offended." Translation: let's censor it! What's more, no mention was made that in "Butterfly," the principal character is 100 percent sympathetic; that she is a young woman with no authority over her own fate who is callously used by an American Navy man, left pregnant, yet nobly awaits his return year after year, in vain. In the end, realizing how used she has been, and how rejected by her own society she is, she ends her life. No, no mention of this was made. No mention was made that this opera has only generated sympathy for women forced into subservient lifestyles by their societies. No mention was made that the hideous child bride practice continues in many societies today, and that Puccini's story, if anything, castigates such tradition. Why was no mention of these aspects made? Because Puccini was one of those evil white males, whom the politically correct crowd loves to blame for all horrors and atrocities. This sort of pseudo-intellectual would-be censorship by ethnocentrists and PC reactionaries is no different from Hitler capriciously declaring certain art and music as "degenerate." It is as vapid and stupid as the flatulent pontifications of the Tea Party. It is just what one expects from giant children with power. National Pubescent Radio.

Aug. 12 2014 10:36 AM
meche from Manhattan

Taking umbrage is just so....Middle-Eastern fundamentalist. I've got them on my list. They really won't be missed.

Jul. 31 2014 11:04 PM
GJ from Seattle

What else does one expect from Seattle, a city that is beyond bizarre. As far as Asian stereotypes, go to Seattle and see the Asian fetish in REAL life. Also, Asians are partly to blame because they dutifully fit into a stereotype in Seattle, what white people think Asian should be like.

I grew up there, I know what I'm talking about.

Jul. 31 2014 08:27 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

DD Was that last comment directed at me or am I being too SENSITIVE.
Best wishes

Carol, you did not jump into this kerfuffle. It has been fun.
Best wishes

Jul. 31 2014 07:29 AM

"...because of its depiction of women as stupid."

But, but. SHUT UP, DD~~ Quit while you're ahead!


Jul. 31 2014 01:45 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Valid comments. As for Cosi Fan Tutte, I really dislike that opera because of its depiction of women as stupid. Cannot forgive it because in my humble estimation, the music is not that great. As for Wagner, he was a feminist. He might have been a pre-Hitlerite Nazi. The end of Die Walkure has Wotan condemning Brunhilde to be a housewife. You will sit by the fire and spin and sing. This is how he will punish her rebellion. Her sisters run off screaming Woe Woe. He often portrayed women as heroic.

Jul. 30 2014 01:48 PM
George from Arlington, VA

Political correctness will always be a way of life until all ethnic groups with US citizenship are considred Americans. Yes, I am referring to the attacks on Miss America Nina Davaluri and speeling bee winners, all of who are Americans of Indian origin. I am certain many of you complaining about political correctness on this board had little or nothing to say about attacks on Ms. America or the spelling bee winners.

Jul. 29 2014 01:24 PM
magnetismus from rye brook. ny.

this is a tempest in a teacup, let's pay attention to more important musical matters.

Jul. 28 2014 09:50 AM

Politically-correcting ourselves to death, aren't we? I'm afraid that if the Mikado goes, sooner or later the whole of opera repertoire will get the ax. The same humorless people who seek to ban the Mikado will direct their attention to Carmen, because it depicts Spaniards as bandits and thieves, not to mention that gender-violence issue that would also condemn I Pagliacci. And what about Mozart, whose Cosi Fan'Tutte describes women not just as fickle, but as idiots as well, and Die Zauberflote, which claims that women should not go around without the guidance of a male? And Madama Butterfly, with its silly Japanese girl and the bad American who takes advantage of her: offending both Japanese and Americans, no mean feat that! And of course, the whole of Wagner should be verboten, because, you know, the Nazis loved it. And so it would go as the whole world of art goes silent and dark, because no real work of art in the world is sanitized enough.

And, by the way, why do these people complain about no Asian performers in the Mikado? Why should an Asian perform in a work they consider offensive to themselves? You cannot eat the cake and have it, you know.

Jul. 27 2014 02:51 PM
Steve Bauman from Pacifica, CA

This whole scena is totally ridiculous. As has already been stated, The Mikado is a satire of people in general. It was set in Japan because at the time of writing, the rage in England was for everything Japanese. Naturally this was susceptible to ridicule. Too many people now have lost the ability to laugh at themselves, their customs, or their foibles. Everything today MUST be politically correct. As a nation we are rapidly losing our basic sense of humor. It seems that no matter what one does these days, someone will be offended. This is a very sad state. GET OVER IT!!!!

Jul. 26 2014 02:26 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I am outraged that no Sicilians or very few are used in the Sicilian Vespers. This opera is about mass murder and there are no mass murderers used as well. Outrage, outrage.
Folks, there is an outbreak of PC all over the world. Now it seems that everything must go through a committee for approval.

Jul. 25 2014 01:11 PM

By the way, Los Angeles' cheeky Angry Buddha Theater Company came up with a very funny line about "The Mikado"'s racial and sexual politics:

"Her name is Yum-Yum. Yum-Yum! You might as well call her Eat Me!"


Jul. 25 2014 01:10 PM
Michael from London

Absoluitely. Sick and tired of PC. Next thing you know, they will turn their attention to "Turandot".

Jul. 25 2014 11:40 AM

The years in which the standards of the opera repertoire were created also happen to be the years in which colonial, imperial, racial, and gender- essentializing ideologies reached a high water mark in Western culture.

Not surprisingly, these ideologies left their mark on the cultural products of their era. (Consider this contrast: In the repertoire of Beijing opera, you’d have to look hard to find anything remotely resembling the racialized gender politics of Butterfly or Carmen, the cultural spoofs of Mikado.)

This issue beautifully illustrates the difference between how whites view themselves and how they are viewed by others. Things which seem natural, justified, and inoffensive to members of one group can look appalling to members of others.

The situation with opera is particular acute because: 1) its audiences tend to be conservative, preferring to preserve repertoire and traditions instead of creating things anew 2) unlike literature, opera must be “performed”, and thus latent elements of colonialism, racism, misogyny, etc. have to be reenacted afresh each evening. As a result, things get done on the opera stage today that would be absolutely intolerable on the spoken stage, not to mention film and television. It really makes opera look like a white-supremacist cultural enclave.

What is to be done? The first thing to do is to acknowledge that there is a HUGE problem that needs to be addressed – one that will be felt much more viscerally by non-whites than by whites. This is easier said than done. In conversations with fellow opera lovers, I’m constantly startled by how casually they accept the conventions of yellowface, blackface etc. in opera production.

This is why we need more alternative viewpoints on the traditional repertoire - more Asian-Americans talking about their reaction to The Mikado, to Madama Butterfly, to Turandot. More African-Americans talking about the blackfaced Aida and Amonasro (not to mention the bronzed-up Egyptians). More Puertorriqueño/as discussing their thoughts on West Side Story. More Arab-American talking about Mozart's Serail, Rossini's L'Italiana and Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles.

We also need more productions which subvert or erase these toxic traces of dated ideologies. This, I feel, is critical if opera is not going to look like a reactionary cultural backwater in the twenty-first century.

Jul. 25 2014 11:28 AM
Marc from Seattle


Jul. 25 2014 03:35 AM

@ hanibal52, re. the "Little List", the "piano/organist" was high on our list of chuckles.


Jul. 25 2014 12:40 AM

The only people Gilbert and Sullivan ever lampooned were their own people, the British. No matter where the operetta was set - Mount Olympus, on board a warship, on the coast of Cornwall, or a mythical Japan, amongst others - the barbs were squarely aimed at the most pompous among the English. In fact, Gilbert, Sullivan, and their impresario, Richard D'Oyly-Carte, showed great respect for the Japanese: their actors were coached in Japanese movement by a young woman who served tea at the Japanese exhibit in Knightsbridge (hence Nanki-Poo's supposed destination in Act II), and all the costumes were modeled on actual Japanese clothing. In fact, out of respect for Japan and its emperor, the Mikado was dressed as a shogun, not in full-out Imperial garb. All you have to do is look at Ko-Ko's 'little list', and you'll see the types of overblown characters Gilbert had in mind when he wrote the libretto, and they are NOT Japanese. I agree that sensitivity must be shown so that unintended offense is not given, but by all means keep performing 'The Mikado'. It's delightful, charming, and - in the words of the title character - full of 'innocent merriment'. (Footnote: Un 1925, when the then Crown Prince of Japan was due to visit England, the Japanese ambassador attended a performance of 'The Mikado', and found nothing offensive in it. However, out of respect for the Crown Prince, the D'Oyly-Carte Opera Company voluntarily withdrew it from the repertoire for the duration of his visit. This is very well documented.)

Jul. 24 2014 11:53 PM
Mary Montgomery from New York

I performed at LOOM for three years. The Mikado was one of the most beloved shows. Our director made it very clear that the Opera was a satire and we should not exaggerate stereotypes. Granted, we were a professional Equity company with a relationship to the D'Oly Carte so I cannot judge how other companies are staging their productions.
However, nowhere in the script is any racism implied. The satire is on British society.
Her argument is specious. Does that mean only an Asian singer should sing Madame Butterfly? Only Italians should sing Verdi? Is Shakespeare in the Park violating some rule by casting minorities in traditionally White roles? Let's d top taking ourselves so seriously.

One last thing, two people mentioned Basso- profundo Vasik Pasdera. He not only was immensely talented but very kind to a young, actress/singer.

Jul. 24 2014 09:57 PM

Well, so much for Aida. And forget about Otello. Can L'Elisir d'Amore be done with a non-Italian cast, or Lucia with non-Scots ? Reducto ad Absurdum need not travel too far.

Jul. 24 2014 08:36 PM
Chris from Oak Park, IL

This is the most ridiculous protest I've ever heard of. It almost sounds like a fake satirical article from THE ONION. What next, Romans complaining about how they are depicted in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"?

Jul. 24 2014 04:16 PM
Judith from Amherst, MA

Intolerance may always be intolerable... but sometimes it may be overcome for art's sake. Personally, I abhor Wagner's racist thinking, but I cannot deny that some of his music moves me and I find it beautiful. I could go on and on with examples... and then there is this bit of irony, that for many centuries the Japanese nation thought so highly of itself and considered other people as "barbarians". It all comes around... humbug to intolerance! (The "Mikado" is my favorite G & S operetta and it is silly and funny and is a lovely bit of music.)

Jul. 24 2014 01:52 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

I don't recall any fuss being made when Swedish and American actors Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters portrayed Charlie Chan or when Yankees' great Hideki Matsui was commonly referred as "Godzilla" by members of the press and his own teammates - no stereotype there! Must we now be mindful of the storylines and characters in "Porgy & Bess" and "Showboat" as well? As one whose mother was half Japanese, I don't get what all the hullabaloo is about. Art for art's sake and quite frankly, I'm more concerned about passenger airliners being shot down without any accountability.

Jul. 24 2014 01:05 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I wonder if concert performances are a compromise in the presentation of productions such "The Mikado" and, for that matter, "Chu Chin Chow" which took London by storm with over 2,200 performances in 1916 and was a vehicle for Tyrone Power, Sr. on Broadway the following year. Concert performances by definition would focus on the music (unless there's semi-staging, which I think would defeat the purpose). I daresay many Chinese people would take offense at the title character as well as many Arab people, since the latter is based upon "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves". "Chu Chin Chow" was even mentioned in an "Upstairs, Downstairs" episode. I, for one, am interested in hearing as many potentially enjoyable musical works as I can before I die, be they familiar or new to me. I realize they're fantasy and in my listening, I don't want to offend anyone.

Jul. 24 2014 10:35 AM
eqjones from Brooklyn NY

Everybody's reality is somebody else's caricature, and if everybody spent just a few seconds every day reflecting on that and laughing at their reflection in the mirror the world would be a happier place.

Jul. 24 2014 04:18 AM

I fail to see how G & S in Mikado had the intention of making fun of the Japanese.

That scene in the film "Topsy Turvy" where Gilbert brings in real Japanese women to show how they behave in order to avoid racial stereotyping is, in fact, based on reality as I recall from what I read.

In fact, the satire in Mikado is about English society rather than Japanese.

This fake outrage gets to be ridiculous after a while!

You can't ban Mikado; it just is not going to happen!

Jul. 23 2014 11:55 PM
Constantine from New York

What a pity that so many people do not know the difference between making fun WITH and making fun OF. It is the former that The Mikado does.

Concetta, I once saw Vashek Pazdera as Private Willis in Iolanthe. (I wonder if the House of Lords ever tried to ban that opera.)

Jul. 23 2014 09:37 PM

@ concetta (and slightly off topic), yes, Vashek was there at L.O.O.M. while I was (me very briefly, from Nov. 1976 through May 1977). I learned a heck of a lot about being in a rep company. I also worked behind the scenes as an assistant stage manager, so I saw performance- and business-related stuff.

This does go, in a sense, to the fact that we still know very little about the audition pool for the Seattle production of "Mikado" -- totally public based, or mostly their G&S society? DD~~

Jul. 23 2014 08:03 PM

Folks - a reminder of our comments policy, to stay on topic, be civil, and be brief. Racist comments will not be tolerated. Thank you.

Jul. 23 2014 05:58 PM
Dafydd Mac an Leigh from Greater Boston

Where this issue gets tricky is that The Mikado, as it's written, is not inherently racist (apart from two instances of the N-word, which were not used to refer to black people, and which have been cut from performance for decades anyway); however, the majority of productions include racist stereotypes and caricatures when performing it. This includes Jonathan Miller's production mentioned above, and, from the look of their promotional photos, the Seattle G&S Society as well.

The answer isn't to ban the opera or even to change the script, but rather to be conscious of exactly how you put it on the stage.

Jul. 23 2014 03:16 PM
Marc K. from Mt. View, CA

One note to Mr. Wise - "...and is told in a frothy brand of Japanese-inflected sing-song English". WHERE? Are you aware that G&S as a genre takes pride in clearly enunciated BRITISH ENGLISH? OR PERHAPS YOUR CLAIM IS RATHER A CLEAR TIP-OFF YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN A PRODUCTION OF THE MIKADO.

If Gilbert wanted "Japanese inflected sing-song English", he'd have written it. BUT HE DIDN'T - though he was a stickler for detail and having his plays done precisely his way. See the script of his comic play "Engaged" where he phonetically writes out a mock heavy Scottish accent, for example.

Jul. 23 2014 01:20 PM
Arthur Miller from Long Island

This is another case of political correctness gone astray. This is satire and there is no isolating any one group. Just go to the Mikado's song and LISTEN to the lyrics. Yes there is one offensive term that is deleted in current productions....but other than that....should we not have movies like Foul Play where there were Asian tourists in caught in a chase scene? Kato in the Pink Panther movies......we can go on and on...We could never have F Troop on TV today with the Heckcowee tribe or their cousins the Figowees....Lets not even go into the names of sport teams. Lets enjoy this wonderful music which is timeless and the satire is still current today. Join the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Society for their monthly meetings of merriment and song! That way you will truly learn "who we are" and not get lost in the trees, but see this beautiful Victorian Forrest! The skipper of Tantantara and its attendant dinghy Tzing Boom should be smiling down at this from his eternal sailing voyage, as the former treasurer of the Society. RIP Dad.

Jul. 23 2014 12:56 PM
Russ Stratton from USA

Right after WW2 my school did G & S every year but never "Mikado" because of its being "inappropriate" in Hawaii. Thus I never got to see it until much later, when it became my favorite in the canon; nothing will change that.
Such exquisite sensitivities as Ms. Chan's remind me of recent condemnations of "Klinghoffer" by those who never saw it. These complaints are provincial and only self-contratulating.

Jul. 23 2014 09:48 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

There is very nice music in this one and it does not insult Japanese culture. Enjoy it folks and don't be so ready to look for insult when it is not there. Topsy Turvy was a great look at the Gilbert and Sullivan team. Outrage, outrage, all the time.
Note to DD: Do you remember Vaschek Pazdera with Light Opera G&S.

Jul. 23 2014 07:09 AM
Betty Greitzer from New Jersey

This country is getting to be even more censorious than Victorian England. Only now it's political correctness instead of sexual conservatism.

Taking these objections to heart, we better ban "The Merchant of Venice," "Die Meistersinger," "Madama Butterfly," and most of the classic detective novels of the 20's and 30's pronto. God forbid we take the time to study the world these works sprang from. After all, it takes a certain level of intellectual curiosity to do so, rather than the knee-jerk condemnation that only takes an instant to perform.

Jul. 22 2014 04:03 PM
Donna Cay Tharpe from Tallahassee FL

Recent outcries over the political correctness of artistic performances are to me a very disturbing trend. Intelligent connoisseurs of the arts have the smarts not only to know that historical context is important but also that art is ART and should not bow to political and racial confines that detract from the creation of the original artistic piece. Peter Gelb's recent decision to cancel live in HD transmission of John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" was another huge mistake that I hope will not usher in a period of oversimplification of various views at the expense of artistic enterprise.

Jul. 22 2014 03:56 PM
David from Flushing

"The Mikado", along with "The King and I", have not enjoyed popularity in their "native" countries primarily because the subject matter reflects on the royal family rather than some general racial insult. The depiction of the monarch on stage was not allowed. While Americans put on the show in post-war Japan, MacArthur denied permission for an all-Japanese production according to Time Magazine in June 1947.

Jul. 22 2014 01:56 PM
Frank from UWS

Get rid of this racist opera. The commenter Dan Bloom is right. Satire or not, you shouldn't be mocking other ethnicities and races.

Jul. 22 2014 01:04 PM
hdkayne from Manhattan

What is the matter with people? "The Mikado" like all G&S is SATIRE. In this case the satire is about the English aristocracy's racist misconceptions about Japan. In other words "The Mikado" satirizes stereotyping. Not at all the same idea as Dan Bloom's "thought experiment 'The Plantation'" - more like Monty Python.

Jul. 22 2014 12:23 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Is this another case of manufactured outrage. Then there is outrage over the outrage.

Jul. 22 2014 11:29 AM
arden broeckig from Connecticut

Mikado was a total sendup! It, like most of G&S, with the exception of "The Yeomen of the Guard," was satire, and everyone knew it.
What is the matter with us???? "Pinafore" spoofed the Royal Navy, "Princess Ida" sent up the women's movement, which existed even then,"Trial by Jury" satirized the judiciary, all "sacred cows." I could go on, but it would be boring. If we can't laugh at ourselves anymore, we're lost. No one is advocating cruel,inappropriate religious or racial slurs, at least I like to believe we aren't and wouldn't! But -In the immortal (?) words of a prominent comedienne, maybe we need to "Grow up!"

Jul. 22 2014 11:12 AM
Dan Bloom from New York

A thought experiment:

"The Plantation".
An operetta about life on a plantation in the Old South played my white perfumers in black face and filled with racist stereotypes.

Would this be acceptable?

Or, "Rabbi Schlomo" - the Story of the Ghetto. Jews in fur hats and sidelocks dancing and kvetching, bowing to money, and so on.

Jul. 22 2014 09:59 AM
Kat from Burl. ON

The Mikado like all G&S is a satire. The whole point of the story is to highlight the racist misconceptions the British had of the Japanese during their time. They are mocking the racism, not the actual culture!

Jul. 22 2014 09:15 AM

@ David, bingo! Cio-Cio San does not need to *be* Asian, she needs to be Asian on stage. That's where costumes, wigs and makeup come into play in the theater. If the actress portraying Cio-Cio San is Asian, she (perhaps) has a leg up. But do we penalize her if she is Korean and not Japanese? I think not. DD~~

Jul. 22 2014 02:29 AM

@ Mr. Wong, indeed, I am not Japanese or Asian (is this a square/rectangle thing?). That said, when I performed "Mikado" with the Light Opera of Manhattan, we would have been hard pressed, as a repertory company, to have placed only performers of Asian heritage on the stage.

A G&S Society or repertory company is essentially re-creating the early G&S world. G&S were making social commentary. DD~~

Jul. 22 2014 01:55 AM
Constantine from New York

Those who protest the performance of this work seem to think that they have the unanimous support of Japanese and other Asians. Not so.
I doubt if the Japanese who assisted in the original production or those who portrayed them in Topsy Turvy, the movie about this production, found anything to be offended about. When a Japanese prince visited England in 1907, the opera was banned for six weeks to avoid offending him. The prince was disappointed, as he had hoped to see it! Why should the nay-sayers have the last word? To put this work to rest, as one poster demands, would deprive us of a delightful work. Many other works could be attacked on similar grounds. Carmen, The Pearl Fishers or Lakme, for example. (Maybe I shouldn't give anyone any ideas.)

Being offended doesn't automatically make you right. People often profess to be offended in order to get attention for themselves.

Jul. 21 2014 09:55 PM
Mr. Wong from UWS

I'm guessing that none of the above commenters are Japanese or Asian. If you were, you might take a different view on this opera. There are plenty of works of art that we no longer see because times have changed. Think of those racist cartoons from the 1930s and 40s that caricatured black people. Or movies that evoked shifty "Chinamen" or exotic Turkish harems. We've moved on as a society and deemed certain works unacceptable. That's not the same thing as censorship, which I dislike. But this particular work must be put to rest.

Jul. 21 2014 09:37 PM
notsofast from Upper West Side

The accusation of racism is meant to distract attention from the critics' real political agenda: promoting more employment opportunities for Asian American performers.

Jul. 21 2014 08:05 PM

Kudos to both earlier comments. There is so much to this story that we don't know. Is "the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society" an organization that casts a lot of its members in local productions? Or were there open auditions?

Without that info, we can't (or more to the point, can) speculate on casting decisions.

This is an amateur society.

How do you un-Japan "Mikado"? The chorus sings, "If you want to know who we are -- we are gentlemen of Japan." Gentlemen of Japan signifies Gilbert's "wink-wink, nudge, nudge" at Victorian England.


Jul. 21 2014 07:06 PM
David from Flushing

Operas have been set in exotic places for centuries and you are not going to get local singers for each place. There is a Rameau work that would require natives from Turkey, Persia, Peru and North America. If you think a Chinese or Korean singer would necessarily like to appear as a Japanese, think again. Forms of opera are generally fantasy and there is no reason to get so serious about it.

Jul. 21 2014 02:46 PM
james a. fenstemaker from Bradford,Pa.USA

Once again, political correctness gone amok. The cultural censors are in full swing.

Jul. 21 2014 02:14 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Operavore


Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore