Producing 'The Mikado' in 2019

  • Liz Chirico

A local community opera company, Greater Worcester Opera (GWO) is performing, “The Mikado” in June. When I first saw the notice for auditions, I was perplexed. Admittedly, I don’t know much about opera, but I do know a few things about The Mikado. It’s a Gilbert and Sullivan piece, written in the latter half of the 19th century, and is fraught with controversy with yellow-face” performances (in the not-to-distant-past) and for its stereotyped portrayal of Asian people and cultures. In 2019, it seemed an odd choice to perform. I reached out to the Executive Director, Elaine Crane, to ask why. Why this opera and why now.

GWO selected this show based on many factors including, directorial interest, current talent pool, marketability, and ease of production. Gilbert and Sullivan’s (G&S) The Mikado stands out as one of the “big 3” operas- it’s marketable which draws plenty of audience attention, GWO has the talent pool, and as GWO always performs their June opera in English, with this already in English, no lengthy translation process is needed. Though The Mikado checked all the performance required boxes, GWO had long and lengthy discussions regarding the suitability of performing this piece. Ultimately it was decided that this piece should be performed and could and would be done with respect and without offense to anyone. Elaine said, “It is a brilliant work… (we’ll) let the beautiful music and witty dialogue shine through. We (GWO) are taking measures to create a fun, funny, respectful production that everyone can enjoy freely

Elaine explained that their audition process is extensive; they advertise across numerous online channels, reach out to their existing base of performers and audience members and rely on word of mouth. All roles were cast based on the vocal abilities of those who auditioned. The cast, as you’d imagine, is quite monochromatic. When I asked about that aspect, Elaine stood by GWO’s casting decisions. Since “The Mikado” is a British show only set in Japan (given the predilection for all things Asian and “exotic” at the time it was written), GWO felt actors of any ethnic background could and should be used and cast based on talent and experience.

GWO’s vision for the show is very British in nature. The first act will feature British school uniforms, men in suits, etc. The second act, taking place during the wedding, will feature actresses in kimonos as would be appropriate to wear for such an occasion. What has tripped up other productions of The Mikado- the caricatures, use of “yellow-face” has been omitted. Select lines have been either altered or omitted, and the “Little List” has been updated as well, but for the most part, GWO is allowing the libretto and music to speak for itself.

In 2019 we are quick to denounce anything from the past that doesn’t hold up to today’s standards. However, it is in reviewing and examining our past which provides the ability to learn and shape the future into something better. It would be easy to say this piece should never be performed again. But by doing so, we would never learn. We need to understand how behaviors, thoughts, and actions manifested in the first place if we have any hope of changing ones deemed unfit. Taking what could and has been an offensive show and shaping it into something modern, something that holds up in 2019 is laudable and commendable. As Elaine said, her hope is that audiences will leave, “humming the incredible music written by Sullivan, smiling at the clever witticism of Gilbert, and thoroughly charmed by our cast and team whose voices and abilities will make the show shine.” By producing this show with respect, with love, with care, I think this goal is entirely within their reach.